New Colombo Plan presentation dinner

  • Speech, check against delivery

Thank you Kate for the introduction.

Excellency's, distinguished members of the diplomatic corps, parliamentarians, Secretary Varghese, friends of the New Colombo Plan.

We are here tonight to celebrate the success of the New Colombo Plan and to announce our 2016 fellows and scholars. I especially warmly welcome our New Colombo Plan alumni.

It was only two years ago that we launched the New Colombo Plan, in fact it has grown so quickly that we have had to move the dinner from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade as we have run out of space!

In this short time it has proven to be a transformative foreign policy initiative, valued in Australia and, as the Governor-General attests and so can I, it is valued across the Indian Ocean Asia Pacific.

The success of the New Colombo Plan has been possible because of the strong support of partner governments, universities, businesses and NGOs and of course students.

So I am pleased to have the opportunity tonight to thank many of the people and the organisations who have contributed so much in such a short time.

First, the diplomatic corps. Thank you so much for the embrace that you have given this initiative.

The education sector has been on board from the outset, realising the potential of this plan from the moment I raised it with them.

The business sector and the NGO community who have done so much to ensure the experience is truly unique.

I particularly acknowledge the New Colombo Plan Patron, Governor-General Sir Peter Cosgrove, thank you your Excellency for your ongoing support of the program and for your presence here tonight – together with Lady Cosgrove is deeply appreciated.

I also acknowledge the presence of my parliamentary colleague the Hon Bronwyn Bishop.

Unfortunately the Minister for Education, Simon Birmingham and the Minister for International Education Richard Colbeck were both unable to attend this evening, but I thank them for their contribution.

The program would not be the success that it has proven to be and not have the potential to be a lasting initiative that affords thousands of young Australians the opportunity to study and travel overseas without bipartisan support, and I acknowledge Matt Thistlethwaite here tonight representing the Opposition and I thank him for the support of the Labor party.

I acknowledge and thank the dedicated members of the New Colombo Plan Reference Group for their ongoing counsel, wise advice and guidance. And I thank Peter Varghese and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade for their unwavering commitment to ensure that this plan is the success that we all dreamed and hoped it would be.

Together we have achieved a remarkable outcome.

The original Colombo Plan, established in 1951 brought young students from our region to Australia to live and study here. Over 30 years about 40,000 students were Colombo Plan scholars. Today, many of them are leading business, professional, political and community leaders in their respective countries.

The idea behind the New Colombo Plan came from personal experience - my first overseas experience of travelling through Asia with my sister at age 17 - was a profound experience because it really honed my view on Australia and its place in the world. Then years later, indeed many years later, I undertook study overseas at Harvard Business School.

It was the combination of those experiences, like that of so many New Colombo Plan students, that were life changing, for they both gave me new perspectives of life beyond our shores, broadened my imagination and while undertaking studies gave me an opportunity to establish friendships that have lasted to this date and will forevermore.

As Education Minister, I was convinced that young Australians needed to learn more about Australia's geographic place in the world and where our future lay.

I thought Australia needed to complement the thousands of students from our region who come to Australia each year to study and thus we should create a two-way exchange of student movement between Australia and our region.

Now the Indo-Pacific is our neighbourhood, it is where we live, and where our foreign policy and trade priorities are centred. The region is central to Australia's peace, security and prosperity.

So further deepening Australia's relationships with the region involves strengthening the bonds of friendship and cooperation between our young people, our universities, businesses and other organisations. The New Colombo Plan is contributing to this by supporting thousands of Australian undergraduate students to study and undertake work experience in the region.

I hope that Australian students spending part of their time in their undergraduate years the region will become a rite of passage that is highly valued across the community.

The government has committed $100 million to the New Colombo Plan over its first five years.

This is an investment in our nation's future, an investment in our young people – in our future leaders - and an investment in deeper engagement with our region.

The New Colombo Plan has already supported students to study and undertake internships in 32 host locations from India to Mongolia, to the Cook Islands and many places in between.

In its pilot year of 2014, the program supported 40 scholars for up to 12 months study and 1,300 mobility students, that is for shorter courses, to not only study but also to undertake work placements, internships, across four pilot locations – Japan, Indonesia, Singapore and Hong Kong.

In 2015 the New Colombo Plan awarded 69 scholarships and 3,100 mobility grants.

In 2016 the New Colombo Plan will continue to expand supporting 100 more scholars and more than 5450 mobility students, bringing the total number of students funded by the New Colombo Plan in its first three years to more than 10,000.

I have met many of our New Colombo Plan scholars and have been inspired by their energy, enthusiasm, intellect and commitment to broadening their horizons.

We will hear directly from one of our alumni later tonight.

One of our recently returned scholars who studied in Japan is Richard Garrett from La Trobe University who studied and interned at the National Institute for Material Science.

He undertook research into a possible new and innovative treatment for basal cell carcinoma involving biodegradable nanofibre technology and the research has just been published.

At the conclusion of his time in Japan, Richard contacted us to advise "The New Colombo Plan was a major part of allowing me to go and complete this research. The program gave me the chance to truly focus on my work without having to worry about day-to-day problems. As an undergraduate student, it is extremely rare to be included on a published paper and even more so to be the lead author of one. I really cannot thank everyone who has made this program happen enough."

Richard continues his studies at La Trobe University, and will complete a cross-disciplinary research project in physics and biochemistry for his Honours year in 2016. These are the kind of examples the New Colombo Plan is able to produce.

Internships, mentorships, practicums and other work placements are a hallmark of the New Colombo Plan and vital to its transformative power.

They enable our students to build professional networks, test their skills in real life situations and develop competencies like cross-cultural understanding and communication, and hopefully language skills.

It is through the opportunities to study, undertake professional internships and mentorships, gain practical skills and develop what I call 'Indo-Pacific literacy' under the New Colombo Plan that our young students will make important connections form a broader view of our region and its challenges and opportunities.

It is not only New Colombo Plan students who benefit from internships. Host organisations can harness the skills of talented young Australians and meet potential graduates who may be valuable future employees or volunteers in the case of NGOs.

I have been encouraged by the enthusiasm with which the private sector and NGOs in Australia and across the region have embraced the New Colombo Plan and offered to host internships and mentorships to talented young Australians.

I was delighted earlier this year to launch three key initiatives to enable businesses and NGOs to connect with New Colombo Plan students:

  • First the Business Champions Initiative. Under this business leaders use their professional networks to promote the value of regional study and workplace experiences to students, and highlight the value of hosting New Colombo Plan interns to the business community and I want to thank the inaugural business champions, a number of whom are here tonight, for their personal efforts in promoting the New Colombo Plan.
  • Second, the New Colombo Plan Internship and Mentorship Network includes a secure online portal for businesses and NGOs to register internship opportunities for New Colombo Plan students. Around 140 internship and mentorship opportunities have already been listed and I strongly encourage businesses and NGOs that have not already done so, to consider offering these opportunities and mentorships, and join the future of Australia's engagement with our region.
  • The third is the Mobility Partners Program and that fosters innovative partnerships between Australian universities and businesses to create new opportunities for our students and I am so pleased to see such partnerships starting to flourish, for example, between NAB and QUT through a new Bachelor of International Business. Indeed one of our Japanese business partners is offering a course to better understand doing business in Japan.

I also want to take this opportunity to thank the Bennelong Foundation, the Myer Foundation and Asialink Business which are contributing $885,000 to develop and deliver cross-cultural training to New Colombo Plan mobility students over the next five years.

So we carried out a pilot earlier this year, it was very successful; the training will be rolled out nationally in 2016. This training will help arm students with the awareness and cultural sensibility to effectively engage across cultures, derive maximum benefit from their experiences in the region, and to be ambassadors for Australia.

Ladies and gentlemen tonight I announce that the 2016 New Colombo Plan scholarship round will support 100 of Australia's brightest undergraduates to live, study and work in the Indo-Pacific. Many of them are here tonight and I congratulate them warmly on being selected in what was a highly competitive process.

Our 2016 scholars have demonstrated exceptional academic performance, community leadership and a proven commitment to forging bonds with the Indo-Pacific.

They come from 26 Australian universities and will travel to 20 locations.

Established host locations - including Singapore, Korea, Japan, Hong Kong, China, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand–will be joined by Bhutan, the Maldives, Myanmar, the Solomon Islands, Sri Lanka and Vietnam.

Our 2016 scholars carry with them not only their own aspirations and ambitions, but also our collective commitment to engage with our neighbours – to create new bonds of friendship, understanding and opportunity that will transform their lives and the future of Australia.

I'm absolutely delighted by the breadth of study of New Colombo Plan scholars in 2016 – across fields as diverse as engineering, management, commerce, science, creative arts, society and culture, agriculture, health, IT and education.

Over the past 12 months, I have met some of our first scholarship recipients who have returned from their studies in the region and graduated to the New Colombo Plan alumni program.

Over coming years New Colombo Plan alumni will become an increasingly influential and diverse network of Australians with direct experience in the Indo-Pacific, and strong professional and personal networks across the region.

We must harness that potential by creating a vibrant community of New Colombo Plan alumni that helps New Colombo Plan students to stay connected to each other, to the region, to government and to their employer.

More than 60 alumni attended an inaugural New Colombo Plan alumni forum in September.

The community is now online through a dedicated LinkedIn presence – which I'm told is growing rapidly. The first alumni networking event will be held in Melbourne in March 2016 and a rolling program of events will take place thereafter.

I remind the 2016 scholars here tonight that your scholarship is only the first part of your journey, for I hope you will maintain and nurture your connections, friendships you will make and links in the Indo-Pacific region, including through the alumni program.

New Colombo Plan scholars carry great personal dreams and ambition for their future careers.

I do not want to lay upon your shoulders too heavy a burden, but you also carry the hopes and ambitions of our nation.

Australia is an open, tolerant, outward looking, free country that is eager to be part of the vibrancy and creativity within our region and the world.

I trust this will be an opportunity of a lifetime for you all.

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