My goal is to see study in the Indo-Pacific region become a rite of passage to benefit us all

  • Articles and op-ed

SIXTY years ago, the minister for external affairs in the Menzies government, Percy Spender, on his way to Sri Lanka to sign Australia up to the Colombo Plan, said our destiny as a nation was "irrevocably conditioned by what takes place in Asia".

Now, more than ever, Australia's future lies in the Indo-Pacific region. Global economic power is shifting markedly from West to East. Our prosperity and security depends on being a part of that shift.

I am convinced of the need to encourage more Australian students to study in our region. When we increase the number of student exchanges between countries, we enhance our personal networks, share our world view and increase our understanding of each other and the way we do business.

However, the number of Australian students studying in our region remains low.

Fewer than 500 studied in Indonesia last year, compared to the more than 17,000 Indonesians who came to Australia to learn.

To address this imbalance, yesterday I launched Australia's New Colombo Plan. This signature Coalition initiative will lift Australians' knowledge of Indo-Pacific countries by providing opportunities for Australia's best and brightest undergraduates to undertake study and internships in the region.

We are honoured Governor-General Quentin Bryce has agreed to be the official patron of the plan, in recognition of its potential to bring long-term benefit to Australia.

The government has committed $100 million over the next five years for the program. A pilot phase involving Indonesia, Japan, Singapore and Hong Kong starts next year, and from 2015 the program will be rolled out more broadly across the region.

The New Colombo Plan pilot program offers a range of options to suit different students' study needs. A scholarships program will provide full support for students to undertake up to a year of study at a university in one of the pilot locations and a mobility grants program will support a range of study experiences from short term up to one year.

For the pilot phase, next year the government will award 40 undergraduate scholarships and 700 mobility grants.

But what really sets the New Colombo Plan apart is the opportunity it provides for students to gain work experience. By undertaking a work placement in conjunction with their study, New Colombo Plan students will return to Australia work-ready and Asia literate, having built academic, personal and professional networks in their country of study.

The New Colombo Plan will help build an Australian workforce with the skills and experience needed to boost our productivity and innovation, and facilitate further economic integration with Asia. It is a concept that has already been welcomed by businesses in Australia and the region.

The government will continue to work closely with business, universities and our regional partners in the years ahead to ensure the program has their continued support and is on track to meet its ambitious objectives.

My goal is to see study in the Indo-Pacific region become a rite of passage. Through living in the region, learning languages, forging friendships and exchanging ideas, young Australians will return home with the skills and perspectives to support our growth in a changing world.

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