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Calls for a new approach to Australia-ASEAN ties

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In a recently held seminar on ASEAN-Australia ties, Tamerlaine Beasley, member of the Australia-ASEAN Council board for Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, highlighted that a “collaborative and partnership-based approach” is needed in order to deepen the education relationship between ASEAN and Australia.

Beasley, who is also founder and managing director of Beasley Intercultural, said Australia needed to move beyond “some of the old narrative” where it looked at ASEAN as a “separate” entity. Rather, the ASEAN region should be viewed as a “partner”.

“In terms of some of our former plans and educational models and things like supporting Indonesian students with language education… the challenge is that Australia has left some things for so long that we don’t even have a pipeline of teachers, even if we wanted to engage and flick the switch,” she said.

“The dial has shifted and we need to shift to this digital landscape, where we can maintain relationships and do things differently and leverage the relationships to partner in a more sophisticated way,” she noted.

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“We need to shift to this digital landscape, where we can maintain relationships and do things differently”

Director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Lowy Institute and project lead for the Asia Power Index, Susannah Patton, appealed to the new Australian government to “take another look” at the role education plays in Australia’s relationships with the region.

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“Firstly in terms of the people-to-people connections that we build through education, [but also] in terms of Australia’s role in human capacity building and economic growth,” Patton said.

An often overlooked fact for the South East Asian region is that Australian higher education enrolment trajectory has been “quite flat” in recent years.

For countries where the numbers are rising like Vietnam, Australia is “becoming a less important destination”, as countries such as Japan “gain more relative importance”, she highlighted.

Survey data from the Lowy Institute and some other polls also showed that Australia was becoming “less attractive” as a study destination.

As an immediate solution, Patton suggested, Australia’s international education needed to be “reframed much more in terms of relationships, connections, and influence” and needed moving away from “a purely market-based focus”.

Scholarship programs Australia offers also need to be “looked at” again. The current “development-based” Australia Awards program should be supplemented with a more broader “merit-based” scholarships, regardless of the level of development of students’ countries of origin. This would encourage students from South East Asia to “choose Australia” over the long term, she indicated.

Barring a few existing exceptions, such as the Australia for ASEAN Scholarships, Australia doesn’t offer many scholarships options for students from the region.

Australia should become more “responsive to regional demands for human capacity building”, she mentioned, adding, “We can offer [both] online and in-person training.”

“Australia needs to partner in areas for mutual growth”

Highlighting the growing scope of collaboration in the digital economy, Huong Le Thu, principal policy fellow at the Perth USAsia Centre said, “Australia needs to partner in areas for mutual growth [such as] technology transformation”, in order to boost its ties with ASEAN nations.

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Josephine Lovensa, co-CEO of the ASEAN-Australia Strategic Youth Partnership, suggested that there was a great opportunity for Australia to engage with the region beyond higher education. She said it could collaborate effectively with ASEAN countries in school education — even early childhood education, where Australia has very good standards.

“Australia can support ASEAN in building human capital in the digital economy and help student and teacher engagement [with the region],” she noted.

“South East Asian students have many more options to choose from now,” Richard Maude, executive director of policy at Asia Society Australia and senior fellow at the Asia Society Policy Institute, added.

“We have to sustain the quality of degrees and secondly the quality of the time they spend in Australia — this is something that is very critical.”

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