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2014 Philippine Science High School (PSHS) graduates

The wealth of our young as New Colombo Plan ambassadors

Westpac's CEO Gail Kelly and school kids
Westpac’s CEO Gail Kelly and school kids

BY JULIE BISHOP, Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs

I’ve had a number of experiences of travelling and working and living and studying overseas but two experiences have truly shaped my world view and have changed my life.

The first was when I was a university student, I think it was at the end of my first year at Adelaide University, and my sister and I worked throughout our university days, saved up enough money to go overseas for the first time, and we decided to travel throughout South East Asia. Now most of my friends and relatives who had the opportunity to travel overseas went to Europe, particularly to the United Kingdom.

We decided that this is where we live, this is our neighbourhood, this is our region, so my sister Patricia and I did a backpacking type tour through South East Asia and we fell in love with the region.

The second experience that literally changed my life was many, many years later after I’d been a lawyer for far too many years for me to recount now, I had the opportunity to do some further study overseas and I undertook a sabbatical to do an Advanced Management Program at Harvard Business School in Boston. At that stage in my life it was such a luxury to be able to spend what turned out to be four months away from work, friends, family, Australia to absorb the life of being a student again and learning from others, exchanging ideas and coming home with new perspectives and new insights. The New Colombo Plan brings together the two amazing experiences in my life – a love of our region and the benefits of studying overseas.

I became the Education Minister in 2006 under the Howard Government and one of the first initiatives I implemented was an Education Conference, an international education conference to showcase Australian education to 26 Education Ministers and representatives from what I, at that time called, ‘Greater Asia’, countries to the north and east of this nation.

About half an hour into the conference I realised that something was missing – while I was showcasing Australia as a magnificent place for students to come, to learn and gain qualifications, the Education Ministers were asking – why Australian students weren’t studying in their universities.

It occurred to me that we had a growing diplomatic issue, that Australia was prepared to accept students from our universities in the region but we really didn’t make enough effort to ensure that students, when they chose to study overseas, went to the region. Sure, you’d get students going to the US and to the UK and Europe but why were they not focussing on studying in the region?

So I was determined to do something about that and by the time I had all the necessary reports done we lost government. The next government didn’t pick up the idea, and I have to say I’m grateful for that, because now as Foreign Minister I can implement a significant government backed program that provides an opportunity for young Australians to live and study in our region.

Our foreign policy priorities are centred on the Indian Ocean Asia-Pacific -it’s our neighbourhood, it’s where we live, it’s where our top trading partners are and our friends and neighbours. This is where our future lies. So with the backing of the Prime Minister and with a magnificent effort from a group of people who were involved in student mobility and business and academia, headed by Kevin McCann, we put together a blueprint to make the New Colombo Plan a reality.

Why the name? The original Colombo Plan that was established in the 1950s for about 30 years in this country, saw about 40,000 young people from the region study in Australia. Between the 1950s and 1980s these thousands of young people, as they were then, had this opportunity to live amongst Australians, to go to our universities, to absorb our culture, our politics, our lifestyle and then go back to their home countries and be ambassadors for life for Australia.

Whenever I travel through the region I’m struck by the number of Presidents, Vice Presidents, Cabinet Ministers, business leaders who say to me – ‘I was a Colombo Plan scholar’. There is so much goodwill around that name in our region, particularly at a government political level. So we came up with the concept of the New Colombo Plan, which is the old Colombo Plan in reverse.

It is way past time that Australia focussed on ensuring that the next generation and generations of young Australians thereafter have the opportunity to absorb what it really means to be located geographically in this part of the world. So the New Colombo Plan was born.

We launched it formally last December. We had the backing of the Opposition, the Labor Party have backed it, we had the approval of the Governor-General at the time, Dame Quentin Bryce, became the Patron of it. We decided there would be three tranches of awards, or scholarships available.

Two tranches of mobility opportunities and 12 month scholarships because we didn’t want it to be a one size fits all. Student circumstances, the universities circumstances, the particular courses, how this fits into their lifestyle varies dramatically and I knew instinctively that if we just made it a single award many students would not be able to take it up, so the custom design of the New Colombo Plan is what really makes it work.

The other aspect that was so vital, and again Kevin will attest to this, in our discussions we knew that what would set the New Colombo Plan apart from other scholarships and awards and bursaries was the opportunity for the students to have an internship, a work experience or a mentorship with a business of an organisation in the host country and that would just add another dimension.

Not only will the students meet other students and teachers and lecturers and new friends and connections but then when they have their intern opportunity, they’ll see how business works, or how a profession works, or how a hospital works or a studio or an NGO, and hopefully they’ll maintain those connections.

We want the New Colombo Plan scholars to come back to Australia, not only to add to our productivity, and our prosperity, because you’ll come back with these new insights and ideas and enthusiasm for your studies and working in Asia and working with Asian clients here in Australia, but our country will benefit.

Our country will benefit enormously from having young ambassadors, from Australia, who have an understanding, an insight into the region that only comes from living and studying and working there.

So this is a foreign policy initiative. Sure it’s a magnificent educational experience for you. The individual experience will benefit you in ways you can’t even imagine now but for the country this is a foreign policy initiative that will see our country well placed, exquisitely placed, to take advantage of the growth in our region.

The fact that the economic global epicentre is moving from West to East and that our future as a nation will depend on the level of engagement that we’re able to achieve with our friends and neighbours and partners in the region.

That doesn’t mean that the United States and Europe and Africa and South America are not important to us. We are a country with global interests but this is where we live, this is where we have the greatest influence, this is where we can make the biggest difference. So our foreign policy assets, our military and defence capability, our economic and trade capacity, our foreign aid, our diplomatic efforts are unambiguously focussed on our region.

I see you as one of the richest assets of all, our young people being ambassadors for Australia in the Indian Ocean Asia-Pacific.

As for the detail of the plan, I couldn’t be more delighted with the pilot scheme we’ve had this year. You are part of the pilot scheme. Congratulations. We chose four locations in Indonesia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan. We have anticipated that about 1000 students will take part in the pilot but I can confirm that it will be well in excess of 1000 students, probably more like 1300 by the time we add the 12-month scholarship winners.

There’s been a great deal of enthusiasm from universities across the country. In the first tranche, admittedly there wasn’t a lot of time because we only launched it in December and last time I checked the universities are on holidays in January, but nevertheless we were able to get 24 universities across Australia to take part in the first tranche and 300 students went to the four locations.

This second tranche, 38 universities have taken part and 1000 students will be part of the second tranche and then in a couple of months time we’ll announce those who’ve received a 12-month scholarship and of those the top student from the four locations will also have a particular level of support. They’ll be a Fellow.

As of 2015, other countries are going to opt in and that means they will have determined if their universities are ready – they’ve got courses, there’s course accreditation, visa issues sorted out, the businesses and entities are prepared to host the students. I’m absolutely delighted, particularly in the presence of the Consul-General from China, Consul-General Li and I also acknowledge the acting Consul General for Indonesia, I’m absolutely delighted that China has already signed up to be part of the New Colombo Plan for 2015.


I’ve also written to my counterpart Foreign Ministers in other countries where universities are located in our region from as far east as Suva, the University of the South Pacific, right through to Pakistan in the west. So there are a myriad of opportunities, it doesn’t matter what you study and what your circumstances are there’s an opportunity for you under the New Colombo Plan.


So first I’m pleased to announce that 1000 students will take part in the second tranche of the New Colombo Plan. Secondly, I’m absolutely delighted to announce that His Excellency, the Governor General Sir Peter Cosgrove has agreed to become the Patron, taking over from Dame Quentin Bryce, of the New Colombo Plan. I can’t think of a finer role model for young students than Sir Peter and I know that he will take a personal interest in this and he’s asked me particularly about the alumni. What are we going to do about the students who come back? We’re determined to ensure that you remain connected and engaged with the New Colombo Plan, that you remain connected with your university and your business or entity that’s looked after you and that we have events and functions and initiatives here that mean you are forever a New Colombo Plan scholar.


I hope that this is just the beginning of your opportunities to live and travel and study overseas and I can’t think of a better diplomatic initiative than sending our best and brightest into our region.


I’m delighted to launch the second tranche and announce Sir Peter Cosgrove as the patron of the New Colombo Plan.