Address to 2015 New Colombo Plan Launch

  • Speech, E&OE, (check against delivery)

Thank you Secretary Varghese, Ambassadors, High Commissioners, my colleagues from the Parliament – particularly my Parliamentary Secretary Brett Mason, Ewen Jones, Bridget McKenzie and Nick Champion representing the Opposition here today.

And to the friends of the New Colombo Plan, thank you for being here this afternoon as we embark on the next exciting phase of what I believe will be one of the most transformative foreign policy initiatives that Australian has embraced.

Last December the new Abbott Government announced that we would be undertaking a pilot program under what we dubbed the New Colombo Plan that would see Australian undergraduate students provided with funding from the Australian Government so that they could undertake courses to study at universities in four locations – Singapore, Indonesia, Japan and Hong Kong.

These locations were recommended to us by an advisory committee that had worked with me in opposition because they believed so passionately in the concept behind the New Colombo Plan. It was headed up by Kevin McCann and Vice Chancellor Sandra Harding who I can see here today. This committee suggested we start small, roll it out over time, and trial the locations – two in South Asia, two in North Asia. And standing here today, I am so delighted to confirm that the pilot program has been an outstanding success. 1300 young Australian undergraduates have taken part in three tranches of living, studying and working overseas.

The first were shorter course mobility grants and they were announced in March and I pay tribute to the universities who were able to - from the date of the announcement in December, to the announcement of the first mobility grant students in March – they were able to bring it all together, advertise, select and arrange with the host country university the accommodation of the students, in courses, and in their countries.

The second tranche was for longer courses, up to semester long courses, and they were announced in May, and then in June we announced those who are undertaking up to 12 month scholarships, 40 students, as well as the four New Colombo Plan Fellows for each of the four locations.

The New Colombo Plan has not only captured the imagination of Australian universities and Australian students and Australian business but I can attest from personal observation that it has been widely acknowledged as a significant program in the region.

A couple of weeks ago I was in Napyidaw at the ASEAN Regional Forum and about a dozen of the foreign ministers present there raised the New Colombo Plan in their set speech as an example of the connectivity, the engagement that our region – the Indian Ocean, the Asia Pacific - was seeking to embrace.

Australia's New Colombo Plan, like the original historic Colombo Plan from the 1950s, is all about building people-to-people links and networks and friendships and engagement that will last a lifetime, not only be a marvellous experience for the individual student, the young leaders of tomorrow who will spend time living and studying and importantly having a work experience overseas, but then they'll come back to Australia with new perspectives, new ideas, new insights, new understandings, new language skills. They'll add to the productivity and prosperity of our country, but so much more importantly, they'll be part of generations of young Australians interacting with young people in countries in our region. And that kind of connection is gold.

I've been so proud of the young people who are representing us overseas. Last weekend I was in Singapore for the 3 + 3 Ministerial Meeting. On the Friday evening at our High Commission in Singapore we invited the Singaporean Colombo Plan alumni. There were about 1000 Singaporeans between the 1950s and the 1980s who were awarded Colombo Plan scholarships under the original program and we reached out to that alumni, invited them along. Not all 1000, but a number of them, and we also invited the New Colombo Plan scholars who had recently arrived in Singapore and were undertaking various courses at NTU and NUS.

The original alumni announced that night that they believed it was time to return the hospitality that they'd received in Australia all those decades ago. And so they announced a hospitality program that will now be part of the New Colombo Plan in Singapore. The original Alumni Association will be providing opportunities for our young New Colombo Plan scholars to spend time with families, go to a market 9I suggested they might take them to that amazing bar Ku De Ta – that would be an experience in itself!) But they would take them into their homes, introduce them to their families and friends so that they could understand what it's like living in Singapore. And I hope that we'll be able to achieve this with the other countries that are now going to be part of the New Colombo Plan.

I'm so proud to announce today, that as of 2015, we are rolling out the New Colombo Plan beyond our four locations and over 35 countries are to be part of the New Colombo Plan from 2015 - 35 countries in our region.

The response has been overwhelming but we're up to the task. Our universities, our higher education sector, our businesses are working with businesses in the region to give our students an opportunity to carry out a practicum, or an internship, or work experience. It's so vital to the success of this plan because we want young Australians not just to have a great educational experience but to understand what it would be like to work in Asia, to work with Asian customers in Australia. It's this whole concept of Asia-literacy that is so very important for the future of our country and the future of our region.

And I don't think I can explain any better than the students themselves as to the importance of the New Colombo Plan and this interaction between governments – because we have needed to work at a government-to-government level on course accreditation, student visas, work visas and the like - the university sector but also the business sector.

Some of the comments from the students basically say it all. On the evening of the dinner, when we announced the 12-month New Colombo Plan scholars in the presence of the Patron of our program the Governor-General Sir Peter Cosgrove, there was a bright young girl who was speaking about the experience of studying overseas and she said at the time: "I expect to be challenged, I expect to be lost in translation and pushed beyond my comfort zone, but it's being outside my comfort zone that empowers one to adapt, to learn and to grow.

She was from Macquarie University, she was going to Hong Kong. I got a postcard from her the other day. This is what gets me out of bed in the mornings.

"Dear Honourable Julie Bishop, I personally write to you from Hong Kong as my studies under the New Colombo Plan come to an end. Hong Kong is a city like no other – never ending skyscrapers and even bigger dreams. Surviving and thriving in a non-English speaking country is challenging, but I come back to Australia fearless."

Now ladies and gentlemen, that's all I needed to hear from her. She's coming back fearless.

But there are others who have written to us or talked to us about their experience.

Ella Ward from the University of South Australia – she undertook an internship in Japan under a company called Japan Display Inc. It's a major developer and producer of LCD screens and related products and she worked in the offices there. And while she had in fact been to Japan previously on student exchanges, Rotary scholarships and the like, she wanted to experience what she said was "the unique opportunity" that an internship in Japan would bring. And she said it was "a completely different experience and an opportunity too good to pass up".

Through her internship she developed her language ability, her understanding of Japanese business culture and also learned a great deal about the day-to-day running of an international company. She also contributed to this company, to JDI, by providing English language support to her colleagues. As she explained – "the internship is a two-way street, it breaks down barriers and helps create friendships". And she said "I've also gained a lot of independence working in an entirely new culture where you can't rely on your background of knowledge or a safety net of language. I've made great connections and formed relationships that will influence my future career".

A young student by the name of Nicole Winter from Deakin University – she did a mobility program in Indonesia, studying a Bachelor of Social Work. And she studied Indonesian language and culture at Binus University and the Islamic University of Indonesia. She undertook a range of rural and industry visits with a community development focus and she said the program enhanced her understanding of Indonesian society and culture, "the program has enhanced my knowledge of the colourful and resilient nature of Indonesia, instilling in me a desire to see more of the neighbouring country and its friendly citizens".

Georgia Sadler, the University of Wollongong recently undertook a mobility program at the Hong Kong Institute of Education. She said of her time in Hong Kong that she "learned so much about the value of teaching and how it can be translated all over the world by simply going out and experiencing new places". Under this program the University of Wollongong student, and there was more than just Georgia, paired up with students from the Hong Kong Institute to research and compare education practices in Hong Kong and Australia. "We had the opportunity to meet academics, school students and parents and expand on their knowledge of school and university systems." But for her she said the biggest reward was the friendships formed with partner-host students at the Hong Kong Institute of Education. "I'm still in contact with many of these today and I'll probably continue to be for many years to come. Some of the students are even coming out to study in Australia this year which will be fantastic for us to return the favour." And the most challenging part, she said, was "everything is very fast-paced and everyone is so organised all the time. It was a good learning curve." She said she thought the New Colombo Plan was an initiative that aimed to strengthen the ties between Australian and the Indo-Pacific region. It's about building relationships to keep the coming generations connected through education and, in the future, she wants to teach English overseas.

So these are the kind of stories that we're getting from our students who have been on the New Colombo Plan scholarships and I am so delighted that with the backing of our Prime Minister, with the support of the Opposition, with the support of the very capable officials in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and in the Department of Education, we have been able to present what I think is a transformational foreign policy.

I hope that in years to come we will look back at the New Colombo Plan and see that it has done for Australia and the region what the original Colombo Plan did between the 1950s and the 1980s when 40,000 young people came to Australia to study in our universities and live among our families and communities. And today those New Colombo Plan, those original Colombo Plan scholars are among the Presidents, the Cabinet Ministers, the business leaders, the community leaders, the family leaders of those countries. That is what I wish for the New Colombo Plan scholars.

So with that I am very proud to launch the New Colombo Plan in 2015. The pilot program is coming to an end. The success of the pilot program has informed our thinking and the New Colombo Plan will be even bigger and better in the future. And of all the policies, and of all the rhetoric that passes about engagement in the region – it's investing in our young people, it's investing in our future that will ensure that Australia is a strong and prosperous economy, a safe and secure nation, within a strong and prosperous region, a safe and secure region.

Media enquiries