Australia-Japan trade agreement boosts university ties

The signing of a free trade agreement between Australia and Japan last Monday has boosted the prospects for greater involvement between the two nations' universities, with Australia seeking to accelerate university, research and business ties with Japan.

Chief executive of Universities Australia, Belinda Robinson, is travelling with Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott as part of a trade delegation to Japan and China.

Speaking in Tokyo following the signing of the free trade agreement, Robinson said that Australian universities had had a long and close relationship with their Japanese counterparts but that a new strategy was needed to broaden and deepen higher education links between the two countries.

She noted that Australia's new 'Colombo Plan' includes Japan as one of four nations involved in a trial of the scheme this year.

As part of his goal of winning government last September, Abbott promised A$100 million (US$92 million) over five years to create a 'New Colombo Plan' that would 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 Abbott said the new scheme would be a "two-way street", with more Asian students coming to study in Australia as well as Australians travelling to Asia.

During the pilot year, 40 scholarships will be awarded to students for study in Japan, Hong Kong, Indonesia and Singapore.

Robinson said Australia and Japan were both looking at encouraging graduates with the requisite knowledge, skills and work experience to be "globally competitive citizens employable anywhere in the world".

"Universities appreciate the high-level support for closer higher education ties with Japan provided by Prime Minister Abbott who formally launched Japan's participation in the New Colombo Plan during this visit," she said, adding that this would lift the number of Australians studying in Japan and encourage greater numbers of Japanese students to study in Australia.

Although the Japanese government has tripled funding to encourage more of its students to study abroad, fewer than 10,000 are enrolled in Australian education institutions, most in English language colleges.

But Robinson said Australian universities were well placed to attract greater numbers of Japanese students.

She said a higher education roundtable held during the visit was a "step up in deepening and expanding the relationship with the Japanese higher education sector".

Universities Australia was also exploring models for joint degree programmes with Japanese universities by identifying synergies in respective research strengths and developing faculty and staff exchange programmes, Robinson said.