How the New Colombo Plan Has Changed the Face of Australian Outbound Mobility
The New Colombo Plan turns two years old in the coming days.
Many long-time staff in Australian universities that look after outbound student mobility could probably define their career into two distinct 'periods': the 'pre-New Colombo Plan' period and 'now'.
Why? Because the New Colombo Plan (NCP) has fundamentally changed the way that most Australian universities approach outbound student mobility.
The change has been about more than just an increase in workload and greater numbers of students participating on programs to Asia. The NCP has created a shift in the way that international offices and sections of universities collaborate with their faculties, other universities and service providers in order to generate more outbound mobility offerings for students.
The volume of work has been significant, but even more significant has been the trend towards more innovative and dynamic student mobility programming.
It would be easy to look at the NCP and assume that this has happened because of the huge injection of money into scholarships and related initiatves - some $100 million over 5 years - but this would be to understate the more powerful underlying reasons as to why the NCP has been truly transformative to Australian outbound mobility.
Here are five explanations as to how the NCP has managed to change the face of Australian outbound mobility.
1. A Visionary and Tireless Foreign Minister Pushing the Program at the Highest Level
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop credits the idea for the New Colombo Plan as having come to her during her time as Education Minister under the Howard Government. Inspired by potential for young Australians to engage more in the region, and particularly with businesses and on a person-to-person basis, prior to the last election she established the concept of a 'Reverse Colombo Plan' - an initiative to make studying in the Asia-Pacific region a transformative 'right of passage'.
The difference with the New Colombo Plan (as it would become) and previous Government initiatives was its focus on getting students to engage with businesses in the region along with the ramping up the number of both short and long term, as well as prestigious and mass-participation, experiences.
But where vision is one thing, execution is entirely another. And Bishop has provided a powerful example of how success comes through following strong vision with efficient execution. Not satisfied to simply pass responsibility to others, she has been a tireless champion for the New Colombo Plan - actively promoting from foreign Governments to business, bureaucrats to students.
Never has Australia seen the mobility of students elevated to such a high position in its national and foreign policy discourse. In fact, on a global scale, there would be few, if any, foreign ministers that are as passionate and active in their advocacy for increased student mobility as Minister Bishop.
2. Superb Implementation by the Bureaucracy
Those who haven't worked for, or with, Government might not fully appreciate the remarkable way that the bureaucracy (led by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, in partnership with the Department of Education) have implemented the NCP.
The program has been rolled out in a timeframe that, to many observers of Government, would not have seemed possible barely two years ago. What makes the feat even more impressive is the multi-faceted elements of the program that have been launched and subsequently managed: the scholarships and mobility grants programs, a Business Champions initiative, an Internship and Mentorship network, a significant number of high profile events and public activities, and more.
This has been achieved through exceptional consultation with stakeholders, leveraging the expertise and experience of the Department of Education in regards to scholarship management, and a phenomenal amount of hard work by a team that one might have expected (given the output) to be twice the size.
3, Capturing the Attention of Vice Chancellors
A by-product of having a Foreign Minister making the highly visible case for increased student mobility with our regional neighbours has been that the New Colombo Plan has made outbound study an issue that Vice Chancellors can no longer ignore, or merely pay lip-service to.
This has been to the point where many VCs are viewing their NCP funding outcomes with the same results-driven eye as research funding and are asking the same questions: How much did we get? What did we get it for? Why didn't we get more?
This top-down engagement inside institutions has been something that, despite supportive statements in strategic plans over the past decade, has failed in many cases to materialise into concrete support. Operational mobility staff at many institutions have been frustrated by these statements failing to be backed up by real action on thorny internal issues: Things like increasing scholarship funding for outbound students, 'unblocking' credit transfer issues arising from restrictive degrees, an unwillingness to address internal 'gatekeepers', and academic workload models (where engagement in overseas study opportunities, like study tours, is not recognised) and the list goes on.
The New Colombo Plan has not necessarily resolved these issues, but it has sufficiently engaged a wider pool of Vice Chancellors so as to make internal discussions more straight forward. It has put outbound mobility more squarely on their radar.
And on the flip side of this, the NCP has given operational outbound mobility staff more muscle in their internal travails: "If we want to do better out of New Colombo, we're going to have to..."
4. Bi-Partisan Buy-In and a Benchmark in Policy Development
The New Colombo Plan has been a benchmark in public policy development.
In Opposition, then Shadow Minister Bishop started a consultative process to develop the NCP that included a series of roundtables, industry consultations and a high-profile steering committee. This was backed up by formidable work completed by Don Markwell and Rachael Thompson (then at the Menzies Research Centre).
This stakeholder-focused approach ensured that industry was 'brought along' throughout the policy development. Also made clear throughout the process was that the intention of the policy was for the New Colombo Plan to be 'in perpetuity' and for it to be implemented with bi-partisan support.
Labor, to its credit, has provided that bi-partisan support, with the Deputy Opposition Leader, Tanya Plibersek, attending and speaking at the launch of the NCP. This bi-partisan support for student mobility, which is historical (see below), bodes well for the future of the NCP.
5. Involving Business
Research is unequivocal about the benefits of overseas study. However, one of the short comings has always been ensuring that employers not only understand those benefits, but associate the soft skills they are looking for in graduates as being the skills students acquire whilst studying overseas.
For the first time, the NCP has started engaging with the business sector - both in Australia and overseas. The paradigm shift will be slow but, as New Colombo graduates filter out into the working world, it will gather momentum over time.
This engagement will 'complete the circle' and become self-perpetuating. As employers understand the benefits of overseas study better, they will increasingly demand those experiences from graduates. Students will also know that in order to get their preferred job, they will need those experiences on their resume. Once employed and advanced in their careers, this increasing number of 'internationally skilled' students will also further demand those experiences of future employees.
This 'positive feedback loop' with business will further enhance the long-term impact of the New Colombo Plan and ensure that the Plan continues to change the face of Australian outbound mobility for some time yet.
A Brief Bi-Partisan History of Australian Outbound Mobility
Under Labor's Paul Keating Australia was unquestionably brought closer to Asia and, in 1993, the University Mobility in the Asia Pacific (UMAP) scheme was born as a result of the work of many nations. This scheme helped thousands to study across the region with generous scholarships.
Fast forward a decade, and the Howard Government introduced the OS-HELP loan scheme for Australian students in 2004. This HECS-based loan enabled students to borrowed up to $5000 to help fund an overseas study experience, which they would later pay back as part of their HECS debt. For tens of thousands of students this removed the financial barrier to studying overseas...although it came with a 20% loan fee attached - you borrowed $5000 and would eventually pay back $6000 (plus indexation).
Throughout the 2000's, outbound scholarship funding under various Governments was increased (under the banners of Endeavour grants, short term mobility program grants and the public-private partnership Cheung Kong-Endeavour grants).
In 2009 (and following a national campaign by AIM Overseas) the Rudd Government accepted a recommendation from the Bradley Review of Higher Education to remove the 20% OS-HELP loan fee. This led to a doubling in OS-HELP uptake in 12 months as universities and their students embraced it as a fair, easily accessible scheme.
Finally, in 2012, the Gillard Government announced 'AsiaBound', a scheme with $30 million in new funding to help more students study in the region (it has been argued that AsiaBound was a policy response to the then Opposition's proposal for a 'Reverse Colombo Plan', but politics aside, it was still a significant student mobility initiative).
And now we have the New Colombo Plan.
Aside from a significant pool of new money ($100 million over 5 years), the Plan does three significant things that Australian outbound student mobility has not seen before.
Firstly, it has elevated student mobility to a top-level Government priority, one that the Prime and Foreign Ministers discuss as a priority issue with other leaders as they travel across the region.
Secondly, it combines the formidable student mobility expertise of the Department of Education with the foreign diplomacy clout of Foreign Affairs and Trade. The cross-Departmental collaboration, led by some very skilled bureaucrats, appears strong and already efficiently implemented.
And finally, the Plan draws in the business and not-for-profit sectors across the region through the inclusion of internship and mentoring experiences for awardees. This introduces welcome new elements of deep engagement and sustainability.
Without question there are many details to be resolved. There are big hurdles to be removed, mistakes to be made and other 'wrinkles' to iron out. But the impressive speed with which the first funding program has been opened (barely three months into a new Government - an inconceivably fast turnaround for such an initiative) shows a political will the likes of which we have not seen before.
After more than a decade working exclusively in outbound student mobility, I pinched myself many times during the launch ceremony, wondering if I ever could have imagined the day I would be standing in Parliament House as a major student mobility scheme was launched by the Foreign Minister and Governor General.
All partisan sentiments aside, the New Colombo Plan has all the hallmarks of powerful bi-partisan policy that creates a new vision for Australian engagement and relations in the region, a vision that will be strongly embraced by universities, students, businesses and nations.
Rob Malicki is the director of the Australian Institute for Mobility Overseas and a member of the Government's Reference Group for the New Colombo Plan. He is one of Australia's leading outbound student mobility experts and has consulted to Governments of all persuasions.
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