Reverse Colombo needs cash to match Asia ambitions - Groundwork must be done for the plan to succeed

18 September 2013

Julie Bishop has a vision. The incoming foreign minister wants to change the way Australia engages with the Asia-Pacific.

How? By sending large numbers of Australian undergraduates to study and work in the region as part of their degree.

Bishop is thinking big. She is also thinking long term. Like the original Colombo Plan in which thousands of Asian students studied in Australia from the 1950s to 1980s she wants this new primarily outwardbound scheme to last for decades, not just an electoral cycle or two.

Tony Abbott has committed $100 million for a five-year pilot scheme and a trial has been scheduled for next year.

Bishop has been working hard to generate support among business, consulting widely and identifying champions such as ANZ and the Macquarie Group.

The response has been encouraging. For the plan to work, it is also vital, however, to generate demand among students, get academics on board, and allay the concerns of university administrators that the program could force them to redirect resources or divert federal funding from other programs in the sector.

First, there's the question of demand. Student mobility into Asia is difficult to promote. Students and their parents overwhelmingly favour well-trodden paths to Europe and North America.

Parents also worry about threats to their children's welfare in countries they don't know and don't understand.

To some extent, these fears reflect the fact that so few of our students are Asia-ready.

Only those with a background in Asian languages and the pitiably small number of students with years of language training behind them can take classes taught in an Asian language. Asian universities increasingly offer degrees taught in English, but students 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.

The mismatch between higher education systems is also a challenge.

In tightly accredited professional degrees in particular, it can be difficult to get credit for any overseas study. Standards are rising and Asia is home to several undeniably world-class universities. But there are legitimate concerns about quality in some parts of the region.

To succeed, the plan must provide certainty and structural incentives for universities.

The big problem with AsiaBound and other mobility schemes funded by the previous government was their limited availability and emphasis on pilot programs. The absence of ongoing funding meant programs could not be embedded into the curriculum. It also meant that they too often relied on the enthusiasm and goodwill of a few academics.

On the face of it, these obstacles could seem insurmountable. Bishop is certainly aware of their seriousness. But with a bit of tweaking the new Colombo plan just might succeed. The key as steering committee chairman Kevin McCann has said is to recognise the importance of supporting different kinds of mobility.

The experience at the University of Sydney and elsewhere points to the benefits of short-term mobility as a way of introducing relatively large numbers of students to Asia.

Properly funded, the introduction of a large-scale shortterm mobility element into the new Colombo plan would tick the box in terms of maximising student exposure to Asia and potentially generate demand for the longer study programs and internships at the heart of Bishop's vision.

It is also vital that students are prepared for study in Asia. The soft-diplomacy benefits of the scheme will be jeopardised if we send students with no language skills and lithe cultural training.

Language and intercultural awareness are even more important for internships.

Business buy-in can be maintained only if interns make a positive contribution. Only those who have demonstrated a commitment to Asia, through in-country study and language training, for example, should be considered for this elite part of the scheme.

It is possible to shift from the smattering of Asia study options available to a more universal scheme but only if all facets of that shift are acknowledged and funded. Governments routinely ask the higher education sector to help them achieve social outcomes without covering costs.

In the case of the new Colombo plan, student and staff travel, academic and pastoral support, program development and quality assurance must all be fully funded if universities are to ensure the success of this initiative in a period where our internal resources are under great stress.

High standards will help students see participation in an Asian study or work program as something to aspire to.

It will also enhance their experience while they are there and generate excitement in Asia about the students we send.

Michael Spence is the vice-chancellor of the University of Sydney.

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