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Building ASEAN Australian Education Partnerships and Addressing Regional Priorities

Building ASEAN Australian Education Partnerships and Addressing Regional Priorities

Michael Fay Director Asean Focus Group (AFG VG)

                     Convenor ASEAN Australia Education Dialogue




Australian government foreign policy is refocusing on Southeast Asia and particularly on our relations with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). This is a welcome change and one with which the Australian international education sector seems only partially engaged. The challenge between now and 2030 will be for Australia to develop stronger ASEAN relationships with key education stakeholders in individual ASEAN member nations and with the peak body education architecture driving ASEAN regional connectivity. The objective for Australia is to be an active partner with ASEAN rather than a NATO partner (“No Action Talk Only”); a disparaging acronym often used in Indonesia.


For the last 20 years the Australian international education sector has targeted China and more recently the Indian subcontinent as the focus of its strategic education engagement. These regions have been the overwhelming source of student flows that have underpinned the financial success of the Australian education and training sector which pre-COVID was valued at A$40 billion and our third largest export industry.


There has however been well documented criticism of this over reliance on two markets that have been further negatively impacted by COVID 19 and, in the case of China, a relationship breakdown at the government level. Our biggest customer is now seen as our biggest military threat, due to increasing defence and foreign policy tension in East Asia including the South China Sea. 


ASEAN Background 


Australia became the first Dialogue partner with the then newly formed ASEAN in 1974. Today the 10 member ASEAN grouping also engages with Dialogue partners from East and South Asia as well as Europe. Decades earlier Australia played a visionary role in establishing the original Colombo Plan Scholarship Program targeting talented students from newly independent Southeast Asian countries for study in Australia. The students then returned home to build their nations in the government, academic and private sectors.


Since the 1990s there has been little growth in Australia’s targeted scholarship program in Southeast Asia, but a boom in the private student market. While enrolments from Southeast Asian countries have helped support some of the growth in Australia’s international education sector, it has been student revenue, mainly from China and South Asia, that has contributed to capital works’ programs, staff salaries and increasing research budgets at Australian universities.


Recent commentary has mentioned the importance of education and training in reframing our regional relationships. Susannah Patton, Director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Lowy Institute and author of a Lowy Institute Policy Brief:

Crumbling cornerstone? Australia’s education ties with Southeast Asia | Lowy Institute  has cautioned against having a narrow export revenue focus, rather than making educational ties with Southeast Asia a priority for strengthening strategic ties. Patton appealed to the new Australian government to “take another look” at the role education plays in Australia’s relationships with the region, where she believes “education has been a declining asset for Australian engagement”.

Tamerlaine Beasley, a board member of the Australia-ASEAN Council of Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade echoed these sentiments in a recently held seminar on ASEAN-Australia links, calling for more collaboration and partnerships to help “deepen the education relationship between ASEAN and Australia”.


Marketing Focus vs Strategic Engagement


Post Covid many Australian universities and vocational providers have overlooked the significance of the strategic engagement case for ASEAN in favour of a return to “business as usual”. Lessons appear not to have been learnt from the COVID 19 meltdown and the over reliance it revealed on China, Nepal, and India as core markets for international student recruitment. In 2022 these 3 countries represented over 53% of all enrolments. Recent reports reveal high rejection numbers for student visa applicants from South Asia. Government policy levers may be further used to provide more balance in student recruitment if subtle suggestions don’t work.


The reputational risk management environment in India is also particularly challenging with Indian newspapers reporting, in early 2023, that the business licences of 239 immigration consultants and 129 IELTS English preparation centres in Punjab State had been canceled due to “cheating” and other irregularities during IELTS testing. This test is used to help provide quality assurance of the English language skills that students are supposed to provide before being allowed to study in Australia. It should also be noted that Vietnam had test centre integrity issues in late 2022.


For most Australian education providers, the “fields of gold” in China have been joined by a “marketing supertrail” to the Indian subcontinent, with Southeast Asia the region that one now flies over to get to the real markets. There is the expectation of a quick turnaround in student flows from China despite the logistical challenges. There is also a hope that any negative impact from our regional political, economic and defence challenges will be minimal. This scenario is about to be tested with the relaxation of travel restrictions and increased aviation connectivity on one hand and rising government concerns about a military threat from China on the other.


All universities have ambitious short term enrolment targets to achieve and this means essentially from China and South Asia. For many, ASEAN remains of secondary importance. South Asia and China will likely continue to be the main target regions for recruiting students in the high demand study areas of Business, Finance, Marketing and IT. Migration pathways are a further attraction in these markets with research partnerships a priority for some that have a high global ranking. 


Australian Education and Track2 Diplomacy


Australia has persevered for over 30 years with an expectation that regional education partners will travel to Australia to engage with Australian international education “thought leaders”. Topics for discussion at Australia’s major international education conferences are more focused on enhancing commercial outcomes than considering the key issues impacting our strategic engagement. This is not surprising as the original conference, now branded as the AIEC, is owned and hosted by Australian stock exchange (ASX) listed IDP, an education recruitment company offering student placement in Australia, New Zealand, USA, UK, Ireland and Canada. 38 of Australia’s universities sold 48% of their share of IDP in 2021 to offset COVID 19 losses, however some maintain a 25% share in the company. In 2019 the IDP CEO was the highest paid executive in Australia with a package worth close to $A38 million.


At a government and sectoral level in Australia there is a long-standing issue to reconsider- “How should Australian Education be represented internationally?” The Australian Trade and Investment Commission (Austrade) seems focused on marketing and maximising the commercial return from international education alongside other service sectors and commodities. The under-resourced Department of Education is tasked with focusing on strategic engagement with regional government partners, the quality assurance ecosystem as well as nurturing relations with some of the regional peak bodies. Officials engaged with international representation sometimes describe themselves as “two sides of the same coin”.


Indonesia and ASEAN


Australia has the benefit of geographic proximity with ASEAN’s largest member, where we share the world’s longest maritime boundary. Australia is the most popular international study destination for Indonesian students but that is only part of the story. Government figures from June 2022 show only 3% of total international student enrolment was from Indonesia and 83.5% of Indonesian students were studying in the States of New South Wales and Victoria. Indonesian students are concentrated in the business and financial centres of Sydney and Melbourne which also host the largest Indonesian diaspora communities. 


The Australian government generated statistics do not however consider the ASEAN based regional delivery role of Australia universities in attracting Indonesian students to an increasing number of Australian transnational education (TNE) campuses in Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia itself. Monash, Curtin, the University of Wollongong, Swinburne, Newcastle, Murdoch, Central Queensland, and James Cook University are becoming attractive regional destinations for Indonesia, ASEAN member countries as well as for Chinese and South Asian students. They can study closer to home for an Australian degree, while saving on lower course fees and living costs.


Indonesia is this year’s Chair of ASEAN and was one of the founding members of the 55-year-old regional bloc. Last year Indonesia was President and hosted the G20 Summit in Bali. Australia is taking renewed investment interest, illustrated by the recent campus opening of Monash University in Jakarta and the Central Queensland University partnership with the controversial Indonesian Bakrie Group. Deakin University Melbourne and the UK’s Lancaster University are partnering on the development of a campus in Bandung, West Java. A 4th Australian university is expected to open a campus in Indonesia in 2023.


Australia’s Northern Territory (NT) and Indonesia


In Australia, it is sobering to note that in 2022 the NT, which shares a maritime border with Indonesia and a 400 year + history of Indigenous connectivity, was a study destination for only 108 Indonesian students in university and VET courses. This was a mere 4% of total students. India, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Pakistan on the other hand contributed 70% of the NT’s international students, attracted by cheaper course fees and migration pathway incentives from studying in a smaller regional city.  


On one level the low Indonesian student numbers in the NT are not surprising with Bali the only direct Indonesian entry point from and to Darwin, making the NT less connected to Indonesia than many other Australian capital cities. This is unlikely to change unless an aviation link is opened between Darwin and a growing hub like Makassar, a city with a population of 1.5 million, only 2 hours’ flight time from Darwin and with many onward flights to Eastern Indonesia and Java. Since mid-2016 Australia has had a Consulate in Makassar and Monash University has partnered there with the local Hasanuddin University to establish the strategically positioned Australia Indonesia Centre (AIC). This further enhances the city as a future hub with the potential of deeper bi-lateral links in education, vocational training, health services, infrastructure, maritime and tourism as well as arts and cultural connectivity.


The NT may also benefit from the recent announcement that Timor Leste will become the 11th member of ASEAN, subject to certain benchmarks being met. Daily flights from Darwin to the capital city, Dili, which are partly subsidised by the Timor Leste government, provide opportunities to unlock Australian education and training links, despite the population of the country being only 1.5 million, which is similar to the city of Makassar. The Timorese have become a significant diaspora community in Darwin with the ability to support educational connectivity.


Government Investment in the ASEAN Australia Comprehensive Strategic Partnership.


The May 2022 change of government in Australia has led to renewed focus on the region under Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Foreign Minister Penny Wong. The rhetoric around our latest “dance with ASEAN” has been supported with an intensive visits program by key Australian ministers that began in May 2022. It has also benefited from a strategic investment by DFAT to advance the ASEAN Australia Comprehensive Strategic Partnership.


In late 2022 the Australian Government launched the Aus4ASEAN Strategy with an enhanced Education and Training component. This includes an investment in 100 new Aus4 ASEAN scholarships with 10 awarded for each ASEAN member country and support for 350 vocational scholars to study in Australia in 2023. These scholarships are on top of the existing post graduate Australia Awards which apply to Vietnam, Indonesia, Laos, Cambodia, Timor Leste and Myanmar. When Timor Leste joins ASEAN later this year it is likely there will be increased regional and international scholarships offered despite low English levels among applicants. 


The New Colombo Plan (NCP)


The previous government’s highly popular New Colombo Plan (NCP), that facilitates bi-lateral and regional university student mobility programs across ASEAN and the Pacific, will return to in-country placements during 2023.The popularity of ASEAN as a regional program partner under the NCP shows that professional delivery partners, geographic proximity, improved aviation connectivity, relative safety, the relevance of Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) focused exchange partnerships and similar time zones are attractive selling points.


The NCP has been criticised for being too general in its design and not focused on building long term study opportunities that ensure stronger relationships. It is however difficult to know just how many personal and business opportunities have resulted from the thousands of Australian students that have spent time in Southeast Asia on this program since it began in 2014. By 2019 NCP had grown remarkably, attracting close to 10,000 students a year.


In 2019 the total number of Australian students enrolled in mobility and exchange programs in Indonesia was 2,061, the highest number ever to study in Indonesia. This is happening despite the low numbers of Australians formally studying Indonesian language at school and university.


Deepening Australia’s Education Sector Engagement with ASEAN and Supporting the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s)


What does the renewed government and non-government focus on ASEAN mean for Australian universities, public and private VET providers and digital education platforms challenged by deeper engagement with Southeast Asia?


Australia’s international education sector has a key role to play in making mutually beneficial regional relationships. Some stakeholders have taken further initiatives over the last 5 years to ensure that we stay engaged in ASEAN as well as connecting with an ASEAN regional education architecture that is driving student mobility, quality assurance, research linkages and English language best practice.


In terms of regional engagement, the Australian government is committed to further enhancing an “on the ground” Australian presence at the ASEAN Secretariat, supported by a better resourced Australian Embassy to ASEAN also located in Jakarta. This may provide a good platform for bringing together our education, language, and cultural engagement with ASEAN.


The overall Aus4ASEAN Strategy is underpinned by 3 pillars: Climate Security & Climate Action, Health Security as well as Maritime & Marine Security. The overarching framework requires addressing the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s). It is a framework where ASEAN is looking to Australia for regional leadership and genuine partnership. 


There is increasing awareness that Australian and ASEAN universities have performed remarkably well on the Times Higher Education (THE) Impact Rankings that are aligned with the SDG’s. In the 2022 rankings, Western Sydney University ranked number 1 in the world, based on its social, ecological, and economic impact, while the University of Tasmania was ranked number 1 globally for Action on Climate Change.


Many ASEAN universities are also working towards greater policy alignment to the SDG’s and have made a solid contribution of their own. Universitas Sains Malaysia (USM) in Georgetown, and the University of Indonesia have been enthusiastic partners showing improved overall rankings and providing ASEAN regional leadership. The SDG framework also provides an important opportunity for developing ASEAN Australia research partnerships and mobility links.


Building University Partnerships with ASEAN 


For those universities where head office strategy is long term, there is a recognition that regional bilateral and peak body cooperation helps build mutually beneficial partnerships, strengthens brand recognition, attracts scholarship students, and helps develop ASEAN campus activity and joint programs.


Australian offshore campuses across ASEAN currently target private students, however in the future, with the relevant policy settings and government support, they may attract scholarship students for part of their study. It would certainly allow the Australian scholarship budget to go further, while building regional postgraduate research partnerships and mobility hubs for Australian students keen to engage with Southeast Asia on language, culture, and subject disciplines.


University campus development requires a real commitment to quality assurance and an investment in English language skills development for both students and locally engaged staff. While English is the official language of ASEAN for regional government meetings as well as for international education and international business meetings, significant gaps remain.


Attracting high quality international mobility students to ASEAN university international programs and to Australian regional TNE campuses requires high English language entry standards. It also requires expertise in English as a Medium of Instruction (EMI) for course delivery. This is a specialist subject and a professional development and capacity building opportunity where some Australian University English Centres have acknowledged global best practice expertise. 


Vocational Education and Training (VET)


Exporting the government endorsed VET sector for offshore skills training delivery has been challenging as it is expensive to take overseas and largely dependent on unreliable government funding support. ASEAN students are however enthusiastically taking up VET courses in Australia at both public and private providers, with enrolments now overtaking university study numbers. The message about VET providing job ready skills is starting to gain traction.


Australian companies operating across ASEAN are generally not engaged with our VET sector. Building materials company BlueScope has a 50-year history in Indonesia and has production facilities in 4 ASEAN locations. The company undertakes its own in-house training operations in ASEAN. At its home city of Wollongong NSW, TAFE Illawarra is a long term training partner.


The German and Swiss VET sectors, with strong government and industry support and effective local partnerships, have more currency in the ASEAN manufacturing sector than the Australian brand. The impressive industry-run Penang Skills Development Centre, follows the German VET model in addressing the HR needs of global investors in the Penang free trade manufacturing zone.


Global Competition in ASEAN 


Over the last decade the European Union (EU) has locked in long term strategic partnerships in higher education with both the ASEAN Secretariat and AUN under the EU support for higher education (SHARE) program. This has been a modest (Euro 15 million) investment that has maximised media and public relations coverage for what is a modest but targeted investment, with relatively low numbers of students on scholarship and mobility programs.


Few European universities and academics however have the depth of research experience that key Australian universities have with ASEAN. It is notable that the current Indonesian Ambassador to Australia HE Dr. Siswo Pranomo, undertook a significant period of postgraduate research work in the School of Social Sciences at the Australian National University (ANU) graduating with a PhD degree in political science. Several other Australian universities have deep regional research networks, including the Sydney Southeast Asia Centre at the University of Sydney, Griffith Asia Centre, James Cook University and the Australian National Centre for Oceans Research and Security (ANCORS) at the University of Wollongong. 


The EU has recently announced a new Euro 10 billion investment for higher education and research in Southeast Asia as part of its new Global Gateway. This will run until 2027 focusing on the green transition, sustainable connectivity as well as strengthening university networks.


Germany, China, Japan, South Korea and more recently India have also been building strategic education and training partnerships with ASEAN peak bodies as well as with industry via business partnership, targeted scholarships, internships, capacity building and skills training programs. In August 2022 the ASEAN-India Network of Universities was inaugurated. 


For dialogue on the key themes around international education, development priorities and global partnerships, our international competitors in the global education market such as the UK have a more dynamic yet subtle outreach strategy. The British Council convenes regular UK Education “Going Global Conferences” in key ASEAN locations such as Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, and Singapore. Australia continues with the expectation that you need to come to Hobart, Adelaide, or the Gold Coast to find out what’s happening in Australian international education. Why not take the conferences to ASEAN on a bi-lateral basis and encourage more regional engagement with key stakeholders? 


Education media and event company Times Higher Education (THE), also headquartered in the UK, but with a regional APAC office in Australia, convened the inaugural THE Campus Live Southeast Asia Conference in Singapore in December 2022. It will target Manila in 2023 as the Conference host city. The 15+ Australian campuses across Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam could benefit from the connectivity and networking opportunities provided by the THE focus on ASEAN Education.


Australia and ASEAN Priority Areas


Despite the Australian geographic proximity to ASEAN and our acceptance as its first Dialogue Partner, our connection with the educational architecture of ASEAN has been minimal. Few organisations can point to deep and effective working relationships with the ASEAN Secretariat or AUN. 


We can help secure our future in and with the ASEAN University sector via partnerships based around five active engagements highlighted by the ASEAN University Network, the ASEAN Secretariat, as well as DFAT. These include English Language Capacity Building, Strengthening Higher Education Research Partnerships, Climate Change and Climate Action, Maritime and Marine Security, Health Security and Qualifications’ Alignment (including for ASEAN priority areas such as Health Professionals).


The ASEAN Secretariat is targeting a common ASEAN Qualifications’ Reference Framework, including mutual recognition agreements covering six sectors (engineering, nursing, architecture, medicine, dentistry, and tourism). Nursing was a sector highlighted at the Australia Indonesia Business Council Conference held in Darwin in November 2022. A panel presentation and discussion provided a platform to consider education and skills training related to nursing qualifications. These are important areas for Australian and global companies involved in, or considering investment in the private hospital sector across ASEAN, including Indonesia. 


The panel discussion was sponsored by Charles Darwin University and featured research outcomes from the Katalis funded “Comparative Assessment of Nursing Standards in Indonesia and Australia”


Track 2 Diplomacy-The ASEAN Australia Education Dialogue (AAED)


Australia’s more recent journey on a Track 2 education dialogue with ASEAN began in 2018 with initial seed funding support by DFAT’s Australia ASEAN Council (AAC) to convene the inaugural ASEAN Australia Education Dialogue (AAED) in Malaysia. In November of the following year ASEAN and Australian delegates met in UNESCO World Heritage Georgetown Penang, a sister city with Adelaide, South Australia since 1973 and an education and cultural hub for Southeast Asia. The Dialogue attracted delegates from all States and Territories of Australia and from 9 of the 10 ASEAN member countries.


COVID 19 resulted in 3 years of disrupted connection, however digital platforms helped continue engagement with targeted universities and peak bodies. 11 AAED webinars were hosted, including panel participation by the ASEAN Secretariat, AUN, SEAMEO, the HEAD Foundation and other stakeholders. In August 2022 AAED convened a webinar on “Digital Transformation of Higher Education in Southeast Asia and Australia” which brought together the Vice Chancellors of University of Brunei Darussalam, the University of Technology Brunei as well as the Pro Vice Chancellor of Curtin University. It was sponsored by the Ministry of Education Brunei with introductory remarks made by the Australian High Commission Brunei and the Ministry of Education Brunei.


Following interest from the Ministry of Education and Training (MOET) Vietnam and support from the ASEAN Secretariat, AAED convened a November 2022 regional webinar on “Climate Change Education in ASEAN and Australian Higher Education”. This was sponsored by the University of Tasmania and included panelists from the ASEAN Secretariat, Universiti Sains Malaysia, Times Higher Education and the Climate Action Network for International Educators (CANIE). Opening remarks were made by representatives from the Australian Embassy to ASEAN and the Vietnam Ministry of Education and Training.     


The ASEAN University Network (AUN) and Australia


In November 2019 and December 2022 AUN made self-funded Scoping Study visits to Australia. Study NSW, part of NSW Trade and Investment, provided project management support for the 2022 visit. A key focus of this visit was to highlight the importance of building English Language capacity at AUN member universities in partnership with linked and matched members of University English Centres Australia  These Centres are existing partners with the National ELT Accreditation Scheme (NEAS Australia) The ASEAN Australia Education Dialogue and ASEAN Focus Group  initiated the relationship with AUN. 


In January 2023 NEAS Australia and AUN signed a MOU to enhance the management of the quality assurance process in English Language delivery at AUN member universities. In May 2023 Dr Choltis Dhirathiti, the Executive Director of AUN, will return to Australia to address the annual NEAS Conference being held in Sydney. He will be accompanied by selected AUN member universities to progress cooperation for the mutual benefit of those ASEAN and Australian universities partnering with NEAS Australia and prioritising regional best practice and addressing regional development. 


The Jakarta based ASEAN Secretariat also values Australia’s leadership role in working on the urgency of Climate Change Education, the Maritime and Health sectors and helping strengthen research and language partnerships with AUN member universities. Government diplomacy and Track 2 non- government diplomacy has helped shape the frameworks for active partnerships and it’s now up to the Australian Education sector to take further action on these opportunities.


The Roadmap to 2030


As 2023 begins we can plan with some certainty for a resumption of face-to-face meetings, dialogues, professional development, and capacity building programs. This is the year when Indonesia is the Chair of ASEAN and Vietnam continues as ASEAN’s lead country for education. It is an important year for Australia to partner with and strengthen ASEAN Education and support ASEAN and Australian government frameworks with action. Our future education and training partnerships with ASEAN require leadership, long-term thinking and prioritising a future where ASEAN is at the core of our decision making rather than on the periphery.


Between 2023 and 2030 Australia can focus its vision and actions beyond rhetoric and partner on capacity building and supporting the development of common ASEAN quality assurance benchmarks. This is a partnership role that ASEAN peak bodies would welcome. If we ignore our opportunity to be a partner of choice, others will happily take that role.


Michael Fay is a Director of ASEAN Focus Group and Convenor of ASEAN Australia Education Dialogue  

He will be joining the Executive Directors of both AUN and NEAS at the Asia Pacific Association for International Education (APAIE) Conference Bangkok March 2023 for a panel on “ASEAN Australia Education Partnerships”, chaired by Julie Wilkens McMahon, the APAC Director of Times Higher Education.