Red tape hinders Asia exchange plan

by: Bernard Lane
From: The Australian
March 27, 2013

THE Coalition’s soft diplomacy plan to send thousands of young Australians to universities in Asia may face “diabolical” problems of accreditation, a policy roundtable has been told.

Regulation, the weakness of languages education, and student motivation were among the challenges cited by the 140 leaders in higher education and business at last Friday’s meeting staged by the Liberal Party think tank the Menzies Research Centre.

One university executive spoke of the concern of Chinese partners as Australia’s regulator, the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency, asked about the qualifications of Chinese teaching staff. “This kind of bureaucratic interference will turn off our partners all around the world and put a big obstacle in the way of this (new Colombo) program,” another higher education figure said.

Others said accreditation problems could be “diabolical” and would need to be tackled early.

Opposition foreign affairs spokeswoman Julie Bishop said: “The bureaucratic constraints that have been raised must be overcome; we’re not going to have a body tell us we can’t do this because we haven’t got the course accreditation right.”

A TEQSA spokesman said it was up to local institutions to prove to the regulator that study abroad programs involving “third parties” complied with threshold standards. Opposition universities minister Brett Mason said the new Colombo Plan might ultimately do for Asia what the Bologna process had done in Europe.

“(It) will hopefully contribute to a more integrated higher education system in our region, serving as a platform for mutual recognition, accreditation and quality assurance,” he said.

Ms Bishop said the Coalition hoped to begin test programs, probably in Indonesia and one other country, within the first year of government, and would negotiate issues such as accreditation and visas on a bilateral basis as nations in the region “opted in”.

Several participants said naming the Coalition policy after the Cold War-era Colombo Plan was ill-advised, either because of its supposedly paternalistic connotation or because it would mean nothing to today’s students in need of inspiration to go abroad.

Ms Bishop said it was “a working title” that “evokes a very positive chapter in Australia’s history” but she was “not wedded” to it. The Coalition’s attempt to bring together and consult those with an interest in study abroad and internships appeared to be well received.

Consultant Rob Malicki, from AIM Overseas, said it was the first time that “a group of this calibre” had been called together for a national debate about outward mobility. “The other aspect that is unique is the fact that it’s a political party engaging so early in the process of developing policy,” Mr Malicki said. Asked what would happen to existing federal programs for outward mobility, Ms Bishop said the Coalition would consult widely before any decision.

“What we want to do is build on what exists — there might be some government programs that more properly should be rolled into this (new Colombo) program.”

In passing, she said Labor’s $37 million AsiaBound program had “only been in existence for a couple of months, it’s hardly got any market cachet”.

On funding, she said the Coalition plan was “a grand initiative (and) would have to be resourced” but like any program it would be “constrained” by the state of the budget inherited by an incoming government.

In any case, she said, lack of money was not the main reason given by young Australians who failed to take up study abroad offers. Providing offshore work placements would help bring about a fundamental change in attitudes.