Professor David Lowe* gives himself the brief of addressing the newly installed Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne on the next steps for the New Colombo Plan …
Minister, you asked for advice about how best to develop the New Colombo Plan in order to achieve your policy aim of deepening Australia’s relationships in the Indo-Pacific region.
The New Colombo Plan (NCP) was introduced by the Abbott government in 2014 and is administered jointly by your department and the Department of Education. The plan provides funds for Australian undergraduate students to have educational experiences in the Indo-Pacific, with the aim of increasing knowledge of the region. Since its beginning in 2014, the NCP has sent tens of thousands of Australian students, mostly aged between 18-28, to the Indo-Pacific and has become a flagship of our foreign policy.
The original Colombo Plan, which began in 1951, brought more than 20,000 government-sponsored students from Asia to Australia over the next three decades. That policy underpins a continuous narrative of ‘people-to-people’ connections between Australia and its region. The government has made considerable investments in improving connections with former students who have studied in Australia, including through the new Global Alumni online network.
One of the key differences between the original Colombo Plan and the NCP is the length of study. Most students coming to Australia undertake short courses and degrees of six to twelve months, or more. In contrast, more than three-quarters of Australian students going to the Indo-Pacific participate in ‘mobility projects’ of between 14-28 days duration.
The government is expanding the NCP, recently announcing support for 11,817 students to take part in 792 mobility projects in 36 host locations in the Indo-Pacific. Your joint press release with the Education Minister said that: ‘The returning students from the 2019 mobility projects will increase the New Colombo Plan alumni to more than 40,000 young Australians since 2014 with experience of living, studying and undertaking work experience in the Indo-Pacific.’
Without careful management, there is a risk that the NCP may not realise its aim to be ‘transformational, deepening Australia’s relationships in the region, both at the individual level and through expanding university, business and other stakeholder links.’ We need to build on the success of the program to ensure that participants forge deep and lasting relationships in the region. Future policy directions must be consistent with the NCP’s core objectives, the 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper, and the policy and operational environments of Australian higher education providers.
The weight of research shows that the short-term encounters offered by the NCP are beneficial, with students becoming more aware of Asia and the Pacific, and seeing themselves as potential actors rather than mere visitors or tourists. Research also suggests that it is important to focus on students’ reflections once they are home, enabling them to extend their learning and actions.
At present, there is neither incentive nor requirement for universities to extend students’ learning upon their return. To introduce requirements might be onerous, but universities could consider incentives for continuing engagement. Many universities have supplementary certificates along the lines of a global passport or global citizenship badge, demonstrating international experiences and/or intercultural awareness. These programs might provide a medium to foster ongoing engagement with the region.
There is also a need to bring a qualitative lens to NCP outcomes, which are at their most impressive when measured quantitatively. This represents a policy and research challenge: it is much easier to fund and then point to increasing numbers than it is to demonstrate the impact of people-to-people connections, especially as the benefits of this form of public diplomacy are generally seen over the medium to long term.
As an immigration nation, Australia hosts significant communities from countries that are common destinations for NCP students. Returning students could extend their engagement by working with diaspora communities. This would work well if universities provide incentives.
DFAT can continue to emphasise what the government can directly control through funding grants to universities: the numbers of young Australians encountering the Indo-Pacific, making connections and getting a taste of a dynamic region that they may look towards in future work and experiences.
DFAT and universities can continue to draw tight time lines around their current commitments to Australian students: funding for predominantly very short-term experiences but building on the idea of an NCP alumni through networking and recurring events.
DFAT can invite universities to consider ways that returning NCP students might extend their ‘people-to-people’ engagement with peoples of the Indo-Pacific. The range of possible student activities needs to be agreed but might include language learning and collaborative tasks. One activity particularly suited to Australia is liaison/internship type activities with immigrant communities. DFAT can reward those universities that show clear evidence of such post-return engagement by NCP students.
- Australian universities appear to have the mechanisms to reward returning NCP students who remain engaged with the region, in a manner that runs parallel with their study programs and does not delay degree completion. DFAT should work closely with universities willing to connect their global passport, global citizenship and other such awards with opportunities for returning NCP students.
- Universities should draw on returning NCP students to engage directly with significant diaspora communities by facilitating ongoing engagement between students and local Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Pacific Islander and other communities.
- DFAT should reward those universities that demonstrate continued learning and engagement for NCP students upon their return, either through a new and separate category of NCP funding or by building a factor of continued learning into a formula attached to funding.
Contact Officer: Professor David Lowe
Contemporary Histories Research Group
 New Colombo Plan, Mobility Program Guidelines 2018, DFAT, https://dfat.gov.au/people-to-people/new-colombo-plan/mobility-program/guidelines-2018 accessed 1 August 2018.
 Joint press release, Senator Simon Birmingham, Minister for Education and Training, and the Hon. Julie Bishop, Foreign Minister, 6 July 2018, https://www.senatorbirmingham.com.au/2019-new-colombo-plan-mobility-grants/ accessed, 1 August 2018.
 Ly Tran, ‘Discovering the “new possibles” through the New Colombo Plan’, International Education of Australia blog, https://www.ieaa.org.au/blog/discovering-the-new-possibles-through-the-new-colombo-plan accessed 2 August 2018.
* Professor David Lowe is Chair in Contemporary History in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Deakin University. David is a co-founder of the Australian Policy and History network and a member of the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Editorial Advisory Board, advising the Australian Foreign Minister with respect to the Documents on Australian Foreign Policy Series.