If you take a stroll around a university careers fair in Australia, the presence of Asia is unmistakable.
Many of the students clustered in front of employers’ stalls come from China, Malaysia and South Korea – the majority of Australia’s 280,000 international higher education students are from the Asia-Pacific region – but perhaps more surprising is that many of the companies on the lookout for promising graduates are based in those same Asian nations. Law firms on the hunt for talented trainees will be seeking to place recruits in offices in Hong Kong, Singapore or Shanghai, rather than Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. Banking, engineering, computer science and management consultancy firms in Southeast Asia are likewise seeing Australian campuses as an important port of call where they might find high-quality graduates who can move effortlessly between the two continents, whose global political and economic importance are growing rapidly.
This influx of big-name Asian companies on to Australian campuses is a potent symbol of the flourishing links between business and higher education in the two continents – with Australia, in many ways, becoming one of Asia’s biggest players, not least in terms of educating students.
“Those Chinese students educated here 20 years ago are now entering China’s political and business leadership,” says Ian Jacobs, president and vice-chancellor of the University of New South Wales – where, out of a student population of about 55,000, some 16,000 come from overseas, mainly Southeast Asia.
“Often chief executives at big Chinese companies were educated here at New South Wales,” he adds, saying that alumni are now investing millions of dollars of their operations’ research and development budgets at their Australian alma mater.
In April 2016, the Sydney-based university agreed a deal with China that will see the country invest an initial A$30 million (£17.4 million) in a new science and technology precinct on its campus. The scheme, which is expected to eventually attract A$100 million in investment, marks the first time that one of the China Torch Program centres, part of a network of state-backed innovation hubs that are responsible for about 12 per cent of China’s gross domestic product, has been established outside its own borders.
The centre is expected to generate more than A$1 billion for the Australian economy in its first 10 years alone, but projects using Australian expertise might also prove to be of huge benefit to Chinese industry.
One initiative at the new Torch centre will involve scientists exploring how graphene can be used to make power cables more efficient – a 5 per cent improvement would save Chinese manufacturers billions of dollars a year on their energy bills.
Bringing young Chinese researchers into the Torch research projects and sending Australian scholars to China will be vital for the success of research, but there will also be many other important longer-term benefits associated with “soft power”, Jacobs believes.
“When you have undergraduates or postgraduates spending time in China, the power of this is enormous,” he says. As he sees it, the “tectonic plates of global higher education are shifting”, and Australia and Asia are likely to be the main beneficiaries.
Student and staff traffic between China and Australia continues to increase. New figures show that there were 15 per cent more overseas students in Australia in March 2017 than there were 12 months earlier, with the number of Chinese students up 20,000 to 140,000. Look back to 2005, and the difference is even more stark. Then, enrolments from north-eastern Asia totalled about 80,000, with a similar number from Southeast Asia. The cohort from Southeast Asia has now expanded to some 100,000 – helping to make education Australia’s third biggest export industry, behind only iron ore and coal.
Although undergraduate flows are still overwhelmingly in the direction of Australia, despite generous state scholarships encouraging young Australians to study abroad, the exchange of research staff is more balanced.
“It’s not one-way traffic when it comes to research,” says Max Lu, president and vice-chancellor of the University of Surrey, a China-educated chemical engineer whose research career took off in Australia at the University of Queensland, where he became provost and senior vice-president.
“As the reputation and quality of research in China has risen, we are now starting to see researchers head both ways, generating multilateral cooperation that leads to true partnership,” Lu continues.
Reflecting on his own experience, Lu explains he was “one of just a handful of Chinese scholars” at Australian universities when he arrived in Brisbane about 30 years ago. Across Australia today, there are hundreds of postgraduates, postdoctoral research fellows and permanent academic staff from China. Brisbane alone is host to about 75,000 international students, of which 80 per cent are from Asia.
“Three decades after I arrived, there are close to 150,000 Chinese students in the whole country,” Lu says, a figure that reflects how the “economies of East Asia and Australia are increasingly intertwined”.
Although they have a geographical proximity that should make the countries of the region natural trading partners, before the 1990s Asian students who wanted a Western higher education would travel to a university in the US or Europe; Lu notes that Australia’s history in this sector is “very short”, stretching back only two decades or so.
However, the strength of Australian research is proving a draw to both students and businesses, he says, with Australia’s “strategic importance” as a resource-rich country able to fuel the Asian continent contributing to its appeal, Lu explains.
Indeed, restrictions on access to Australia’s higher education sector may now be viewed as “deal-breakers” for wider trade agreements between the country and its Southeast Asia neighbours.
Speaking in London in March, Paul Wellings, vice-chancellor of the University of Wollongong, highlighted the fact that Australia’s free trade agreement with Singapore, which was struck in 2003, makes specific mention of higher education as an area in which exchange “shall” take place.
“From a political point of view, we moved from 20 years ago not being on this chart [of key export sectors] to being one of the most significant and important [export] sectors for Australia,” Wellings says.
Australia’s pivot to Asia does not mean that it is cutting its other long-standing international ties. Australian university leaders also stress the importance of maintaining links with old friends in Europe and the US, and academic cooperation with historic universities is still seen as vital to research efforts.
At the University of Sydney, scientists and engineers are working in partnership with universities in California, Denmark, Switzerland and the Netherlands on building a quantum computer – with no Asian partner involved in the Microsoft-led Station Q research. While some have suggested that Britain’s exit from the European Union offers the chance for the UK to renew its historic ties to Australia, its former colony has increasingly turned to the Pacific for trade. Just 1.4 per cent of its exports goes to the UK, while three times that goes to the rest of Europe – and the UK sends just 1.3 per cent of its total to Australia.
“I don’t think there is a single focus on any one region, but it is inevitable there will be more emphasis on Asia,” Lu says. In November 2016, with the aim of maximising the massive potential of AsiaAustralian research, Australia’s government unveiled about A$3.2 million in funding specifically to encourage research collaboration across the Asia-Pacific region, although such investment is potentially small fry compared with the billions of dollars that Asian companies might invest in future.