Asian capability skilling: No time for polite conversations

No matter where one looks, the prevailing advice is for Australia to authentically engage with Asia for the benefit of trade and regional security.

Even before the change of national government in May 2022, there was an emerging chorus of pro-Asia warblers keen to commence a national conversation. Asia observer Michael Wesley reminded all Australians of our “interest in fostering a rich, vibrant national conversation about what is important, what we should change, and how we should relate to our immediate neighbourhood”.

That narrative should arise from conversations held in and with the many universities, think tanks and other vested interests, suggests Wesley. But by what alchemy could that complex relationship with the many nations that constitute the Asia engagement narrative come alive?

In the same week, Australia’s then prime minister Scott Morrison reinforced that “the government's emphasis [is] the need for universities to be practically and commercially oriented”.

Greater workforce mobility

No time for polite conversations: swift ‘trailblazing’ reorientations will be rewarded with much-needed funding. Universities are advised to facilitate “greater workforce mobility between businesses and universities, offering courses in priority areas that are endorsed by industry”.

Given that 65% of Australia’s two-way 2019-20 trade was with Asia, and the top three export destinations are also in Asia, representing 52.9% of all exports, the prime minister’s directive spotlights a direct link with a policy to trade with Asia.

As Australia pensively awaited political clarity, David Morris of the Sustainable Business Network in the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP) suggested Australia was at a tipping point: “Australia needs to restructure its economy to realise the opportunities of renewable energy, new technologies, new jobs and new infrastructure needed for the green and technological industrial revolution...

“It needs a serious debate and, ultimately, a grand strategy to position itself to be safe and to prosper from the changing world balance, by learning how to better build partnerships with its own region and globally.”

But is suggesting debate and conversation enough to lead Australia’s regional connection?

With the change to a national government and a positive interpretation of the regional map, Australia looks to be striving for a strategic and commercial relationship with her Asian neighbours and partners.


Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong’s media release regarding her July visit to Singapore and Indonesia states that trade and security matters are paramount to Australia’s interests in the region.

This is a theme explored by Yohanes Kristianto writing about the new Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s swift visit to Indonesia.

He notes that there are two reasons why Indonesia is a critical partner to Australia: first, to strengthen influence in Southeast Asia to balance China’s regional influence; and second, to find balance in the regional trade war with China – objectives that require greater skills than conversation and debate.

Building to a crescendo in the pro-Asia and Indonesia-focused chorus, Tim Lindsey and Tim Mann from the University of Melbourne hit the most uncomfortable high note of all: “Indonesia does not need Australia.”

Their analysis that Indonesia is disengaged with Australia is supported by one of the authors who worked with Indonesian bureaucrats. Aware of its rising economic status, Indonesia has its sights on the economies that will surpass them, not lag behind them in the forthcoming years.

To counter further alienation, Lindsey and Mann offer five suggestions for the Australian government to develop an authentic relationship with Indonesia: increase aid to Indonesia; focus on soft diplomacy; open an Australia centre; make it easier for Indonesians to visit; and start funding Indonesian studies again – initiatives and skills that call for action by government and educationalists, rather than discussion.

The sale of higher education

Australian tertiary education institutions already have their eye on the trade priority area of Asia. But the balance of interest remains in the sale of international education.

Success in this export equals a remunerative hymn for the tertiary sector and the national economy: eight of the top 10 main markets for international students are Asian. Thus, the swift about-face on quarantine barriers for returning international students in the very same week as the former prime minister’s call for a restructure of Australian universities is not altogether surprising.

Also seeking a self-effacing narrative, the Group of Eight universities saw the border opening as a ‘reward’ and believed universities would benefit as “fully vaccinated eligible visa holders including international students ... return to Australia from 1st December 2021, signal[ing] the beginning of an exciting new phase for Australia’s fourth largest export industry – international education”.

Superficially, Wesley’s call for an Australian narrative for advancing fairly with Asia is being answered: learned opinions are being increasingly published for the pro-Asia lobby to agree with. However, the prevailing narrative has always been one of trade: trade in trepang, natural resources and prime produce – raw and refined.

On balance, the gentle narrative as advocated by Wesley was knocked away with the brutalist economic imperative of advancing the Australian economy in the post-COVID-19 trading regime. Australia has rolled up her sleeves and deployed her traditional trading bulwark*: growing trade with Asia.

In this (post)-COVID, post-election and post-traditional workforce world, a trading narrative that is authentically engaged with Asia and the region will need graduates prepared to implement evolving trading strategies and to identify new trading trends as they emerge.

The Group of Eight universities further lamented: “Asia capabilities are skills, not characteristics. They are like skills in digital or finance or law. It’s not a question of diversity but of making sure that people with the right skills and experiences are making decisions about an Asia strategy.”

The question then becomes: where do individuals gain the skills so valued by business? Companies do not question that digital or legal competencies are the remit of universities to provide graduates with work-ready skills. Indeed, ‘digital (IT), finance and law’ are mainstays in many universities.

Yet the historical understanding of ‘Asian Studies’ seems to exclude the current demand for Asia capability skilling for enhancing trade relationships. Here is where Australian Business Schools hold the most advantage.

A new Asian-facing model

We agree with the 2021 Asia Taskforce which succinctly requests the dissolving of precursor Asian Studies models from the last 40 years and advocates for new academic models to meet the need for Asian-capable graduates: structural but practical and achievable adjustments need to be made to our national Asia capability policies.

Asia is different and for many, it is uncomfortably so. Experience tells us that success will require businesses to work closely with government agencies to develop a deeper understanding of our neighbourhood – its cultures, politics, societies and economies. If we don’t, companies are destined to make the same mistakes as others before them and the outcomes will inevitably be the same.

Preceding models of Asian education brought Asia literacy to the fore of national education policy and debates for the benefit of Australia’s regional development. But a new model is required for ensuring Australia’s Asian engagement capabilities are fit for a more competitive external landscape and the challenges that lie ahead.

A comprehensive and authentic Asian connection requires competencies to be considered as a critical national asset that requires ongoing investment by business, government and universities.

It should be noted here that the business community is by no means silent on the absence of Asia-focused education. These important stakeholders warn through their media and research releases that transactional relationships with Asia can be limiting if broader understanding between the partners is not also developed.

Skills gap

Filling the skills gap will be essential if Australia wishes to fulfil opportunities found in the Asian economies.

Opportunities for Australian trade will only be revealed as Australians become better at engaging and adapting to regional market conditions, cultural realities and business environments. Opportunity, too, requires domestic know-how to uncap Australia’s unique assets in the burgeoning ecosystem.

What we can predict with confidence is that the regional market ecosystem will only continue to grow and be more complex.

Government Asian engagement programmes, such as the New Colombo Plan (NCP) expressly support the immersion of Australian students in Asian trade and knowledge economies. Predictions on the economic rise of Asia underpin the NCP programme. Government funding linked to ‘work integrated learning’ further reinforces the importance of preparing students to be work ready in an Asian-facing economy.

Given the business community acknowledges that more than 90% of ASX200 directors (Australia’s leading stock market companies) do not meet the competency requirements to be considered ‘Asia capable’, educating and graduating future business leaders who are fit for purpose at every level of business in an Asian-led global economy requires business school education to pivot as soon and sensibly as possible.

Taking up Asian capability skilling as part of business school offerings becomes a triple bottom line win: international and national fees, government funding and support and positive business engagement possibilities.

Anne Cullen is a lecturer in Asian business at Griffith University, Australia, and Dr Dennis C McCornac is assistant professor of economics at Georgetown University in Qatar.

*The authors do not interpret this resolution to be an ignoring of politico-strategic complexities: they remain and continue to compound. Rather, Australia has always nimbly continued in her transactional relationship with Asia almost independently of political realities.