Free trade agreements: friend or foe for Australian university graduates?

On Wednesday 21 September 2016 the La Trobe Law School convened a panel debate chaired by La Trobe Law School lecturer Dr Ozlem Susler, entitled “Free Trade Agreements: What’s In It For Australian University Graduates?

Free trade agreements have somewhat always been associated with  political controversy because among other things, trade can have a direct impact on  the workforce,  economic growth and employability. Universities take  great interest in employment and employability of their graduates:  accordingly free trade and the implications of free trade agreements are a critical issue for universities. Free trade agreements have never been more significant or controversial than they are today. There are competing interests at play.  On one hand, States need to retain national sovereignty and continue to regulate in the interests of their citizens.On the other hand, there is some resistance against trade agreements, particularly where sufficient priority is not provided for issues such as, the environment, the local employment market or consumer safety risks.  However, the implications of the FTAs are not just limited to public policy issues. They may have ramifications for Australian university graduates as well as the tertiary education sector more generally.

The audience witnessed  strong opposing debate among  our distinguished panel members  including : The Hon Andrew Robb AO, Former Federal Minister for Trade and Investment, The Hon Kelvin Thomson, Former Member for Wills in Federal Parliament, Mr Bryan Clark, Director, Trade and International Affairs, Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Professor Jianfu Chen, Professor of Law, La Trobe Law School and Dr Ozlem Susler, Facilitator, La Trobe Law School.

There were two fundamentally opposing arguments.. On one hand, those for free trade agreements argued that, when structured correctly, these agreements can provide a set of rules which allow countries to open up their economies and benefit from such agreements. In doing so, opportunities for law students and other Australian university graduates can increase. This is because these agreements create opportunities for companies or organisations to venture into markets within other jurisdictions. Accordingly, these markets are opened up for Australian university graduates. By having Australian graduates work within these jurisdictions, it can lead to a better understanding of these new economies, therefore allowing Australia as a whole to foster its own economic growth and competitiveness.

On the other hand, it has been argued that free trade agreements limit the opportunities for university graduates because they reflect corporate and political power rather than voicing community values. In doing so they have been said to undermine the principles of democracy in favour of corporations. Additionally, within the legal sector, investors which come from States that  have  free trade agreements with Australia, may  have barristers and solicitors sponsored to work in the investors’ Australian enterprises, meaning that free trade agreements may cause more detriment to Australian law students due to   increased competition.   Under the Australian government’s skilled migration sponsorship policies, the various State legal admissions authorities must still assess any person who intends to practice law in the Australian jurisdiction.

The reality of the situation therefore seems to be that countries which are party to   free trade agreements, may have increased competition in at least some sectors of employment for their graduates. This is because competition is on a global scale and therefore fiercer than if it were just to be contained within a particular country. The need for a delicate balance seems evident because if free trade agreements are entered into, they can change the economic landscape of a State.  While this can be to the benefit to  some, it can unfortunately be to the disadvantage to  others. This is because, free trade agreements may not address the problems of ordinary people. However, if carefully structured, free trade agreements have the power to create new opportunities for Australian graduates which open the doors to possibilities of economic growth for our nation as a whole.

La Trobe Law School wishes to warmly thank all of our distinguished panel guests for their time and fierce debate! Congratulations to Dr Ozlem Susler for not only organising the event but also being a wonderful chair of the panel by keeping all parties on their toes throughout the evening.


La Trobe