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Australia’s positioning to benefit from Brexit and Trump travel ban

· Sam Perkins,Education,Innovation

President Trump’s travel ban will have a negative effect on immigration to the United States that Australian universities are well placed to benefit from, but urgent improvement is needed in the links between academia and industry if Australia is to capture the full benefits.

US security policy unintentionally harming genuine immigration is no new thing; after a slew of new immigration and visa restrictions came into effect after the September 11 attacks in 2001, the number of students coming into the US dropped noticeably. This is primarily because of the signal to potential students that the US is unfriendly to outsiders and that the already difficult project of studying in a foreign country would become harder. For students from Arab or Persian backgrounds especially, the Trump travel bans will likely spark a similar drop off.

Australia’s third biggest export is education, with around 8% global market share of international students, compared to the US’s 26% and UK’s 13%. Australian education establishments are already seeing surging overseas demand, as the UK follows its own anti-immigration path with Brexit. Australia is therefore the only leading education exporter, other than 4th placed Canada, not currently suffering from a major image crisis. With a geographical proximity to China and India, the top two global exporters of students (at 32% and 16% respectively), Australia is the natural next-in-line choice for uncertain international students.

None of this so far is new. Academics and university administrators have flagged a continuing rise in the number and quality of international applicants to Australian courses. What the commentariat is not addressing is how this could interact with the existing deficiency in academia-industry connectivity that researchers have been identifying for years.

Talented students who come to Australia for their studies contribute almost A$20bn to our national income through university fees and living expenses, but if they were to remain in Australia after their studies they add to the pool of highly skilled entrepreneurs and businesspeople. It is these kinds of innovators and creators that Australia will need to help it exit the final stage of the mining boom and develop capital intensive, highly skilled industries.

The Turnbull Government has been making efforts towards this end. Innovation and Science Australia (ISA), created to drive the national innovation effort and centralise other innovation-related functions, reported in late 2016 on the performance of Australia’s innovation, science and research system (ISR system). It found that Australian universities produce world-class research (far more than their fair share of highly-cited work), but industry is not making full use of that knowledge. Poor collaboration and knowledge transfer between academics and business leaders means much of this research either mills about in universities or is utilised by overseas competitors. Based on their ability to secure research money from the private sector, Australia currently sits 15th out of the top 30 university countries, between Iran and Russia. Not a single Australian university makes it onto the top 20 list for research income from industry and commerce.

In a regional environment characterised by a booming middle class, rapidly improving tertiary education systems, better educated populations and increasing interstate mobility of people and capital, Australia cannot afford to continue trailing behind on innovation. A way to leap forward would be to make the kind of credible progress that could attract the most talented students to stay in Australia after they complete their studies. Recent developments like the opening of the Wade Institute at the University of Melbourne can help address deficiencies in entrepreneurial thinking within universities, but a holistic approach is needed on both sides of the equation. Superior innovators like Germany have stronger industry-academia funding relationships, and there’s an accepted link between burdens of compliance frameworks and commercialisation of research.

All the arguments in State of Washington vs. Trump will be in by late February. Even if the Trump Administration is successful and the ban holds, which seems unlikely, there will be mere months before the full provisions begin slackening. The damage to the US’s intake of foreign students will linger beyond the deadlines espoused in the order, but the window of opportunity for Australia to advertise itself as an alternate destination for international students is tight. Businesses and universities should actively look to involve themselves in this process by engaging with each other and the ISA to find ways to bring new ideas to market, and so provide an environment where next decade’s business titans will want to stay.

Sam Perkins is a Policy Analyst at FPL Advisory, writing on political risk and change management in regulatory affairs