February 26th, 2018

Michael Fay

An edited version of this article appeared in the Australian Newspaper in the Higher Education section on Wednesday 21st February 2018.

Australia’s tilt towards ASEAN will be boosted in March this year with the ASEAN Australia Leaders Summit in Sydney; Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull will be hosting the leaders of the 10 ASEAN nations in a symbolic 50 year anniversary celebration of ASEAN’s formation and of our closer engagement with the region.

Australia, Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei and Vietnam will also be able to point to a successful revamping of the Trans Pacific Trade Partnership minus the USA and some notable ASEAN absences until Indonesia and Thailand decide to make a commitment.

While ASEAN Australian education will not be central to discussions in Sydney, many of the ASEAN leaders and their advisors or their children and relatives, will have had the benefit of an Australian linked education. This is rarely the case when Australia meets with Chinese or Indian government officials or business leaders.

Regional tensions, including those with China, will be a major issue for discussion in Sydney. They have the potential of exposing the Australian international education sector to a downturn in student numbers flowing from China. For Australia this would be a dangerous scenario last visited in 1989 when Australia’s ELICOS sector was in free fall after the flow of Chinese students was cut off as a result of tightening visa policy. For most Australian education institutions in the current environment of overdependence on China it would be a nightmare. It should have them looking at their risk profile and making adjustments.

At the same time as China is seen as a regional problem for Australia, ASEAN is being recognised both as a friend and a reliable education, economic and strategic defence partner. Over 100,000 international students from ASEAN are now studying in Australia.

It is also a more familiar partner for our student mobility programs such as the New Colombo Plan with over 13,500 undergraduate students on mobility programs between 2014 and 2018. ASEAN generates more confidence with those considering transnational education investments including university campuses and international schools. English is the official language of ASEAN and increasingly the lingua franca for much of its international trade and education delivery.

Australia has been a regional education partner since the original Colombo Plan which has had such a lasting legacy in British linked parts of ASEAN. In the mid 1980’s our English Language Sector pioneered regional ELT delivery in Indonesia and later Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and more recently Myanmar. Australia’s offshore ELT sector continues to provide an important source of quality assurance for the Australia Awards Scholarships, Foundation Studies and Pathway Diploma as well as new models of post graduate study such as Split Masters programs; the latter is a recent addition to the Australia Awards program in Indonesia.

An ASEAN map of transnational education in 2018 would also show Australian University campuses in the emerging regional education hubs of Singapore, Malaysia and Vietnam; Australian International Schools which are well established in Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam and Singapore and an increasing interest from Australia’s Technical Vocational Education and Training sector in targeting regional partnerships. If we were to also superimpose a map of the Asialink Arts and Cultural engagement nodes across ASEAN and the deep links with ASEAN schools by Asialink’s Asia Education Foundation, through the Bridge schools program, the Australian presence would dwarf that of the British Council network without the bureaucratic overlay.

Despite all the positives in the Australian engagement with ASEAN, our thinking is often short term and transactional, not strategically aligned across sectors. Australia is viewed by many of the ASEAN member states as overly commercial. When compared to the importance of ASEAN for Australia’s long term interests we are not sufficiently engaged with the key regional connectivity issues facing the ASEAN Economic Community. A case in point is the ASEAN University Network (AUN) which has close links with ASEAN + 3 partners Japan, South Korea and China and a serious strategic partnerships with the EU on intra ASEAN student mobility, AUN’s official engagement with Australia is minimal yet AUN is leading the way on intra ASEAN higher education connectivity.

In the ELT sector Australia is well placed to work in partnership with ASEAN on the issues arising from English being the official language. Working on a regional agreement on minimum global standards for the accreditation of ELT centres and the minimum standards for teachers working in the ELT sector are sensible and achievable outcomes. Stakeholder driven quality assurance bodies such as Australia’s National ELT Accreditation Scheme (NEAS) can contribute to this conversation.

The challenge for Australia is to refocus on a region that China understands so well and where Europe, the USA, India and East Asia compete very effectively with Australia in building strategic education and training partnerships rather than short term commercial advantage.

Immediately after the March Sydney Leaders Summit, the inaugural ASEAN Australia Education Dialogue in Penang March 21-23 2018 will provide an opportunity for cross sector engagement between Australian and ASEAN education stakeholders. It will address some of the key issues impacting our partnership with ASEAN regional education. While government can enable the building of bureaucratic links, it will take stakeholder led initiatives to participate more fully with the region and to build a model for sustaining and supporting ASEAN Australian education connectivity based on people to people engagement.


Michael Fay is Director and Head of Education Services at regional strategic advisory company Asean Focus Group (AFG VG) which is convening the ASEAN Australia Education Dialogue (AAED) in Penang Malaysia March 21-23 with funding support from the Australia ASEAN Council at DFAT.