ATTENTION: Minister for Foreign Affairs, Senator the Hon Penny Wong
Minister for Education, Hon Jason Clare MP
Ministers, it has been 11 years since the launch of the 2012 Australia in the Asian century: white paper, and nine years since the launch of the New Colombo Plan (NCP). Australia now faces a vastly different strategic outlook. You have asked for advice on how to ensure that the NCP continues to support the objectives of the government in the Asia-Pacific region.
The decade since the launch of the 2012 white paper has seen many great geopolitical shifts that are cause for Australia to reflect on the best way to engage with its regional neighbourhood. A quick glance at the themes of the submissions to the white paper is instructive in that they focus on soft power aims rather than pure hard power objectives. Overall, there were more than 160 submissions relating to people-to-people links with Asia, and Australia’s engagement with Asia directly through international education was referenced in around 80 submissions. International education will continue to provide a great opportunity for Australia to build stronger regional relationships.
The election of the Abbott government in 2013 saw the white paper shelved as a document of reference, and a desire for the newly installed Coalition government to carve out their own foreign policy agenda. The response was driven largely by then foreign minister, Julie Bishop. The NCP began in 2014 as a pilot program which aimed to foster a two-way flow of students between Australia and the rest of its region. This distinguished it from the original Colombo Plan which was one of Australia’s first genuine attempts to provide aid within its own region. The scheme was also notable as it reversed the objective of its predecessor. Rather than receiving students from Asia, the NCP was designed to provide Australian students with more opportunities to engage with the Asia-Pacific region. Through this scheme, the Federal Government has provided around $320 million since 2014 to support 10,000 undergraduate Australian students annually to study short-term in Asia.
The NCP is comprised of two separate arms, the Scholarship Program and the Mobility Program. The Scholarship Program supports around 120 students each year to undertake an offshore study program of up to 19 months and the Mobility Program provides assistance for around 10,000 students to engage in shorter term projects. Funding for the NCP for financial years 2020-21 to 2022-23 was budgeted at a consistent spend of $51 million per annum. However, updated documents show a revised spend of $43.87 million for 2021-22 and $45.087 million for 2022-23. The election of the Albanese Labor government in May 2022 provided some uncertainty surrounding the future of the NCP. However, early signs suggest that funding for the program will continue. The new round of 2023 NCP Scholarships was the largest yet, with 150 scholars set to be hosted across 24 host locations.
The continued rise of Asia has continued to impact on Australia in a myriad of ways. The Asia-Pacific accounts for two-thirds of Australia’s two-way trade with 11 of the top 15 partners coming from the region. Australia is now a more multicultural place than it was in 2012. ABS data shows that the percentage of overseas born Australians increased by 2.2 percent in the decade from 2011 to 2021. Six of the top 10 source countries are in Asia, while traditional markets such as England and New Zealand are now making up a smaller percentage of Australians born overseas. This changing demographic allows for Australia to present itself with a new face in the region.
However, outside of the NCP, the Australian government has largely failed to grasp the opportunities presented by its connection with the Asian region. Australia’s engagement with Asia (or the Indo-Pacific) has largely been predicated on security and economic interests in the region, while a wider commitment to cultural engagement has been subject to differing domestic political aspirations. While important, these forms of engagement are not able to build longer lasting, people-to-people links that help to insulate against political shocks.
International education, and by extension, greater development of Asian literacy among Australian graduates, has the potential to shape Australia’s future relationship with its geographic region. The NCP should continue to play a role in facilitating Australia’s engagement with the wider Asian region. However, to improve its role in driving greater engagement with Asia, the NCP needs to develop longer and deeper connections with the students it sponsors to travel to the Asia-Pacific region.
Currently the majority of NCP scholars spend little over a semester on average in their destination city. In 2019, there were more than 50,000 Australian students who participated in an overseas experience. Significantly, only 21 percent spent more than one semester in their host country. Rather than fully immersing the scholar in the region, this short-term experience is at present only providing them with a limited impression of their host country. On return to Australia, rather than being supported by the NCP, the student returns to their home campus with limited support to continue the interest generated from their trip overseas.
The value of the NCP in furthering the career ambitions of scholars is also ambiguous. A national survey of 1371 NCP students and alumni from across 40 universities found that while 89 percent of respondents found the experience useful for their CV, less than half felt their experience was valued by their current employer or helped with career promotion. Furthermore, existing attempts to maintain formal links with NCP alumni has proven patchy at best. The above survey found that only 27 percent of NCP alumni had joined the associated LinkedIn group, while only 1 in 10 had spoken about their NCP experience at a department or university event or had attended networking events with other NCP alumni.
Better leveraging of returning outbound students
Returning NCP scholars to Australia are an untapped resource that can be used to promote greater awareness of Asia. These scholars have the potential to be great storytellers regarding their experiences. While the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) website does feature interviews with past NCP scholars, more efforts need to be made to keep them engaged within the region longer term. Rather than serving merely as a resume builder for the scholars, longer term engagement with the region needs to be incorporated as a key focus of the program.
Improved mentor connectivity and job-ready nurturing programs on return for outbound students
Linked with the previous recommendation, returning NCP scholars need to have a more established pathway following their return to Australia. As part of this, greater awareness of the value of Asian literacy needs to be made clearer to industry as a job ready skill. This could take the form of a NCP graduate pathway for participating employers to opt-in to. DFAT, under the existing funding model, could subsidise these positions.
Reinstatement of general merit-based scholarships
Since the closure of the Endeavour Awards program in 2019, Australia lacks a dedicated merit-based scholarship program to support Australian postgraduate students studying in Asia or students from Asia who are looking to study short-term in Australia. This has particular implications for Southeast Asia, because of the traditional importance of education within these bilateral relationships. The NCP has a clear focus on assisting undergraduate students seeking to study in Asia. A reinstatement of a scholarship program with clear policy objectives focussed on post-graduate students would help to strengthen bilateral relationships within the region.
Contact Officer: Liam Detering
4 April 2023