John Menadue. Will the new Colombo Plan work?

Julie Bishop has announced a ‘signature initiative’ of the Australian government which aims to lift knowledge of the Indo-Pacific in Australia by supporting Australian undergraduates with internships in the region.

This initiative is commendable but I hope it avoids the problem of earlier attempts to lift Australian understanding and skills for our region. The main problem before was that young Australians who committed themselves to skills about our region couldn’t get jobs in Australia. So they drifted away. Will we make the same mistake again?

Let me give some background.

The early Colombo Plan which was introduced by the Menzies Government in the 1950s brought thousands of young people from our region to study in Australia. At Adelaide University where I was educated there were hundreds of such Colombo Plan students. This earlier Colombo Plan built up not only the skills of these young people but it broadened and developed relationships between Australia and regional countries. Today there would be hundreds and perhaps thousands of former Colombo Plan students who now occupy senior government and diplomatic positions in the region.

Now the government is proposing the reverse – providing scholarships for study by Australians for up to one year in the region with internships and mentoring backup. It is designed to deepen Australia’s relationship with the region, both at the individual level and through expanded links between universities and business. The Abbott Government has committed $100 million over five years for the new Colombo Plan.

In the 1970s and 1980s there was a major upsurge in Asian language training in Australia. It followed the quite dramatic increase in trade in our region, particularly with Japan and later with Korea. But this upsurge in foreign language learning in Australia did not last. Our schools, colleges and universities gradually lost interest in equipping Australians with skills for the region. Our education system didn’t have resources or a long-term view to really embed Asian language training in our educational system.

But it wasn’t just the fault of our education system. It turned out to be very difficult for Australian graduates with language skills to get employment with Australian companies. I spoke to hundreds of young graduates either individually or in groups over many years about the problem. I felt a bit responsible, along with Steve FitzGerald and others for encouraging young people to acquire Asian language skills. But it turned out to be a dead end as far as employment was concerned. These young graduates invariably told me that they had put five or more years into acquiring regional cultural or language skills but couldn’t find employers who were interested. Some obtained employment with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and Austrade, but many drifted overseas to work with foreign companies in, for example, Hong Kong, Singapore and Tokyo.

Some of these young graduates may have had unreasonable expectations that a language skill would inevitably lead to employment. But I have no doubt that the lack of interest by corporate employers was a major problem.

The lack of interest then by Australian companies continues today as far as I can tell. I have yet to learn of a single CEO or Director of our top 100 companies who can fluently speak any of our regional languages. They just don’t get it. The culture of most of their organisations is very parochial.

It is also the experience that young Australian business people sent overseas to work in the region often resign on return to Australia because of an unsympathetic and sometimes hostile attitude to people who have worked in the region. I set this out in a blog of August 26 last year ‘Returning home can be the hard part’.

At Qantas in the late 1980s we recruited a number of people with Asian skills. Some were given internships. But it didn’t last and within a few years most of them had left Qantas or worked in areas of Qantas where their Asian skills were not relevant. We recruited cabin crew with Japanese language skills, but it was a major problem overcoming the seniority rules for cabin crew which reserved the best routes, including the Sydney-Tokyo route for more senior cabin crew who didn’t have language skills.

Because of the failure of previous attempts to educate young people for our region the government has now adopted a new approach in the new Colombo Plan. The government has come to the understandable view that galvanising our education system to respond to our region is very hard and that it might make more sense to send young Australians into the region to live and learn in that environment.

My experience tells me that the experience of these young Australians in the region will be quite dramatic. It will be life-changing for many of them. But a key to the success will be the reception they get when they return to Australia. Will the business community respond in a better way than it did twenty years ago when it failed to employ so many young Australians who had acquired Asian skills in our universities?

I hope we don’t make the same mistakes again because the new Colombo Plan is a very commendable initiative.

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