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Colombo II: send students to Asia but don’t ignore the Asian students at home

Much has changed from the first Colombo plan, but Australia’s engagement with Asia should start at home. Asia image from

Now it’s in government, the Coalition says one of its top priorities is international education. Along with policies to encourage international students to study here, Australian students, too, will be offered the chance to go to Asia as part of the government’s New Colombo Plan.

It’s been termed the “New” Colombo Plan because it takes its name from the original Colombo Plan of the 1950s. Unlike the new policy, the aim of the previous plan, launched in the chill of the Cold War, was not to “engage with Asia” but instead to keep Communist Asia far from Australia’s doorstep.

Ironically, that meant bringing some Asians – non-Communists - closer. Participating students would then return home, western-educated, and promote a sympathetic vision of Australian and western values in the newly decolonised nations of the region.

On this basis, the scheme was highly successful, particularly for the students themselves, many of whom went on to become leaders in their home countries.

There is no reason to think the New Colombo Plan will not be as successful as the original, though its intentions are different. But more could be borrowed than simply the name. Taking on board the hallmark of the original plan and focusing more deliberately on Asian students already coming to Australia might bring “engaging with Asia” a significant step closer.

International blueprint

Appropriating the Colombo label means the Abbott government’s new scheme inherits the favourable brand recognition of its predecessor. But the two Colombo plans are very different, the former with its emphasis on bringing Asian students in, the other on sending Australians “Asia-bound” (as the previous government’s very similar plan put it).

What seems most lacking from the Coalition’s plan is a strongly focused attempt to acknowledge the needs of the international, particularly Asian, students we already have in this country. Their numbers now far outstrip the thousands who came earlier as part of the Colombo plan or as privately-funded international students.

The Chaney report into international education released in February this year recommended promoting a “positive experience” for international students, by maintaining “an open and friendly learning environment where international students are valued members of the community and are supported to achieve their goals”.

From ambassadors to trade statistics

But unfortunately, we have seen the morphing of the international student from regional ambassador into little more than a figure on our balance of trade. As ANU associate professor Nicholas Brown has pointed out, international students are now more likely to be viewed as “human capital”.

Their value is measured in terms of university statistics to quantify “campus internationalisation”. They are seen as a solution to higher education funding problems and, at a national level, a contribution to our significant trade in international education.

The social experiences of earlier waves of international students were not universally positive; but research suggests that current international students are even less likely to be successfully integrated into Australian university culture.

As the value of the sector declines by up to 25%, we have seen new education minister Christopher Pyne promising to tackle the “international education” market. Those interested in issues of international education beyond the financial, though, can only hope his government will recognise and facilitate the two-way benefits of enhanced social and cultural integration.

Global 30

Australia is not alone in facing this problem, which is shared by the United Kingdom and the United States, as well as non-western countries such as China, Japan and Korea.

Recognising the historical difficulty of getting its own students to go abroad, the Japanese government is now promoting its own ambitious policy, similar to the first Colombo plan, called the Global 30 project. Designed to bring 300,000 international students to study in Japan, the hallmark of the scheme is for students to study in English at handpicked Japanese universities, but they will do so alongside Japanese students.

The government wants the program to “create an academic environment where international and Japanese students can learn from one another and build lasting international bonds”.

Cross-cultural benefits should be immediate and two way, but the overarching intention is less soft power diplomacy through education, as we saw in Australia in the 1950s, but “propelling” Japanese students into the international scene.

While the success of the scheme has not yet been assessed, the coalition could learn from its vision and commendable approach.

Engaging with Asia at home

Higher educational institutions should do more to assist in the educational and social integration of Asian students, if only because we take their money and educational integration ought to be part of the package. Indeed, many Australian educators are presently working on this. But educational institutions are largely failing to capitalise on the resources already in their classrooms.

The Abbott government has produced an exciting agenda for engagement in the region. Getting domestic students to talk to the international students sitting on the other side of the classroom, though, could be a half way decent alternative. They might all appreciate it. And it’s much cheaper than going to Singapore.

By taking a retro-view of the original plan, the drivers of the New Colombo plan have an opportunity to re-figure the Asian students who feature so prominently in our universities as cultural, educational and even regional assets for Australia. Simultaneously, we can offer them more positive engagement with Australia.

For Australian students who are not – as well as those who are - Asia-bound, in 21st century Australia, engagement with Asia can surely begin at home.

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