AUSTRALIAN students could be on campus at the University of Indonesia in Jakarta next year as the federal Coalition road-tests its Colombo Plan scholarships.
Deputy Opposition Leader Julie Bishop said the Coalition, if elected, would trial its student mobility plan in Indonesia and one other country, possibly Hong Kong, in the first 12 months of government.
A variation on the post-war Colombo Plan that brought Asian students to Australia, the Coalition policy is to make a period of study and internship in the Asia-Pacific region a normal part of undergraduate life, thereby spinning a web of personal ties.
Details of funding are yet to be released but Ms Bishop said she wanted the scholarships to become “a rite of passage”, meaning that student numbers would have to be “in the thousands”.
How long they stayed would depend on circumstances but her “strong preference” was for students to spend at least one semester overseas.
The Liberal Party think tank the Menzies Research Centre has invited leaders in education, business and student mobility to a Canberra forum next month to suggest design options for the new Colombo Plan.
It was not clear whether the Coalition would go into the election with a specific design, and issues such as mutual recognition of university programs and the right visas for study and internship would have to be negotiated in government, Ms Bishop said.
She said Indonesia had been chosen to trial the scheme because of its bilateral importance and with an eye to Australia’s former strength in Indonesian studies. “I would like to revive (Australia’s Indonesia expertise) and revive interest in Indonesia as a country for Australians to live, study and work in,” Ms Bishop said.
She cited the University of Indonesia, one of the country’s top institutions, as a possible host for Australian students in the trial because it had international programs in English as well as courses taught in Indonesian.
But it was a visit to Stanford University in the US last month that convinced her of the value of workplace internships in successful overseas study programs.
She said Coalition scholarships would offer students one-day-a-week placements with Australian companies or NGOs working in the Asia-Pacific region from Pakistan to Fiji.
She said survey results had showed some students were sceptical about the vocational relevance of overseas study.
“They didn’t see it as adding to their CV, or adding to their chance of getting a job. I want to change that,” she said.
Asialink chief executive Jenny McGregor said agreements with countries in the region for reciprocal internships might help build the student numbers implied by the Coalition’s policy.
An expert on outward mobility, Rob Malicki, of AIM Overseas, said it was refreshing the Coalition was not focusing on “straight academic activity”.
“It’s clever to link into business, because business has got lots
of engagement in the region,” he said.
However, he said making a success of internships involved “very tricky” logistical challenges.
Murdoch University’s David Hill, founder of the Australian Consortium for In-Country Indonesian Studies, said the choice of Indonesia for a pilot program showed the Coalition policy would be put to a serious test.
“Getting a student into Singapore is pretty straightforward. Hong Kong, not an issue. Indonesia, for a variety of reasons, represents a challenge,” he said.
Efforts to stimulate student interest would have to overcome a legacy of negative images of Indonesia. And negotiating the often complex bureaucracy of Indonesia required “on the ground” expertise.
“Obtaining a temporary resident permit for study in Indonesia is something that individual students find very, very difficult,” Professor Hill said.
“Our experience (at ACICIS) is that (individual) universities in the main are not able to assist their students in that.”
Nothing short of presidential intervention is likely to override Indonesia’s immigration bureaucracy and create a workable student visa, according to education sources in Indonesia.
“I don’t think a reverse Colombo Plan in Indonesia has legs, considering how the current visa system works,” said Erin McMahon, one of the young graduates who has found it impossible to secure promised “work and holiday” visas to Indonesia.
“If keen Indonesianists have trouble working it out, then your average student isn’t even going to bother,” he said.