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Aussie plan to engage in region via students

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Sept 14, 2013

After years of receiving masses of students from Asian countries such as Singapore, Australia will send its young people to pick up some lessons from the region.

Under an ambitious A$100 million (S$126.3million) scheme - the brainchild of the incoming Abbott government - Australian university students will get a chance to study in the Asia-Pacific.

The plan, called the New Colombo Plan, is due to begin next year and is designed to reverse the longstanding trend of hundreds of thousands of Asian students coming to Australia compared with relatively few Australians studying in the Asia-Pacific region.

The plan forms a major foreign policy plank of the new government and has been described by Prime Minister-elect Tony Abbott as a "triumph of soft power".

The five-year scheme will include scholarships for Australian students to study abroad for up to a year and to work and be mentored at local businesses, government offices, or non-government organisations.

The office of incoming Foreign Minister Julie Bishop confirmed to The Straits Times yesterday that she will start work on implementing the scheme as soon as she is sworn in next week. A trial is due to start next year with 300 students, probably in Singapore, Indonesia, Japan and Hong Kong.

The plan is an updated version - or a reversal - of Australia's original post-war Colombo Plan, which sponsored 40,000 Asian students coming to Australia to study from 1950 to 1980. Singapore joined that plan in 1963.

While Australia will strongly encourage Asian students to continue to come, the new plan will focus on sending Australians abroad. Mr Abbott announced details of the plan on Aug 30, days before his landslide win in last Saturday's election.

Many people from Asia "have beaten a path to our door over the last 40 or 50 years" and many Asian leaders had studied under the original Colombo Plan, he said at the time.

"More of us must reciprocate," he added.

The scheme is expected to be fully running from 2015 and will cover countries from Pakistan to those in the south Pacific.

Last year alone, more than 100,000 university students from Asia received visas to study in Australia. The number of Australian students heading to Asia is believed to be a fraction of that number.

Mr Abbott, a Rhodes Scholar, went to Oxford and his eldest daughter Louise studied in France and Switzerland.

But making the case for Australians to look towards Asia, he said: "More of us should go to Asia, because if our future is in our region, as it must be, we need to be ever more deeply engaged in our region."

Professor Anthony Milner, an expert on Australia-Asia relations from the Australian National University and Asialink, said the new plan marked a change in Australia's thinking. The original Colombo Plan came at a time when most countries in the region were far poorer and less developed than Australia, he said.

"It is symbolic of a realisation that we are in a new era," he told The Straits Times.

The new Colombo Plan also showed that relations between Australia and the region were becoming more reciprocal, Prof Milner noted.

"We welcome more people to study in Australia," he said. "But the nice thing about this is that we not only have something to offer. We have something to learn in the region."

jonathanmpearlman@gmail.com

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Sept 14, 2013To subscribe to The Straits Times, please go to http://www.sphsubscription.com.sg/eshop/