Britain, Brunei and Beyond: Developing our Education Partnerships

This speech was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Minister of State Swire's keynote speech at the MoU signing ceremony between the Ministry of Industry and Primary Resources Brunei and Oxford University.

Honourable Minister of Industry and Primary Resources, Pehin Yahya; Representatives of the Ministry of Education; of universities in Brunei – the University of Brunei Darussalam and the Brunei Institute of Technology – and of British education providers – in particular, Professor Liam Dolan, Head of Plant Sciences at Oxford University; Colleagues from the Prime Minister’s Office, the Brunei Research Council and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade; Leaders from the private sector – in particular from Brunei Shell Petroleum, without whose support the initial visit to Brunei by Oxford’s plant scientists, which led to the collaboration we are marking today, would not have been possible.

Thank you for being here to witness the signing of the important Memorandum of Understanding between the Ministry of Industry and Primary Resources and Oxford University.

The Rapid Botanical Survey project we are launching is an excellent example of the strength of co-operation between the United Kingdom and Brunei; a demonstration of what the UK is striving to achieve in the ‘knowledge arena’ in South-East Asia, and around the world.

But I also believe it is exactly the sort of project that can help Brunei to expand and broaden its economy.

I will make clear today my firm belief that this Survey will make a strategic contribution to the Knowledge Economy in Brunei; that the UK’s offer on education and research can have, and is having, a transformative effect across the ASEAN region; and that the UK is able to make this contribution because of the quality and dynamism of its education sector.

The Rapid Botanical Survey

Brunei is already famous for its biodiversity. One thinks of the pioneering work of British scientist Alfred Russel Wallace, who died 100 years ago next year – a centenary likely to renew interest in the biodiversity of this part of the world.

Brunei is also justly famous for its stewardship of its rainforest, not least its work alongside Malaysia and Indonesia on the ‘Heart of Borneo’ conservation initiative, which has had strong support from the World Wildlife Fund, His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, HSBC, Shell and others.

The surveyed areas of Brunei’s rainforest have yielded exciting results. Great claims were made for the Andulau Forest Reserve by another eminent British scientist, Peter Ashton. Since then, fine work has been done by Bruneian institutions and expeditions. The annals of science now include names such as: Mount Pagon, River Ingei, Kuala Belalong.

The new techniques developed by Oxford University will help to assemble the whole patchwork, to provide an overall botanical picture.

Over a three year period, conducting up to 300 site visits, a team of scientists and foresters from the MIPR, UBD and Oxford will map Brunei’s plant biodiversity and describe its global significance. The project will link Brunei’s data with the new version of Oxford’s industry-standard herbarium database, Brahms II – which will showcase Brunei’s biodiversity like never before. With this new software, it will be possible to print out field guides for Brunei, supporting and boosting ecotourism.

Other benefits include substantial progress on the Heart of Borneo Action Plan; close academic co-operation between Oxford, UBD and MIPR; and the consolidation of Brunei’s reputation as an up-and-coming centre of scientific excellence.

This project is exactly what I mean when I speak of making a “strategic contribution to the Knowledge Economy”. I see three factors at work here.

First comes enlightened policy – in this case the sustainable forestry, respect for conservation and openness to science practised by the MIPR. Secondly, this finds an echo in Brunei’s determination to become a platform for quality research – witness UBD’s bid to become a top-50 Asian university by 2015, supported by the growing research budget administered by the Prime Minister’s Office and Brunei Research Council. Thirdly, the MIPR-UBD alliance finds international research networks to help implement their plans and extend their reach.

The UK’s Knowledge Economy: a natural partner for Brunei

British institutions are uniquely well-placed to provide that third piece of the Knowledge Economy jigsaw.

This is partly because so many Bruneians attend British schools and universities each year – more Bruneians than Brazilians, a fact I find amazing given the relative size of populations. Many of them receive Brunei government scholarships, which we do not take for granted.

It is partly to do with Brunei’s use of the English language as a medium of learning, alongside Malay, from a very early age. Here I should commend the work of the Education Trust, CfBT, which has been recruiting and supporting Anglophone teachers for primary and secondary schools in Brunei for decades.

And it is also partly because of our shared history and values, which I think help to explain why Bruneians and Britons feel so at home in each other’s countries. This affinity is why our many joint ventures have prospered in the past – not just in the energy sector, but also in defence and finance – cemented by deep mutual respect and personal friendships between our Royal families.

Using British ‘know-how’ to drive economic diversification in Brunei

There isn’t time this morning to discuss all of these promising new sectors. But I would like to share some examples of how Britain is adding value.

MIPR’s Agro-Technology Park was designed with input from a UK-Hong Kong consultancy, SQW, who brought in food technologists from Lincoln University and expertise from the Edinburgh Botanical Gardens.

Oxford University’s Said Business School completed some of the initial work on your project to build ‘Brunei Halal’ as a global brand; and I understand you have chosen a site outside Birmingham as a logistics centre – your springboard into the European market.

In the health sector, your medical establishment already has close links to teaching hospitals in UK – with the medical faculty at UBD, for instance, acting as an examining body for the UK’s Royal College of General Practitioners.

And in the alternative energy sector, British institutions – as leaders in green technology – are Brunei’s natural companions on the road to the high-tech, low-carbon future you are seeking. A great deal is already happening on this front. But I would single out the connection that exists between the UK Energy Research Centre and the Brunei National Energy Research Institute, due to be launched at Brunei’s ‘Energy Week’ next February. Professor John Loughhead, Executive Director of UKERC, looks forward to being in Brunei for this major event in the regional energy calendar. Co-operation on technical and vocational education and training

There is also much scope for co-operation on technical and vocational education and training.

Brunei has identified a shortfall of home-grown technicians as a potentially serious bottleneck for its development. To respond to this, the Sultanate has moved to open a public sector polytechnic, is urging private sector training institutions to expand, and has provided scholarships to drive this expansion.

I think British experience could play a role here. In the oil and gas sector, for example, the local economy around Aberdeen has significant experience to tap into. And I am pleased that the Education Trust, CfBT – whom I mentioned earlier – has offered to help twin the Brunei Polytechnic with the highest-performing Further Education college in England, Highbury College. I very much hope the Brunei Ministry of Education will procure their services.

We are also encouraging the umbrella body, Technical and Vocational Education and Training UK, and the consortium of which Highbury College is a member, to visit Brunei in the near future. In short, I think there can be a ‘British solution’ to Brunei’s needs in this sector.

The UK-ASEAN Knowledge Partnership

Many of the synergies with the UK’s Knowledge Economy at work in Brunei are also at work in other ASEAN member states – two of which I will visit after Brunei: the Philippines and Burma. We look forward to Brunei taking on the ASEAN Chairmanship next year.

Britain has strong relations with each and every member of ASEAN. You may have noticed that we reopened our Embassy in Vientiane last month, a signal of the importance we attach to the region. The UK is now represented in all ten ASEAN nations.

We want to be ASEAN’s partner of choice. This goal brought the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, here to Brunei in April, to attend the EU-ASEAN Foreign Minister’s meeting. The same thinking led us to accede to ASEAN’s Treaty of Amity and Co-operation this year, alongside the European Union. There has been a busy programme of high-level visits to the region of late, not least that of the Prime Minister, David Cameron, in April. And in London we have hosted the senior leaders of many ASEAN countries – at the Olympics, but also in State and official visits since then.

This approach is as evident in the field we are discussing today – Education and the Knowledge Economy – as it is in other areas of co-operation.

A good example is our involvement with the South East Asian Ministers of Education Organisation, of which we are keen for the UK to become an Associate Member. This will happen, I very much hope, at its Council Meeting in Hanoi next March.

At the meeting, we plan to show a film, under production right now in Brunei, which showcases the ‘Brunei Success Story’ in the use of English as a medium of learning. Our partners in this – CfBT– will also unveil some original research, conducted by Oxford University, which quantifies the success Brunei has derived from continued use of English. We hope that by demonstrating the success of our English language projects with Brunei, we can show to other ASEAN partners the benefits of working with us to deliver their English language curriculum.

We can draw some interesting conclusions from this. Since English is the official language of ASEAN, Brunei finds itself in ‘poll position’ in the race to take advantage of the future ASEAN Economic Community. And since Brunei has plans to become a regional hub for education services, we can see that, as in one sense a ‘re-exporter’ of British education products, the economic interests of the UK and Brunei are intertwined. I believe that the UK’s close relationships with the nine other ASEAN member states can also add value to their knowledge economies.

To help ensure this happens, and to publicise better what Britain is already doing, we have launched the UK-ASEAN Knowledge Partnership – working very closely with the British Council. It funded the film I mentioned earlier. It has funded the travel, in both directions, of British academics and their colleagues in ASEAN countries. And it is building on many long-standing and fast-growing examples of knowledge collaboration between the UK and South-East Asian nations.

Consider the connections British institutions are making with Malaysia, where several famous schools and universities are establishing campuses; or, indeed, our booming business with Singapore in science and innovation. The UK-ASEAN Knowledge Partnership will support and co-ordinate these separate success stories, making them even more than the sum of their parts.

A lot of this work will concentrate on young people as they work their way through further education and into employment. Some projects will concentrate on the university sector, but there will be an increasing focus on vocational education. And it won’t be one-way traffic: we are as keen to learn from your academics and researchers as we hope you are to learn from ours.

Looking to the future: the UK’s global education offer

I hope I have made clear just how attractive Britain’s offer on education is. We are doing a huge amount of work in Brunei, across South-East Asia, indeed globally.

The total value of British education exports is already estimated to be around £14 billion annually. We currently attract 13 percent of the international higher education student market – second only to the United States – with 400,000 foreign students choosing to study in Britain last year. But, for the first time, this was exceeded by the number of people who benefitted from British-supplied higher education whilst abroad – a record 500,000.

These are impressive statistics. But I think we should be even more ambitious, because education is a growing global industry. The British Council estimates that the number of students in higher education alone could reach almost 200 million by 2020; and they are increasingly choosing to study overseas.

These trends create opportunities. With much of the growth in emerging and re-emerging economies – India, China, here in South-East Asia – it is in our interests to strengthen our links and work together. With that in mind, the British Government has taken several steps to support growth in the UK’s education exports.

In January we launched Higher Education Global, an advice service to help link British institutions to opportunities overseas. In May we created UK Education Services, which is pioneering a ‘system-to-system’ approach to identify opportunities and mobilise consortia to win contracts. We have made education a significant element of our trade missions overseas. And our Department for Business, Innovation and Skills is working on an Education Sector Strategy, due to be launched next spring.

These actions should cement the UK’s position as the partner of choice on education, and provide a strong foundation for further growth. But we will not stop there. We will seek out opportunities; connect education providers with education customers; and encourage research collaboration. We will support knowledge partnerships; encourage British students to study abroad, and continue to welcome foreign students to our shores.

If we do this, working together to support each other’s development, we will enrich the learning of people in Britain, Brunei and Beyond. And we will all reap the benefits – better education, better learning, better understanding – that will help our economies, and our societies, grow. Minister, I would like to conclude my speech with a personal tribute to you and to His Majesty the Sultan. In this era of climate change, the world admires Brunei for its stewardship of the rainforest. The people of Brunei should also thank their government for making that stewardship an active process, using science to turn their rainforest into revenue for the nation. I have heard how you have led that process, literally, ‘at the sharp end’: thorns, leeches, crocodiles – you and your foresters are familiar with them all.

The world should be grateful for the leadership you have shown.