The Asian Century has arrived and Australians with Asian study experience will be best placed to take advantage of it.
But if we are to educate and prepare our graduates for the Asian Century and all the uncertainties it presents, then the best place for at least part of that education is in Asia.
If we want Australian graduates to be able to operate comfortably in an Asian language, with an ability to interact productively with Asian communities, to understand how to adjust to a different culture, then ideally a semester or a year in an Asian country as part of an undergraduate degree should become common place.
To have such a positive educational experience in Asia, students need institutional support and financial means. If this experience is to be available for all, we cannot ignore the issues of financial equity and assistance for students with disabilities.
Both of those hurdles can be managed by a well prepared program for students. While it may be expensive to study in a metropolis like Tokyo, Shanghai or Hong Kong, an Australian student could study in most places in Asia for less than they would pay studying in an Australian capital city.
Students who go to Indonesia, for example, can generally live quite comfortably on a level equivalent to OS-Help or Centrelink payments. Some even save money or manage extended travel during holidays.
Both the government and coalition are committed to scholarship programs to support in-country study in Asia. Such schemes could be re-calibrated to provide enhanced support for students with limited financial means, and to provide particular funding for students with special needs.
For in-country study in Asia to be accessible to all, provision must be made for students with special needs. Individual universities are often inadequately equipped to support students with disabilities going to Asia.
That’s where institutional support through an organisation such as the Australian Consortium of In-Country Indonesian Studies (ACICIS) can help.
When ACICIS assisted an Australian student with sight impairment to study in Indonesia, they were the first such disabled student to enrol at the host university. Liaising between the home and host universities, and having ACICIS staff on the ground in Indonesia, the consortium was able to ensure appropriate provisions and support were available for the student.
Challenges that might have proved insurmountable were managed and resolved, with the student completing their semester without any major problems. On the basis of this shared experience, the host university subsequently adopted a much more open admission policy for such disabled local students.
Australian universities gearing up for outbound mobility into Asia need to recognise that it’s not just a matter of dispatching a student to Asia and hoping they will be alright.
That’s the benefit of having the infrastructure in place to support students. Collectively, universities are far better able to provide such an infrastructure than they are as individual, competing institutions.
We cannot assume the same sorts of support services – medical, counselling, academic, disability support – are available in universities in our region that might be provided routinely on Australian campuses.
Locating an English speaking counsellor may be a challenge in many host universities in Asia. It is important to have a good local support structure in place, preferably with an experienced Resident Director on hand to identify students at risk, and to intervene if necessary.
Living like the locals
Throughout most of Asia, an Australian student prepared to adjust to living alongside local students and accepting that standard of living would incur no major financial burden. Student dorms are widely available and a reasonable standard of living and access to adequate health care and decent food is available.
Under most agreements, Australian students pay for their enrolment in the host university in Asia through their HECS, without additional tuition fees. Their university would manage the payment of fees out of the funding that comes to the home universities through HECS and Commonwealth government funding.
Study abroad requires forward planning. Students need to adjust their personal lives and their employment status so they can get a semester or a year away, and that needs thought and preparation. But with the Asia-bound scholarships to be announced soon, this is a perfect opportunity to spend a semester in Asia, and students will be looking to their universities to support them in that.
So, students, even if you were not successful in getting a scholarships, if you do your homework and look at the cost of living in Asia you should be able to identify a study abroad program that would cost no more than a semester living in Australia. There is no excuse: get out and into Asia.