Pied Piper lures students to our shores

From a working-class family living in the hard-scrabble, tiny coastal town of Umina in NSW, Phil Honeywood soared through study abroad and university. He wound up becoming one of the youngest Liberal government ministers in Victoria and deputy leader of the party in opposition before retiring from politics and taking the helm of the large and influential International Education Association of Australia.

The IEAA is the only peak body that covers TAFE colleges, public universities, English language colleges, government and private high schools and quality private providers.

Honeywood has the ear of education ministers, union leaders, vice-chancellors and senior bureaucrats, and he has an understated but powerful role shaping international student policy.

He began his lifelong love affair with international education when he was 17, a Rotary exchange student on his way to live in Japan for a year.

He’d been working three part-time jobs in the coastal city of Gosford to save up money for his trip, and because he was so busy, and because he didn’t take to cassette recorder language lessons all that well, he says that he arrived in Tokyo speaking about three words of Japanese.

His first host family spoke a little English, but his second host family spoke none at all, and perhaps as a consequence Honeywood’s Japanese improved swiftly. Today, he can still hold his own in a conversation in Japanese.

“That exchange year program, for me, just changed everything”, he remembers.

Initially a student at suburban Erina High School in the backblocks of the NSW central coast, Honeywood soon found himself enrolled in Tokyo’s plummiest private school, paid for by one of his host families, and favoured by the Japanese royal family. Bodyguards, Honeywood remembers, lurked behind every bush, and at one stage he helped to teach English to the second prince, Akishino-no-miya. Another student in his class was the heir to the Tokugawa shogunate.

Returning to Australia, Honeywood’s future was mapped out. He had a four-year law degree course to go to at Sydney University, where he would become the first in his family to get a tertiary education, en route to becoming a suburban lawyer in Gosford. That plan was quickly junked.

“Another culture, another language gives you a benchmark,” he says. “I took the rose-coloured glasses off and I was looking back at Australia, our potential as part of Asia.”

He changed courses to arts/law so he could carry on with studying Japanese, and changed universities from Sydney to the Australian National University, which then had a superior Japanese language department. He even returned to Japan before his honours year, working as a salaryman and drinking every night.

On graduation he was employed by Shell Oil in Melbourne, and after a few years decided to stand for parliament.

At 27, and having lived in Victoria only for four years, Honeywood put his hand up for a marginal seat, Warrandyte, which became the only electorate won from a Labor incumbent by a Liberal candidate in the state election of 1988.

He was dubbed the $6 million man by then Labor premier John Cain, who quipped that the Liberal Party had spent that amount of money on the campaign and only had Honeywood to show for it.

When the Coalition under Liberal Jeff Kennett won government in Victoria in 1992, Kennett named Honeywood as parliamentary secretary in charge of multicultural affairs.

“I put on many kilograms because every Friday and Saturday night I went to three multicultural functions,” Honeywood says.

Naturally he had to eat a lot, but he usually tried to end the evening at a Greek function so he could digest his dinners on the dance floor, performing traditional dances with a handkerchief in one hand.

He became minister for tertiary education and multicultural affairs just as the Dawkins reforms were beginning to take hold. Travelling the world and promoting Victoria as a study destination, he found himself defending Australia in the face of questions prompted by politician Pauline Hanson’s positions on Asian immigration and multiculturalism.

Finally, after a long and fruitful stretch, he decided he’d had enough of political life.

“After 18 years, I’d done everything I wanted to do (in politics), and I knew I was still young enough to have another career”, he says. “I was 46.”

He was also married, with children, and living in Melbourne. But where does a former Liberal minister fit? It’s often not so easy to waltz into a senior university job without having done the grunt work on the way up.

So Honeywood began his private sector career as a marketing director for a private college, going to the fairs and pushing the brand.

At his first education fair in India, the international representatives set up in a large ballroom, each with a little table and a couple of chairs. Excited students and parents flooded in as soon as the door was opened, seemingly eager to sit at every table except Honeywood’s, where he was selling the benefits of a private business college in Melbourne.

After about 20 minutes the mortification increased when his neighbouring education field workers, notably those from the University of Melbourne, began to borrow his chairs for their overflowing queues. “It was character-building,” Honeywood recalls.

He later tried his hand at other marketing positions, and at fundraising, and eventually was asked to apply for the chief executive’s position at the IEAA.

That was eight years ago, and he still loves the job and the field of work — crucial work, considering the size and economic importance of Australia’s education exports, and valuable work, considering how essential it is to broaden students’ horizons and foster international bonds. Honeywood knows the history of international education and appears to be universally liked, political differences notwithstanding.

He is now a member of the Higher Education Standards Panel, the New Colombo Plan steering committee, the Education Visa Consultative Committee, state ministerial advisory councils (including several advising Labor ministers), and the Council for International Education — all this as well as running the IEAA.

“I’m an eternal optimist with our sector,” Honeywood says. “You have to look at the motivations for students from any country to come to a country like Australia. Obviously they want to study in the English language — that’s important, it’s the lingua franca of the world. More importantly, though, for students from certain Asian countries, they want to open up their minds to different teaching pedagogy.”

In Japan, he remembers, students bowed to the teacher at the beginning and end of each class, and took notes. Students were not encouraged to engage in critical discussion.

The mode of learning is apparently much the same in China and many other Asian nations — lively teacher-student debate is largely not on the curriculum.

“That critical thinking pedagogy, I think a lot of young people want that,” Honeywood says. “They also love the idea of an open, free, laid-back lifestyle.

“Many of their parents want them to be in a non-polluted, green environment in their youth. They might even be exploring their sexuality.

“There are a whole lot of motivations that will continue to be a drawcard for a democratic society that’s multicultural like Australia.”