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Australians in Asia: Forging stronger ties through overseas study?

COULD studying in Asia help Australians better understand its neighbours? Gayertree Subramaniam speaks to some Aussies who’ve spent time abroad. 

Photo: AIESEC Germany via flickr

As Australia charges ahead into the Asian Century – a period which heralds a sharp shift in the nation’s trade relationship with Asia –  international education is being championed as a way to fortify regional ties.

Earlier this year, the Australian Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Science and Research, Chris Evans, said in a statement that Australia’s best relationship with Asia over the past 25 years has, in fact, been developed through international education.

“We have to ensure that young Australians have the skills to take up the opportunities of the Asian Century and to work in a global environment,” he said.

The Australian Technology Network Universities (ATN) recently reported Asia is the second most popular regional destination for Australia students with more than 30 per cent of all outbound study experiences situated there. That places the region behind Europe, but ahead of the Americas as a study destination.

Notably, China was found to be the second biggest study destination country after the US, followed by the UK.

While this shows Australian students’ are interested in Asia, ATN contends there should in fact be even greater levels of interaction with the region through education.

Local universities are presently already working toward to this goal. RMIT University’s Assistant Director of International Relations, Dawn Koban, says RMIT aims to increase the number of students participating in international study experiences as part of their degree.

Currently, 20% of RMIT exchange students pick Asia as their destination of choice. But Miss Koban says this proportion will only increase as RMIT continues to expand its ties within the region on various levels.

Forging relations

Owen Michael at Malaysia's national university.

Owen Morton at Malaysia's national university.

When an opportunity arose to study in Malaysia, Owen Morton – an International Studies student at RMIT – jumped at the chance. He enrolled in his university’s six week Student Mobility program at Malaysia’s national university, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia.

Owen says the experience was an eye-opening one.

“Australia in the last decade has been looking closer towards Asia and I think we are forming more diplomatic and economic links as a result of that,” he says.

“Within the region, Australia, in terms of governance, throws its weight around a little bit like a big fish in a little pond when really it’s a small fish in an absolutely gigantic pond! That was really interesting to observe!”

This new vantage point is exactly what Education Minister Chris Evans desires for students to bring back home.

In an interview with ABC radio, he says the best way to deepen bilateral relationships is to have young people experience Asia and return with an understanding of the dynamics that will affect and benefit the country and national interest.

Owen agrees, saying forging bilateral relations with a country is made up of many different layers.

“For example, having me an Australian student, talking to Malaysian students and hanging out with them in itself operates on a micro-level of bilateral relations,” he says.

“Ultimately the more cross-cultural exchange and communication that takes place, the stronger those ties will be”.

Taryn Mumford (left) explores Jakarta's fishing village with friends

For Taryn Mumford, a development studies student from University of Adelaide, going on exchange to Indonesia with the Australian Consortium for In-Country Indonesian Studies (ACICIS) gave her an opportunity to not only apply her development studies skills, but also to learn a foreign language.

“I was determined to learn another language for the longest time, and when I got to Jakarta, I had no choice but to pick it up quick,” she says.

“At first this was a little hard but it just made me adapt and learn basic Indonesian quicker. I could hold a conversation, buy things and get around without English soon enough.

“Language barriers should in no way be an obstacle in experiencing a different culture.”

Taryn continues to be deeply involved with the Indonesian language back in Australia, taking up part time classes to improve her proficiency.

International student Koyee Li, originally from Hong Kong is enthusiastic about the prospects of Australian students heading into Asia for studies.

“It will not only be good for local students to experience another culture, but they will also get a better sense of what it must be like being an international student,”

“Hopefully, upon return that can further strengthen friendships between the local and international student groups.”

Noha Isa watching the Denmark vs. Portugal match in Kings Garden, Copenhagen.

But Senator Evans acknowledges that while Australian students should be heading to Asia, many may be flocking to Europe and USA because of the higher quality of education and the reputation of host universities there. But regardless of destination, the benefits of studying outside Australia remain the same.

For Monash University Global Arts student Noha Isa, Europe appealed to her because she was fascinated by the lifestyle and culture, coupled with her thirst for travel.

She spent a semester at Denmark’s University of Copenhagen, and now feels there should be more encouragement for Australians to study abroad.

“The world is becoming more cosmopolitan, more universal, and the best way for our generation to embrace this new world we’re entering, is to provide incentives for them to go out and experience it,” she says.

“The best experience you can get in this age is when you’re still studying and your mind is so raw.”

“I think there should be more pathways and incentives for students to have that experience.”

Do you think more Australians should study in Asia?

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Insufficient funds

Presently, despite calling for an increase in outbound student mobility, government funding for overseas study expereiences has remained stable, and some say insufficent, at $6.3 million in 2009 and 2010,  according to a study done last year.

But going on exchange is no cheap affair, as Taryn discovered on her trip to Indonesia. Her entire 6 week exchange cost her close $5,000, and she admits she would not have been able to afford it if not for some savings and the convenience of a credit card.

Founder and director of ACICIS, Dr David Hill, says there is a need for additional government funding to support programs like his.

He says investing in giving Australians a solid understanding of Indonesia would be an extremely valuable asset to business, government and grass roots relations upon return to Australia.

Australia’s Opposition coalition  has indicated it will be catering to this demand, should it come into power.

Under a new initiative, dubbed the “reverse Colombo Plan”, Australia’s best students will spend at least part of their university education in Asia.

The plan  is a reinvention of the original Colombo Plan, that was introduced  by the Menzies Government and sponsored thousands of Asian students to study or train in Australian tertiary institutions.

Julie Bishop, Coalition’s foreign affairs spokeswoman, was not able to be reached for comment by Meld, but told the ABC increasing the number of two-way student exchanges between Australia and the region would not only help promote greater understanding and awareness, but would also open up a new generation of networks Australia can draw upon in the future.

Overseas study alone not enough

But Menaga Velusamy, a graduate of Monash University who has gone on an intercampus exchange to Malaysia, believes encouraging student mobility into Asia is only a small part of the bigger picture.

“Although it is a move in the right direction, relying on exchange alone is probably insufficient and I don’t think it addresses fully what the government is trying to achieve,” she says.

“I only see such students trying to understand the culture and not engaging with them on any further deeper level, which won’t make too much of a sound difference upon their return.”

Where learning an Asian language was once a matter of personal development, it has now become a matter of real economic importance.

A report released by the Asia Education Foundation, found just 12.8 per cent of Year 12 students take a foreign language. Of those, only 5.8 per cent are studying an Asian language.

The Opposition’s leader, Tony Abbott has pledged to dramatically boost foreign language education to 40 per cent within a decade, at the cost of $2 billion.

But without a long-term commitment to teacher training and sustainable funding initiatives, this proposal may not eventuate.

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