New Colombo Plan launch, Bangkok 2015

  • Speech, E&OE

His Excellency General Tanasak, ambassadors, distinguished guests, friends of Australia, friends of Thailand.

I'm absolutely delighted to be here today at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to launch the New Colombo Plan in Thailand.

The New Colombo Plan is a programme that is very important to the Australian Government, and it's one of which I am personally very proud.

Australia and Thailand already have longstanding connections, and a good understanding of each other through our very strong people-to-people links.

As I'm sure you know, Australians love to travel, and they particularly love to travel to Thailand. It's geographically close, lovely weather, great beaches, delicious food, wonderful hotels and very warm and welcoming people.

Each year, around 900,000 Australians visit Thailand. Most short-term holiday visitors, but around 18,000 Australians live and work in Thailand.

Going the other way, more than 80,000 Thai tourists visit Australia each year. More than 45,000 Thais live in Australia and the Thai-born population is one of the fastest growing in Australia.

But our relationship is based on so much more than just tourism.

We have close cooperation in so many areas: law enforcement activities – in drug trafficking, people smuggling, and other forms of trans-national crime we work closely together; in defence; and we work closely cooperating in areas of agriculture, aviation, the arts and culture.

This year, our bilateral trade agreement, the Thailand-Australia Free Trade Agreement enters its tenth year. TAFTA was Thailand's first comprehensive free trade agreement and Thailand's first with a developed country.

But there is another link – beyond trade, beyond defence, beyond other levels of cooperation – between our two countries which is so very significant, and that is education.

Our education collaboration goes back to the early days of the original Colombo Plan scholarship program.

From 1950 to 1985, some 40,000 people from Asia came to study in Australia under the Colombo Plan, developing links that have lasted generations.

The Australian Government began to provide Thai students with the opportunity to study in Australia with a Colombo Plan scholarship back in 1954.

While it might seem that there were a relatively small number of Colombo Plan scholars from Thailand to Australia – it was a total of about 450 Thai students over that period – their experiences were so very important in fostering enduring friendships and understanding between Australia and Thailand.

Colombo Plan alumni recall fondly their time spent in Australia, and I think they recognise the value of their experience in shaping their careers and their lives.

Many of those who studied under the Colombo Plan have occupied senior positions in government, in business and other sectors of society throughout the region.

And I think the significance of the Colombo Plan is best explained in the words of the scholars themselves.

Dr Sirikorn Maneerin, who I believe is here today, former Deputy Minister for Education and a Colombo Plan student at the University of Sydney during the 1970- 1973 period recalled her experiences this way: "Parents in the old days rarely allowed daughters to travel far from home, so I was excited to receive a Colombo Plan scholarship. I matured my thinking and learnt to be responsible for myself, which is a significant foundation for life. I was impressed with the Australian lifestyle which bonded with nature. Australians are half-Asian and they are friendly. Later when I worked at the Education Ministry, I also had an opportunity to establish vocational education collaboration between Australia and Thailand."

Professor Pichai Taneerananon, an academic at the Department of Civil engineering, Prince of Songkla University, and winner of Prime Minister Road Safety Awards 2010, was a Colombo Plan Scholarship student at the University of Western Australia between 1968-1972. He said that this scholarship changed his life and passed on this message to Thai students: "studying abroad is a golden opportunity. You should be open-minded to both positive and negative things and learn from them."

It is remarkable how dramatically our education relationship has expanded in the years since the original Colombo Plan.

Last year, there were around 25,600 Thai student enrolments in Australia, almost an 18-and-a-half per cent increase on 2013 levels. Thai students are the sixth largest group of international students by nationality in Australia.

Most of these students are self- or privately-funded, taking advantage of Australia's strong education market.

The Australian Government also plays a role in supporting education exchanges. Since the inception of the Australia Awards Endeavour Scholarships and Fellowships in 2007, around 155 Thai scholars have been granted a scholarship or fellowship to undertake study, research or professional development at post-graduate level in Australia.

But far fewer Australian students study in Thailand and I wanted to change this under, what I called, the 'New Colombo Plan'.

When I was Australia's Education Minister in Australia from 2006 to the end of 2007, I appreciated that we needed to do much more to support a greater two-way flow of students between Australia and the region. And I understood that Australians needed to be more Asia-literate, to have a greater understanding of our place in the region ?

The Indian Ocean-Asia Pacific is Australia's neighbourhood, and we need to ensure that young Australians are equipped to engage with our neighbours.

What better way to forge closer relations than to immerse our young people in countries across the region.

The Australian Government has committed more than $100 million to the New Colombo Plan to support Australian students to undertake short, medium and long-term study programs, with internships and work experience as well.

2015 is the first year of the New Colombo Plan's full roll out, and this year scholarships and grants have been awarded that will support study in the region for around 3,200 Australian undergraduates. By the end of 2015, about 4,600 Australian students will have been supported to live, study and work in the region under the New Colombo Plan.

One Australian student – who featured on the video – David Coleman, has received a prestigious New Colombo Plan scholarship to study in Thailand. A Bachelor of Environmental Systems at the University of Sydney is David's current study; but from July this year, he will study agricultural science at Mahidol University for two semesters, before undertaking a research internship in Laos.

In addition, over 160 students are being funded to study in Thailand under the New Colombo Plan mobility program, for courses less than 12 months.

These students come from ten of Australia's 41 universities and from a range of academic disciplines including engineering, science, business, marketing and health.

Two New Colombo Plan mobility projects in Thailand have already taken place.

In January, the University of Western Sydney sent 13 Australian nursing students to Om Goi to learn about health care delivery in remote districts.

In April, Mahidol University hosted nine New Colombo Plan students from the University of Adelaide on a study programme looking at the Thailand business environment and growing economic and trade relations between Australia and Thailand.

Twelve more New Colombo Plan mobility projects will take place this year.

These projects involve study and work experience at a number of Thailand's higher education institutions and private sector partners like Asiana International Consulting.

I thank these institutions – some of whom are represented here today – for hosting our precious students.

I'm sure they will learn much from you and return home with a deeper understanding of Thailand – its politics, its economics, its culture, its people. They'll have new ideas and most importantly, new friendships and networks.

In addition to providing transformative experiences to Australian students, the New Colombo Plan seeks to strengthen ties between Australian universities and institutions in the region.

Some of these ties have been developing over many decades; some are new.

There are more than 144 partnerships between Thai and Australian universities, some of which have been in place for 30 years or so.

The New Colombo Plan is an opportunity for universities to deepen these relationships and partner in new fields.

A diverse network of regional university partnerships is crucial to achieving the scale of student mobility that I envisage under the New Colombo Plan, and certainly in achieving enduring ties with our neighbours.

We'll also need to draw on our private sector links and alumni networks to ensure that New Colombo Plan students have access to internships and mentorships and other work experience opportunities in the region, which are strongly encouraged under the program.

Internships enable our students to build professional networks, test their skills in real life situations and develop competencies like cross-cultural understanding and communication. And I hope that they learn language skills.

I'm delighted to advise that 22 companies based in Thailand have already registered an interest in hosting New Colombo Plan students.

I welcome the attendance of the Australian-Thai Chamber of Commerce, business representatives and Thai alumni of Australian universities at the launch of the New Colombo Plan here in Bangkok today.

I'm particularly pleased that some of the companies who've expressed interest in taking on our interns have joined us.

Your presence reinforces the broader aims of the New Colombo Plan.

It's not simply an education programme. It's not simply an experience for a young Australian student.

It seeks to create a new generation of young Australians with an understanding of our Indo-Pacific neighbours and our region.

It strives to create a body of Australian alumni of regional universities with friendships and networks that will strengthen bilateral collaboration, and hopefully last a lifetime.

It aims to create a regionally-literate Australian workforce that can take advantage of the increasing importance of the Indo-Pacific in the century ahead.

The New Colombo Plan is truly a foreign policy initiative – it is implemented through the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in Australia – and I believe one of the best forms of soft diplomacy that a country like Australia could embrace.

The programme has the highest levels of support within the Australian Government, and I look forward to working closely with you to ensure the programme is a success in Thailand.

I sincerely thank His Excellency General Tanasak for co-hosting this event. I thank him for his friendship and his warm welcome today, and I'm delighted that together we can launch the New Colombo Plan in Thailand. I thank you all for joining in this important celebration for a new initiative to ensure that – not only do young Australians return after a New Colombo Plan experience with new perspectives, new ideas, new understandings and add to the prosperity and productivity of our country – but that the connections and networks and friendships that they make will ensure that the broader Australia-Thailand relationship will endure.

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