Q&A with students at Solomon Islands National University

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Australia’s development partnership with Solomon Islands, Australia-China relations, education scholarships, support for Solomon Islands National University and University of the South Pacific

Speaker: Thank you. My name is [indistinct] and I'm a year 3 [indistinct] student here at Solomon Islands National University. The first question I have is Australia is Solomon Island's largest political donor. Recently I have heard from media in Australia that your government is developing its very own [indistinct]. What can you say about this?

Minister for International Development and the Pacific, Pat Conroy: Thank you very much for that question and this is the part of the engagement I really enjoy - the questions and answers. Speeches are good but they're things to sit through and stay awake for if you can. So I really enjoy the questions.

So thank you for that question. Those reports aren't true. Australia's proud to be the largest development partner for the Solomon Islands. We're proud and privileged to have that role and our development partnership with the Solomon Islands is the third largest for Australia. It is the third largest after Papua New Guinea and Indonesia. So it's the second biggest in the Pacific. We're proud and privileged to have that role. We're proud to be delivering all the budget commitments that we have provided, and we will continue to do that.

As I said in my speech, our open development partnerships are profoundly moral to character. It's always dangerous to have politicians talk about morality and I acknowledge that. But I actually do think it's moral. As a fellow human being, I have an obligation, and the people of Australia have an obligation, to support the aspirations of the Solomon Islands and that means investing in your education, investing in your health outcomes, investing in infrastructure.

I can assure you that our support remains steadfast. We've increased our development budget, the largest ever increase ever, in terms of dollars, and, secondly, the Pacific development partnership is now A$1.9 billion per annum, which is the largest ever to the Pacific and the largest of anyone to the Pacific. So that commitment remains steadfast. But thank you for your question.

Speaker: [Indistinct] my name is [indistinct] studying at Solomon Island National University. My question is what is Australia's position on the Solomon Islands and current Chinese influence in the Pacific, and that the Solomon Islands is at the forefront. Thank you.

Minister Conroy: Thank you. Did everyone hear the question up the back over there? The question was what is Australia's attitude to China's relationship with the Solomon Islands or something like that. Our simple stance is that Solomon Islands is a sovereign country with sovereign people and who you partner with is a matter for your government and we respect that. What I can say to you is it's up to the people and the government of the Solomon Islands to be the country to make those choices.

As I said in my speech, we have to be open that there is geostrategic competition occurring in the Pacific. I think there are three Cs dominating, I think, the Pacific - COVID recovery, climate change and competition. And it's up to the Pacific to respond to those. And on geogstrategic competition, it's really about how you approach what other countries are offering you.

What I can say from an Australian point of view is we will always provide assistance and development partnerships for people in a transparent way. We will always communicate transparently and always respond to the priorities of the country that we partner with, so in this case we'll respond to the priorities of the Solomon Islands. It will always come with no strings attached. It will never be conditional on something. Fourthly, it will always prioritise local content. So if we're building a road with you or building a hospital, we will prioritise using local workers and local companies and, fifthly, we'll always emphasise high quality infrastructure. And on the broader relationships and it's up to the Solomon Islands Government how they handle that, but we're proud to have been a friend for 45 years. We tend to remain to be a good friend. We're privileged to be the primary security partner for the Solomon Islands and we're proud of the assurances that have been given, that if there's gaps in security, that the Solomon Islands Government will come to Australia first and we are privileged and proud. (applause).

Speaker: My name is [indistinct]. I'm from the Faculty of Education. I'm doing Bachelor of Education. My question is simply - China fund 24 students under Chinese scholarship to study at SINU, the semester of 2022-3. Previously New Zealand also funded a number of scholarship to Solomon Island National University. Is there any one for your government in terms of providing scholarship to students studying under Solomon Islands University? Thank you.

Minister Conroy: Thank you, and that may have been the topic of conversation with the executive out here before. Our priorities for our development partnership with the Solomon Islands will be guided by the people and the Government of the Solomon Islands. If they say the priority's education, and they want support for scholarships for Solomon Islands National University, we'll make it happen. It's all about how we move money around because you have to make choices. So it's AUD$171 million. If we want to spend more on education, we might need to spend a bit less somewhere else. But we make those choices in consultation with the Government and the people of Solomon Islands. And that's really important because education is foundational to people's future.

I'm also very keen to, quite frankly, get more students from this university over to Australia to study. We've got 39 universities in Australia, six or seven of them are regularly rated in the top hundred in the world, and I want to see more students from the Solomon Islands doing a semester over there while doing, who have done an undergraduate degree here, doing a masters in Australia. I think that's great. We're proud to have supported 500 students from Solomon Islands to study in Australia and we offer about 25 scholarships a year and I'd like to see that increase. And, in fact, I'm meeting with some of our Alumni for the Solomon Islands later today. It will be fascinating to hear about their experiences.

And I met some nursing students from across the Pacific including Solomon Islands who were in Australia a few months ago. In fact, they were outside the Australian Parliament House and we were walking past after question time. So I grabbed the Prime Minister and the Treasurer and we got a photo with them.

I want to see more of that people-to-people connection and not just at a university level, at a technical level as well and using the Pacific Australia Labour Mobility scheme, which I think is an absolute winner for everyone involved. Workers go over there, 6,000 at the moment, they fill labour gaps in our country. On average they send back AUD$15,000 a year, AUD$15,000 a year, and they add skills in their work or we support them getting skills through the education system where appropriate. So they come back here with money in their pocket, having supported their families and skills to start businesses. And I just think - I can't think of anything that does more to connect our two people than working together on education, so thank you.

Speaker: Time for one more question. We'll take one more question.

Speaker: Good afternoon. My name is [indistinct] and I'm currently the President of Solomon Island National University Students Association. Solomon Islands National University is the main institution of Solomon Islands in terms of training and human resources. One of the main [indistinct] institution is to paint a significant [indistinct] and we understand that Australia have been a major development partner of USP since its inception in 1968 and Solomon Island University also have a strategic plan 21-25, and I remember in 2010 Australia [indistinct] USP a strategic plan for 2010-2013, and also 2013 to 2018. And my question is what would you say about offering us future commitment of Solomon Island National University in order to achieve its aims and objectives? Thank you.

Minister Conroy: Thank you, and did I hear rightly that you're a student representative of the student association? Excellent. Well, thank you for your service there. It's very important. I'm a big supporter of student representation and decision making at universities. So thank you for taking the time to do that.

I think that, as I said before, we respond to priorities. I'm catching up with the Minister for Education a bit later today and we will stand ready to support this university, if that's the priority of the people of the Solomon Islands. We need to get the balance right in how much we support universities, how much we support primary school. How much we support road infrastructure versus x and y. But education is foundational, as I said today.

And we're also very proud to support the University of the South Pacific as well. That's not to take anything away from SINU, but it's recognising that USP fulfils a unique role. Especially, quite frankly considering the size of the Solomon Islands. When you're a country with 20 or 50,000 people [indistinct] so it's important to have a university owned by [indistinct] when I speak today and I'm very keen for our partners and [indistinct] to look closely at how we can support the university.

And also not just about financial resources, support the progress of what Dr Dr Transform Aqorau is trying to do here in terms of the reforming institution, stressing ethics and good governance. That's really important for every university in the world. So I just want to applaud the university leadership, including you, in driving that ethical behaviour. That's really important. Money matters, but morals matter as well. So thank you for what you're doing. (applause).

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