The Coalition government has begun its term in office with some controversial policy proposals related to Australia’s international engagement. These include cuts to international aid, hardline responses to asylum seekers and, less controversially, revisiting the Colombo Plan. They reflect a series of tensions arising in Australia’s engagement with the region. Education is seen to play a significant role in “soft diplomacy”.
The 2013 edition of How Young People are Faring, published by the Foundation for Young Australians (FYA), highlights some key trends in young people’s transition from school to work, study and training related to their cultural backgrounds, as well as Australia’s economic relationship to the region. It pulls into focus certain cultural and economic challenges for the Coalition government that require a nuanced understanding of some key dynamics of Australia’s engagement with Asia.
These dynamics suggest that any strategy to engage the region should recognise this engagement as a two-way street; one that flows inwards and outwards and which should draw from a nexus between local and international education.
Modern Australia is defined by its cultural diversity. As demographer Graeme Hugo points out, there are 62 birthplace groups with more than 10,000 members in Australia, making it “one of the most ethnically diverse in the world”.
Asia looms large in Australia’s cultural makeup. One in five young Australians speaks a language other than English at home (mostly an Asian language). Five of the top ten languages spoken at home include Mandarin, Cantonese, Vietnamese, Hindi and Tagalog.
The authors of the FYA report from the National Centre for Vocational Education Research (NCVER) note that the rate of achievement of Year 12 and higher education qualifications for 20-24 year olds from non-English speaking backgrounds is far higher than for Australia as a whole. A challenge to the Coalition government is to understand what is going on in these households and if/how this understanding can be applied across the population in general.
Speaking the language of the region
Looking outwards, the Coalition has promised A$100 million to fund a new Colombo Plan in the form of a five-year pilot scheme and trial next year. This will seek to encourage Australian undergraduates to study and work in the region as part of their degree.
In a speech in June last year, then-opposition leader Tony Abbott announced that the new plan:
…doesn’t just bring the best and the brightest from our region to Australia but that takes Australia’s best and brightest to our region.
Abbott recognises that our engagement with regional economies is vital to future prosperity. Citing research by Asialink, the FYA report highlights that Australia conducts more trade with Asia than the rest of the world combined and that Asia’s real GDP will more than double from US$26 trillion in 2011 to US$67 trillion in 2030. This amounts to more than the projected GDP of the Americas and Europe combined.
In the same 2012 speech, Abbott added:
We should better appreciate not just how much Australia can give our neighbours but how much they can give us, in cultural insights as well as in trade benefits. But that’s hard when there are, for instance, 17,000 Indonesians studying here but only some 200 Australians studying there.
So a modern version of the Colombo Plan, operating as a two way rather than as a one way street… should reinforce our own and overseas future leaders’ understanding of all the things we have in common.
Recent evidence is unequivocal that Australian education is failing to meet the most basic requirement of regional engagement: language. University of Sydney vice-chancellor Michael Spence reminds us that:
…so few of our students are Asia-ready…[S]tudents are unlikely to fully embrace Asia - or to be of any use to Asia-based businesses - if they can’t communicate in a local language.
As Asialink’s Kathe Kirby points out, most students in other developed countries exit schooling with two or more languages. Thus allowing greater work opportunities in an interconnected world.
But in 2010, only 18% of Australian school students studied an Asian language, decreasing to only 5.4% by Year 12. Indonesian was losing 10,000 students a year. If the pattern continues, Kirby argues, there may be no students studying Indonesian at Year 12 by 2020.
This deficit flows on to Australian business - less than half of 380 businesses surveyed by Asialink and the Australian Industry Group reported having any board members or senior executives with Asian experience or language ability. Taking Australia’s “best and brightest to our region” requires policy and business engagement to develop the necessary cultural and linguistic capacity of Australians to properly engage the region.
The role of business and NGOs is seen to be an important base of support for the revitalised Colombo Plan, for example, through internships. This is a good idea which needs to fully acknowledge that relations with Asia must be a two-way street based on a strong, long-term commitment to language education, the development of cultural competencies, in-country study and other hands-on experience.
A two-way street
Other recent research from Monash University highlights another challenge to the government: temporary migrant workers who may be taking away jobs from young Australians. The authors, Bob Birrell and Ernest Healy, point out that in the year to May 2013, there was a rise of 168,000 recently-arrived overseas born migrants aged over 15 in Australia - 108,200 of whom were employed. This is almost as large as the increase in employment during that period (126,000).
In 2012-13, the number of Working Holiday Maker (WHM) visas issued was roughly equivalent to the number of school leavers who enter the workforce each year (around 250,000). These WHMs are aged 30 or less and seeking work in Australia, rather than a holiday supplemented by work. As a consequence, many young Australians “are seeking refuge in low-level training courses because of lack of employment opportunities”.
Even so, migration will play a major role in sustaining the Australian labour force. Given the ageing of the population, young adults make up a smaller proportion overall than previously. The workforce arguably has to come from somewhere, unless either fertility rates change significantly or sustainable alternatives can be proactively developed.
Other considerations, such as better meeting the needs of the international students already in Australia, have also been raised.
Big picture policy
With the Coalition government’s focus on Asia through education, a fresh opportunity arises to engage the region beyond the “business as usual” and pilot project-based funding to approaches that have too often been the case in the past. Responses need to be adequately resourced and deeply embedded in our education curricula and workplace practices.
They should join the dots between Australia’s existing cultural fabric and challenges to cement our pathways to and from the region, and demonstrate that Australia means business.