Dean Forbes



Professor Dean Forbes

Deputy Vice-Chancellor (International and Communities)

Flinders University

Presentation to the 2010 NEAS ELT Management Conference

National ELT Accreditation Scheme

Sydney, 13-14 May 2010

The language skills of international students, and future migrants to Australia, have become controversial issues.  But what kinds of language skills are essential to become good global citizens and contributors to global knowledge-based development?  The presentation will highlight some key issues that seem to be largely absent from the public discourse about language standards, immigration policy and the future of international education in Australia.


Thank you for inviting me to talk at this NEAS conference.

In addition to my role at Flinders University I also Chair the Board of the Community for Global Communication Inc, the trading name of the Intensive English Language Institute (IELI), which is located on the campus of Flinders University.  As a result I both appreciate and admire the quality of work of the many very good English language colleges in Australia.

My focus today is on international education in the current rather turbulent environment.  The flurry of reactive actions focused on international student welfare has, I believe, caused us to lose sight of the long-term benefits of Australia’s international education activities.

As an example, the language skills of international students, and future migrants to Australia, have become controversial issues.

But have we given enough thought to the changing nature of Australia and what kind of society and economy we might develop over the next few decades? 

And do we really understand the kinds of language skills that are essential to become good global citizens and contributors to global knowledge-based development? In a world where knowledge workers are increasingly global citizens, language is a two-way street, not the one-way street we sometimes assume.


I have a long-standing interest in international education.  But I have a confession to make.

Throughout the 1980s I was a Senior Research Fellow in the Research School of Pacific Studies at the ANU. The incoming Hawke Labor Government had appointed a committee to review the Australian overseas aid program. Its product, known as the Jackson Report, was released in 1984. 

I, and a number of my colleagues, believed the Jackson Report shifted the focus of Australia’s aid program too far away from a poverty alleviation orientation, and towards a more professional and stream-lined approach to aid, but with a significant connection to enhancing Australia’s trade prospects.

Doug Porter, Phillip Eldridge and I (Eldridge, Forbes and Porter 1986) edited a book that was highly critical of the Jackson Report for this perceived shift in the character of the aid program. 

Then in 1986-87 I took two years leave from ANU to work in the new ADAB – the Australian Development Assistance Bureau – one of the fore-runners to AusAID.  ADAB was in the process of re-inventing itself, implementing the main findings of the Jackson Report.

I was therefore working in ADAB when our book was released.  Australian Overseas Aid: Future Directions, as our book was called, received major press coverage in a prominent news magazine.  The headline read ‘billion dollar aid bungle’. 

I will never forget the day the article appeared.  I was standing in ADAB waiting for a lift.  The doors opened, and before me was ADAB’s Director-General and several of the most senior staff on their way to a crisis meeting to discuss the press report of the book. They looked through me as if I didn’t exist. 

Promotions were impossible to get from then onwards.  I returned to the ANU in early 1988 a little wiser about the subtleties of the policy dialogue between universities and government.

Among the Jackson Report’s recommendations was the creation of what we called export-oriented education through the opening up of the universities and other education institutions to fee-paying international students. 

My colleagues and I were sceptical of the recommendation.  Collectively we thought it would cause ‘rigidities and distortions’ in the pattern of educational aid.  Besides, I thought not many international students would be able, or want, to afford a university education in Australia.

I appear to have been wrong.  I said this was a confession.


I misjudged the future of international education in the 1980s.  Nearly 25 years later I have a very different view about what should happen. 

Fundamentally there are several reasons why we in Australia should have a strong commitment to international education.  They also explain why the sector has grown so fast and so large.

Education is something we are reasonably good at, and we have the advantage of delivering our programs in English, the single most portable language in the world. At the same time, we have rapidly developed a professional approach to international education, and we have generally had sound support from the Federal Government.

As a result, we have built an export industry that has strengthened and expanded our educational institutions, created new jobs, and generally benefited our communities, particularly through expanding the demand for services by a growing international student population.  The CBDs of the main cities have been beneficiaries.

That international education generates in excess of $17 billion in export earnings is especially attractive to politicians and international education providers, and is therefore often mentioned in the media.  It sometimes seems this is thought to be the only reason we pursue international education. It should not be.

Two other significant aspects of international education receive far less attention.

First, international education has a growing role in building Australia’s knowledge economy through expanding and diversifying our knowledge workers, building international collaborations and knowledge networks, generating new knowledge, and facilitating the commercialisation and application of this new knowledge.  In other words, it increases our stock of knowledge workers and equips them with the capacity to operate globally.

It is the best opportunity we have as a country to prevent us forever more being seen as just a giant global quarry.

The second issue is that international education enables Australia to contribute to the building of the skills and knowledge of students from throughout the world, but particularly from the Asian Pacific region.  We have the capacity to produce graduates that can make a contribution to their home countries, and whom, like our own students, have acquired some of the skills necessary to operate outside their own country.  This connects back to my earlier concern about the contribution Australia can make to the economic growth of the Asian Pacific region.


The heat has increased on international education in Australia over the last year or so, following on from the incidents in Melbourne in mid 2009.

And has the heat meant there is now more light?  A little, perhaps. But not enough for those of us involved. The somewhat frenzied atmosphere created as a result of the violence against international students has forced us to review some significant weaknesses in the way we manage international education, but it has not been conducive to the breadth of long-term strategic planning that we need.

The sector has been calling for top-level government support for international education, such as through a Prime Ministerial statement, for many years.  Over the past 12 months there has been extensive involvement in international education by senior government figures from the Prime Minister down. But the focus has largely been on fighting fires, and not always successfully.

An avalanche of taskforces resulted from the attacks on students. Bruce Baird, as we know, was asked by the Deputy Prime Minister to review the ESOS Act in August 2009, rather than when it was expected sometime around 2012. Baird’s report was delivered in February this year and emphasises improvements in the consumer protection and student rights aspects of ESOS and the National Code.

Baird also noted the confusion and gaps between the states and Commonwealth, and the meagre resources deployed, in interpreting and enforcing the National Code. He welcomed the formation of the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA) expected later this year, and the Coalition of Australian Governments (COAG) decision to have a national VET regulator. Together he anticipated that this will result in a more even, national approach to quality assurance for international students.

He also added: ‘for the small number of stand-alone ELICOS or foundation providers, the Australian Government may need to establish arrangements to assess registration and compliance.  The underlying principle for any arrangements should be that wherever possible each provider only has one regulatory body’ (p 25).  I would be interested to hear your views on this proposal.

COAG also initiated another inquiry under the Chairmanship of Chris Eccles.  Its Communique on what is now called the ‘National International Student Strategy’ was released in April this year.  It identified a number of key points:

•    An international student consultative committee

•    A national community engagement strategy

•    A Study in Australia information portal

•    A Provider Closure Taskforce in each State

•    Upgraded health insurance arrangements

•    An independent statutory complaints body

Other issues associated with the strategy are still under discussion, but it is expected that the final document will be formally released ‘in a few weeks’. 

Several states initiated their own taskforces. I was a member of the South Australian Taskforce on Enhancing the Overseas Student Experience in Adelaide.  The Report was completed and submitted to the Minister in December 2009.  It, too, has yet to be released.  However a draft document on The International Student Experience in South Australia, which provides an overview of support for international students, is currently being circulated, and will be released ‘in a few weeks’.

One of the benefits of the COAG strategy is that it might bring about a more even implementation of international education services and regulation between the states.  South Australia, for instance, already has an independent statutory complaints body, a provider closure taskforce and a comprehensive Study in South Australia information portal. 

It has also had an active city-wide community engagement strategy since 2004.  For example, in Adelaide a few weeks back representatives of the police played a cricket match against Indian students.  Unfortunately, the police won.  Another community engagement link has been with the Port Power team in the AFL.  It touches a raw nerve among us Adelaide Crows supporters.

Government responses have all had good intentions.  They have particularly zeroed in on the consumer protection issues and the student experience in the community.  But in focusing so much on these areas, we could be missing a key point.


What do we really need?  We need to remain cool and not get caught up too much in the current excitable climate.

Essentially we need to get a significantly better grasp of where Australia is heading, and systematically think through how international education could contribute.

The Rudd government, through the Treasurer Wayne Swan, recently released the 2010 Intergenerational Report (Australian Government 2010a, b). Despite its origins in the Treasury, it paints a big picture view of where Australia is, and might be in 2050.  The challenges identified include an ageing population, escalating health care costs, and yet-to-be managed climate change.  Increasing labour participation and productivity is central to long-term economic strength. The focus is the three Ps: productivity, participation and population.

The Report is, not surprisingly, closely tied into the Government’s current agenda, and its future intentions.  In that sense it is a Government positioning statement, seeking to persuade us that policies are being forged for the present but with an eye clearly fixed on the long-term future.

The Report says surprisingly little about education and the knowledge economy.  There are figures on funding for higher education and an acknowledgement that improved education participation is important to productivity.  There is no mention of international education at all, and only an occasional nod to immigration. 

Developing Australia’s knowledge economy will surely require more explicit attention. The needs of knowledge-based development include an acceleration of the building of key infrastructure, especially the National Broadband Network. The states need to get a move on in developing more vibrant knowledge cities.  Melbourne, followed by Brisbane, and then perhaps Adelaide have made moves in this direction, but it is only a start.


From an educational perspective we need a clear understanding, and sign-off from government, of how it intends connecting international education into our future knowledge based economy. This could effectively be launched on the back of the Bradley Report, but broadened to include all sectors of international education.

Australia is becoming a global talent bank. There are deposits through the education system: international students, immigrants, visitors, and returning expatriates. There are also withdrawals: Australian citizens attracted abroad by education and job opportunities, and international students returning home or moving to third countries.

We would be foolish to stop this and follow a path to autarchy. We must stop bemoaning the influx of students and immigrants because they are perceived to be filling places in education institutions, taking jobs, and buying houses.  And wringing our hands about talented Australian-born residents leaving for education or jobs in China or the US.

Skills Australia’s recent report Australian Workforce Futures: A National Workforce Development Strategy identifies a need, at least over the period to 2015, to depend on a targeted skilled migration program.  However the main thrust of its recommendations is towards increasing skills and local levels of educational participation.  This also includes ‘people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds’ (p 6)

The General Skilled Migration program has provided a significant, if flawed, boost to Australia’s talent bank role.  The decision by the Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC) earlier this year to revoke the Migration Occupations in Demand List (the MODL) was necessary.  It had clearly ended up distorting the demand for education and preparing massive numbers of international students for the wrong kinds of jobs.  Something needed to be done.

DIAC plans to launch a new Skilled Occupation List (SOL) ‘in a few weeks’.  Skills Australia has done the spade work.  There is an expectation that there will be a significant tightening up of the General Skilled Migration program, with a much-reduced Critical Skills List, less significance attached to qualifications earned in Australian educational institutions, and greater preference given to sponsored migrants.  The universities have been re-assured that highly educated and qualified applicants will be given preference.

Nevertheless, there is a risk the new program, forged in the hothouse atmosphere of the last 12 months, will, in effect, turn us away from the idea of the global talent bank.   It is feared that this will constrain our ability to build our educational infrastructure, and compete for new students from across the world.


Competency in the English language is, of course, an essential part of an Australian education.  But our views of what we mean by competency and how we measure it, must adapt to our circumstances.

Criticisms of the English language skills of international students are often aired in the media.  Bob Birrell has been particularly vocal, and recently the Minister for Immigration, Chris Evans, ‘stressed the need for proficient English to ensure migrants quickly gained work in the areas in which they were trained’ (The Australian, 10/2/10).  More demanding English language requirements are expected to be part of the new immigration points test to be announced ‘in a few weeks’.

The Baird Report cited criticisms of educational institutions for ‘low English language entry requirements’ (p iii).  It recommended:

That ESOS be amended to require providers to demonstrate that the:

a. Delivery arrangements for each course do not undermine the integrity of the student visa program

b. English language entry levels and support are appropriate for the course and, where relevant, the expected professional outcomes (p viii)

It went on to say:

The Australian Government should work with the sector to adapt the Good Practice Principles for English Language Proficiency for International Students in Australian Universities to each education sector and encourage implementation (p xi)

I don’t take issue with either of Baird’s recommendations.  Instead, I want to take a different tack. 


Fundamentally I think that the language aspects of international education are more complex than we usually imagine. There are two primary reasons I say this.

First, Australia has a growing and diverse population. Our concerns about language skills should not just be centred on international students and more restrictive immigration rules. They are increasingly about how Australians communicate with other Australians, and with the people temporarily living among us.

It is not uncommon for teaching and administrative staff at Flinders University to complain about the English proficiency of what they assume are international students.  They are often not.  They may be permanent residents, or citizens, or the offspring of immigrants who continue to use the languages of their parents at home.

At the same time, our 2009 International Student Barometer results show that it is not unusual for international students to complain about the English spoken by staff, some of whom are Australian, and some from overseas.

According to Skills Australia ‘the 2006 Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey indicates that 40 per cent of employed Australians and 60 per cent of unemployed Australians have a level of literacy below the accepted standard needed to work in the emerging knowledge-based economy.’ (p 4) 

Second, central to our role in international education, and to supporting the global talent bank, is our commitment to fostering global citizenship. 

By this I mean, facilitating the skills and characteristics that enable our students, our staff, and our communities, to operate effectively in a globalised world. Language and communication skills are critical to this.  But in order to fully address them we need to build a new culture around language in Australia.  It is a two-way street. 

I often observe situations in which native speakers of English make no real effort to adjust their speech to suit their audience, or hear colleagues criticise the language capabilities of international students, yet not take the time to understand the English they speak.

Acquiring the language skills to enable us to be understood by those with fewer skills in English is an essential part of global citizenship.  So too is acquiring the listening skills required to understand other styles of speaking English.

Language is embedded in culture.  The biological metaphor of autopoeisis applies to culture and language. We in the West tend to take the view that globalisation has reduced the differences between cultures.  But cultures are more resilient than we imagine.  We institutionalise contradictions enabling us to operate cross-culturally.  One of the essentials of being a competent global citizen is understanding the nuances of cross-cultural communication, not simply expecting everyone to follow our own language rules in every regard.


The success of Australia’s international education experience, and the volatility over the last year or so, has exponentially expanded the voices seeking to influence events.  It is precisely what you would expect in a vibrant knowledge society.  But with the vibrancy comes a range of different perspectives. Many of them are critical of international education, and want to back the clock to a time when we had fewer international students across all our education sub-sectors.

We must resist this.  But we must also be positive.  This means thinking about a more expansive, and nuanced, vision of how international education can contribute to our future in Australia, and throughout the Asia Pacific.

In particular we need a better understanding of how international education:

•    Supports our knowledge cities and knowledge-based development

•    Enhances Australia’s role as a global talent bank

•    Assists our students – both local and international – to acquire the skills required of global citizens

Language is, of course, a central part of this. 

We can, and in some circumstances should, raise the bar in terms of the English language skills we expect of our students; all of our students, not just international students.

But equally we must engineer a new cultural environment in which we all acquire a greater breadth of speaking and listening skills, and tolerance of those whose level of English proficiency is not the same as our own.

This is going to be essential in the Australia of the future, and it is also going to be a significant contribution to Australia continuing to be a major and attractive destination for international students.


Australian Government 2010a Australia to 2050: Future Challenges. The 2010 Intergenerational Report Overview, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra.

Australian Government 2010b Australia to 2050: Future Challenges. Circulated by the Hon Wayne Swan MP Treasurer of the Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra.

Australian Government (the Baird Report) 2010 Stronger, simpler, smarter ESOS: supporting international students. Review of the Education Services for Students (ESOS) Act 2000, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra.

Australian Government (the Bradley Report) 2009 Review of Higher Education, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra.

Eldridge, Philip, Dean Forbes and Doug Porter (eds) 1986 Australian Overseas Aid: Future Directions, Croom Helm, Sydney and London.

Jackson Report (Committee to Review the Australian Overseas Aid Program) 1984 Report of the Committee to Review the Australian Overseas Aid Program, Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra.

Skills Australia 2010 Australian Workforce Futures: A National Workforce Development Strategy, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra.