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Student Mobility from Australia to the Indo-Pacific via the New Colombo Plan

hesb-03-06-student mobility from australia to indo pacific colombo plan-featured image

The latest figures from the OECD show that there are currently more than 5 million internationally mobile students, and this number is projected to reach 8 million by 2025. International student mobility, aimed at seeking full degrees overseas, is largely seen as a “South to North” phenomenon – a movement from developing to developed nations. Another significant dimension of student mobility is intra-degree student mobility, through which students undertake education abroad or an international experience component as part of their study programme. A notable example of this student mobility category is Australian students’ learning and engagement in the Indo-Pacific as part of their domestically delivered programs.
This mobility trend from Australia to the Indo-Pacific region, comprising Asia, the Pacific and the subcontinent, is often referred to as a “North to South” mobility phenomenon.

 

Student mobility has been considered a strategic tool to assist with the goal of nation states to develop human capital and enhance diplomatic, economic and cultural ties among countries worldwide. Although Australia has long been one of the three most popular destinations for international students, together with the US and the UK, its government and universities have also actively encouraged Australian students to travel abroad to study, especially over the past decade.

 

According to the Australian Universities International Directors’ Forum, the volume of Australian students learning abroad has risen by more than six-fold between 2005 and 2015, from 6,000 to 38,144. It is growing faster than ever, due to the introduction of the New Colombo Plan (NCP). Presently, about one in five Australian students undertake education abroad during their undergraduate study.

 

Australia recognises that its future is increasingly connected with the Indo-Pacific. In particular, approximately 80% of Australia’s trade and a majority of its biggest service export of over A$29 billion (US$22 billion) for international education are with Asia. The Australian government has made students’ engagement with and learning in the Indo-Pacific a national priority because of the importance of this region to the nation’s social, political and economic development.

 

Beginning in 2014, the NCP, which represents Australia’s signature initiative of student mobility and public diplomacy, aims to provide Australian undergraduate students with the exposure to the Indo-Pacific region and “broaden and deepen” Australia’s engagement in the region through “people-to-people connections”. According to the government, the number of Australian students funded by the NCP to undertake international experience and study in the Indo-Pacific will reach 31,000 by 2018.

 

The NCP represents a type of reciprocal international education and a reverse form of the original Colombo Plan. The Colombo Plan is the Australian government’s signature inbound mobility programme, which reflects the principle of international education as public diplomacy. The plan began in 1951 and provided aid to enable around 20,000 Asian scholars to study in Australia by 1985. Other premier mobility initiatives by the Australian government over the past four decades include the Endeavour Award programme and the AusAID scholarship programme (now Australian Awards Scholarships) and the Australian-Asian Universities Cooperation Scheme (AAUCS), which eventually became the International Development Programme (IDP) in 1981.

 

These mobility initiatives are partly underpinned by the ideology of education for nation building, despite being criticised as perpetuating the political, diplomatic and economic agenda of the provider country. Scholars who have been provided with the opportunities to study in Australia are expected to become key actors contributing to the development of their country and the relationships between their home and host countries upon return. In this regard, public diplomacy is constructed in line with an “education as aid” principle.

 

“MOBILITY AS CONNECTING” AND “MOBILITY AS BECOMING”

The extent to which the government’s goal of using student mobility as a tool for public diplomacy is largely under-researched. This topic is critical, given the current context in which both the government and institutions require evidence-based research and advice to formulate policies and initiatives that effectively harnesses the potential benefits of student mobility for individual students, institutions and the nation states.

 

Our research on Australian students’ engagement with learning and public diplomacy via the NCP addresses this important topic and thus generates some foundational knowledge about two important issues: the forms of learning Australian students undertake in Asia and the effects of their learning and regional engagement.

 

The research draws on Pierre Bourdieu’s notions of habitus and capital to interpret the extent to which the NCP students have developed their potential as an actor of public diplomacy. It indicates that the potential to employ student mobility as a mechanism of public diplomacy should be understood in relation to the concepts of “mobility as becoming” and “mobility as connecting”.

 

Firstly, “mobility as becoming” underscores how the NCP experience and exposure to Asia provides Australian students with new conditions and possibilities to transcend the ‘normal’ to the new “normal” and the new “possible”. This encompasses their evolving worldview of Asia, broadened understanding of the future chances and growing awareness of their “life possibles”. Deeper, broader and more sustaining engagement with Asia beyond the level of travel or tourism has become a new “possible” to the students. In certain instances, such a recognition of the new “possible” shapes and is shaped by what students want to do in their life.

 

Secondly, there is a critical need to frame student engagement with Asia through “mobility as connecting”, which underscores the students’ accumulation of embodied cultural and social capital as the enablers of their participatory capital in their engagement with Asia. Viewed through the lenses of “mobility as becoming” and “mobility as connecting”. NCP as education diplomacy can motivate students to transcend their initial goal of undertaking international mobility to pursue a personal interest in travel and/or enhancing their own employability towards engagement for the collective, through which students aspire to create additional meaning and connections between their education and the wider and “different” communities both inside and beyond Australia.

 

SUSTAINING STUDENT MOBILITY AS PUBLIC DIPLOMACY

There are three important factors that can help enhance and sustain the Australian students’ role as meaningful and productive actors in engagement with the Indo-Pacific. First, the mobility programme must help students develop participatory capital and transcend the level of awareness and understanding to more reflective and participatory capacity. Previous studies suggest that the pedagogy embedded in the design of the mobility programmes across the pre-departure, in-country and re-entry stages is of significance.

 

Engagement with the Indo-Pacific through the NCP program encompasses an array of educational activities situated in a different space from their home and their conventional education setting. Guided and structured learning through critical reflection and specific learning activities aimed at validating, integrating and extending students’ international experiences in the curriculum will be significant. These activities enable students to engage in productive and meaningful integration of international experience post return and beyond, capitalising on the potential impacts of the exposure to the Indo-Pacific on identity, life, career and capabilities. Without these, the learning and engagement may be at a superficial level and sometimes pose the risk of reinforcing imperialist perspectives or stereotypes about another culture and its practices to which students are exposed during their brief encounter with the Indo-Pacific.

 

Second, the awareness of the Australian identity and national attachment should be brought further to the fore in the pre-departure programme and reflections during the programme. Such consciousness provides students with the lens to view themselves as individuals and Australian citizens in intercultural interactions and connections with the Indo-Pacific.

 

Third, a critical need arises to promote Indo-Pacific engagement opportunities in Australia post-return, to transform students into active and sustaining actors of public diplomacy beyond in-country engagement. In this regard, the suggestion made by the head of Asia Options, an online platform for Australians interested in studying, working and living in Asia, is worth reiterating: to foster “Indo-Pacific engagement opportunities beyond engagement in-country” as well as to promote “the region back in Australia post return.”

 

Strategies and support to help NCP alumni become active and sustaining actors of public diplomacy beyond in-country experience are critical to harnessing student mobility as a mechanism of public diplomacy via sustaining, meaningful, and productive connections between Australian students and the Indo-Pacific.

 

This article is a short version of a forthcoming paper on the New Colombo Plan in Higher Education Quarterly.

LY THI TRAN

Ly Thi TRAN (Ly Tran) is Associate Professor in the School of Education, Deakin University and an Australian Research Council Future Fellow.

THAO THI PHUONG VU

Thao Thi Phuong VU is a PhD candidate at The University of Melbourne, Australia.

JANUARY 2018 | ISSUE 3

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Leaders and changemakers of today face unique and complex challenges. The HEAD Foundation Digest features insights and opinions from those in the know addressing a wide range of pertinent issues that factor in a society’s development. 

Informed opinions can inspire healthy discussions and open up our imagination to new possibilities. Interested in contributing? Write to us at info@headfoundation

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