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Australian educators “blinkered” to online opportunity: Robb

Shadow Finance Minister Andrew Robb says Australia’s education sector should embrace technology to help educate India’s emerging middle class. AAP

Australia’s education sector must set aside concerns about cost and risk, and embrace technology to digitise and distribute content in the emerging markets of India and China, says Shadow Finance Minister Andrew Robb.

“Much of the content universities sit on could focus more on the practical elements without losing their academic (theoretical) heritage and thus provide a very attractive educational product for the Indian and Asian markets,” said Mr Robb, who is chairman of the Coalition Policy Development Committee.

In a speech to an online education forum in Brisbane, Mr Robb said his suggestion earlier this year that Australian educators could be teaching 10 million international students within a decade had been met by scepticism from some quarters within the education sector, but that those who raised concerns “had the blinkers on”.

Mr Robb said the high value of the Australian dollar was hurting Australia’s education earnings, but that the answer could be found on our doorstep with the massive expansion of the middle class throughout the Asia Pacific.

“In education Australia has strong fundamentals, we have a good reputation; we have the technology and the capacity to innovate. But there is no time to waste. We need to be flexible and responsive to the various demands of the market.”

Mr Robb’s comments came as a UNESCO report revealed a pledge by international leaders that all children would have a primary education by 2015 was likely to be missed, with 250 million children of primary school age unable to read or write, and $US16 billion needed annually to attain universal primary education by the stated date.

“We are witnessing a young generation frustrated by the chronic mismatch between skills and work,” said Irina Bokova director-general of UNESCO.

“Many, and young women in particular, need to be offered alternative pathways for an education, so they can gain the skills needed to earn a living, live with dignity and contribute to their communities and societies,” Ms Bokova said.

Mr Robb pointed to a McKinsey Global Institute study that found India will need to retrain at least 285 million working Indians with no secondary education, 150 million of whoch had not even completed primary education.

He also cited reports that India needed four million capable engineering graduates per year, but was only producing 500,000.

“The utilisation of technology and the rapidly evolving online environment seems the obvious means of providing new educational firepower throughout the Asia Pacific,” Mr Robb said.

Mr Robb said universities should partner with vocational education and training providers to help contextualise and adapt content to the needs of markets in the region.

“As a country we need to identify and assess this Asia Pacific opportunity to determine the total addressable market for potential educational products and services – start with the big picture and work backwards.

"Identify where the largest profit pools exist – where’s the money? Who will pay?”

Mr Robb said innovators were already working on delivering effective online content and saw the opportunity as “a business problem that requires a business solution not an academic solution”.

He added that while there wasn’t a business model for Massive Open Online Courses that stacked up, the movement underscored the large number of people who traditional higher education was not reaching.

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