Opposition promises A$100 million ‘New Colombo Plan’

As part of its goal of winning government next weekend, Australia’s federal Opposition has promised A$100 million (US$89 million) over five years to create a ‘New Colombo Plan’ that will offer 300 undergraduate Australians the chance to study for one or two semesters in the Asian region each year.

The scheme would be the reverse of the original Colombo plan, in which 40,000 future leaders from Asia came to study in Australia through the 1950s to the 1980s.

But Opposition leader Tony Abbott said the scheme would be a "two-way street", with more Asian students coming to study in Australia as well as Australians travelling to Asia.

Speaking at Melbourne University on Friday, Abbott committed A$100 million to the project, with a pilot programme to be in place next year, and a full scheme to be in place by 2015.

"That's what this New Colombo Plan is all about; it's about ensuring that we are a truly Asia-literate country, it's about ensuring we can take full advantage of the coming Asian Century," Abbott said.

The original plan was a "triumph in Australian soft power" but this time the country must reciprocate, he said. "It cannot be a one-way street. It must be a two-way street. We have as much to learn from our friends and neighbours in the region, as they have to learn from us."

Belinda Robinson, chief executive of Universities Australia, said the scheme was a practical demonstration of Australia’s commitment to the Asian region, especially as it would be a tripartite approach involving business and NGOs, governments, and universities, encouraging undergraduates not only to study in the Asia-Pacific region but also to undertake internships with businesses or NGOs in the host country.

“Australian universities have been trailblazers in integrating Australia into the Asia-Pacific region through the provision of higher education to international students; staff and student exchanges; research collaboration; and transnational education,” Robinson said.

“The New Colombo Plan will build on this track record by providing further encouragement and incentives for Australian students to incorporate a comprehensive Asia-Pacific study experience within their undergraduate degree programme.

“This will not only benefit the student but will demonstrate Australia’s commitment and help to cement Australia’s place within the fastest growing region in the world.”

But she said that only 13% of undergraduates would have an international study experience over the course of their degree, and the number needed to be increased “if we are to make meaningful headway in improving Australia’s Asian capability".

She said the inclusion of an internship component in the programme added necessary depth to the scheme that would position students well with future employers on their return to Australia.

Simon Marginson, a professor of higher education at Melbourne, said the scheme was “an initiative of substance”, although with 300 outgoing students and an unknown number incoming, the scale was small.

“But in the current fiscal climate that is inevitable and, if the scheme works, it is likely to grow,” Marginson said.

“It may also attract some non-government support but I am wary of the preference for outgoing students to be interned with or mentored by Australian business, NGOs or other organisations in the region.

“It would be better if the outgoing students were free to find their own pathways into Asia.”