Address to New Colombo Plan launch

Speech, E&OE, (check against delivery)

Great Hall, Parliament House, Canberra

10 December 2013

Her Excellency the Governor-General Quentin Bryce, my ministerial colleague and the Minister for Education, Christopher Pyne, my Parliamentary Secretary Brett Mason, ministerial colleagues, Members and Senators, the Deputy Leader of the Opposition, distinguished members of the diplomatic corps and distinguished members of the audience all. I'm absolutely delighted that you are able to join us here in the Great Hall of the National Parliament for the launch of an initiative of the Coalition Government that we believe will not only transform the educational experience of young Australian undergraduates, but will transform Australia's engagement in our region.

As a former Education Minister, I was convinced of the need for Australia to ensure that more of our students not only studied overseas, but studied in our region. And the idea came to me that we needed to reverse the original Colombo Plan in order to achieve that outcome. And I think it's important in the context of this launch today to remember why Australia entered into the original Colombo Plan.

And I'll read you a quote from Percy Spender, the Minister for External Affairs in the Menzies Government. This was said on the 9th of January 1950: Geographically, Australia is next door to Asia, and our destiny as a nation is irrevocably conditioned by what takes place in Asia. This means that our future depends, to an ever-increasing degree, upon the political stability of our Asian neighbours, upon the economic wellbeing of Asian people, and upon the development of understanding and friendly relations between Australia and Asia. Whilst it remains true that peace is indivisible, and that what takes place in any part of the world may affect us, our vital interests are closer to home. It is therefore in Asia, and the Pacific, that Australia should make its primary effort in the field of foreign relations.

He uttered those words on the eve of his visit to Sri Lanka, where, in Colombo, he signed Australia up to the original Colombo Plan which saw students from the region come to Australia to live with families here, to study in our universities, to learn about us, and to go home after a positive experience. And over 30 years, about 40,000 young people from the region were Colombo Plan scholars in Australia.

And as I travel around the region, which we call the Indian Ocean Asia-Pacific – because we are bound by two great oceans, the Indian and the Pacific – as I travel around the region I'm struck by the number of former Prime Ministers, Presidents, Vice-Presidents, Cabinet Ministers, business leaders, community leaders who were Colombo Plan scholars, and their understanding of Australia was fashioned by their time here as a student.

Indeed the Vice-President of Indonesia is a Colombo Plan scholar; the Minister for National Development in Singapore is a Colombo Plan scholar. And this alumni, this network, is exceedingly powerful in foreign policy terms. And that is what we're trying to achieve, but in reverse. So, we aim to build on the existing educational links that exist between Australia and countries in the region, but increase the number of undergraduates who are not only studying overseas, but studying in our region.

Now the guests here today, including representatives from the universities and the education sector, senior business figures, the diplomatic corps and my parliamentary colleagues, that reflects the broad reach of this new Colombo Plan. We will be depending heavily on you – the universities, the business sector and our regional partners – to make this initiative a success for our mutual benefit. And I look forward to continuing to work closely with you in the months ahead.

I extend a special welcome to our representatives from the four pilot locations who are here today, from Indonesia, Japan, Hong Kong and Singapore. And I'm absolutely delighted that the governments of those locations have agreed to be part of the pilot program in 2014. I'm also delighted that we have with us some student representatives, representatives from senior schools here in the ACT, as well as Australian undergraduate students and students from the region who are studying here in Australia.

These groups represent the present and the future of what we are trying to achieve, stimulating an interest in studying in the region, as well as increasing the two-way exchange of students between Australia and the region. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade -for this is an initiative of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade – and the Department of Education are working closely together to ensure that the New Colombo Plan pilot program 2014 will provide for a range of study opportunities for Australian undergraduates.

We're going to be very flexible about this. There will be a prestigious scholarship program for periods of study between one semester and one year, and innovative mobility grants scheme for short-term and semester study, up to a maximum of one year. The scholarship program will ensure that as the New Colombo Plan expands across the Indo-Pacific, more of our best and brightest undergraduates are strongly supported to spend a substantial period of time studying and living in the region.

I'm pleased to announce that the top-ranked New Colombo Plan scholar in each location, in each year, will also obtain the additional prestige of becoming a New Colombo Plan Fellow. In 2014, we will award fellowships in the pilot year to students who will become the Singapore fellow, the Hong Kong fellow, the Japan fellow, and, for Indonesia, the Yudhoyono fellow, as announced when Prime Minister Abbott visited Indonesia earlier this year. And there will be a fellow for each host country that joins the new Colombo Plan in 2015.

The mobility grants pilot program will enable universities to assist their students to access a wide range of study and learning opportunities in the region. Mobility grant applications are open for any field of study, and will assist universities and students to generate more partnerships and expand links in the region that are so central to this initiative. To encourage as many universities as possible to apply for the mobility grants, the new Colombo Plan will facilitate universities acting as consortia to deliver study opportunities for Australian students into the region.

Next year, we expect to award about 40 12-month scholarships, ten in each location, and to award a range of mobility grants for around 700 Australian undergraduates across the four pilot locations.

The program will be open to Australian undergraduates aged 18 to 28 at all Australian universities. And the key to this program will be the internships, or similar mentorship, or practical work experience arrangements. This is integral to the new Colombo Plan with the aim of ensuring that our new Colombo Plan students have professional connections in the region and can link their study experience directly to career opportunities, either with businesses and organisations and entities from Australia operating in the host country, or from organisations within the host country.

As I have visited the region in recent months, and spoken about the new Colombo Plan, I have been really thrilled by the response to the issue of the internships and those opportunities. And I know that our diplomatic representatives in the region, business chambers, and our regional neighbours, are already hard at work to develop these ideas for the pilot program. I also know that universities are eagerly awaiting the detail of these pilot program opportunities, and I'm delighted to confirm that the full guidelines are being published today.

Indeed, because we're so encouraged by the enthusiasm of Australia's universities for the new Colombo Plan, we are providing early opportunities for universities to apply for mobility grants, for study programs, in semester one of 2014.

The new Colombo plan is an ambitious, but a long term venture. We're starting with a pilot phase so that we can test the model and review and refine the program ahead of its broader roll out across the region in 2015 and beyond. 2014 will therefore be a busy year for the Government as we intensify and work with our regional neighbours from universities and businesses to build a sustainable, high quality program that endures, one that supports our regional engagement for decades to come. And to assist the Government, we will establish a steering committee to advise us, chaired by the secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Peter Varghese, and co-vice chairs, Kevin McCann and Professor Sandra Harding, who are both with us today.

They have been part of a steering committee that advised us through our time in Opposition as we were developing this plan, and it's their enthusiasm throughout the past eight months or more that has been so infectious. Indeed, it's the new Colombo Plan's potential to bring about long-term benefits for Australia's engagement in the region that is so motivating for so many people.

The importance of learning and sharing experiences is fundamental to the new Colombo Plan's ambition, and I believe that the guests gathered here today understand and appreciate very well the power of learning exchange and the benefits it will bring to Australia.

When we increase the number of student exchanges between countries, not only are our personal networks enhanced, our world view is shared and our understanding of each other, and the way we do business, and the way we live increases dramatically. And I know that the power of education, and of learning, is also important to our very special guest here today. [Indistinct] …the Governor General of the Commonwealth of Australia, the Honourable Quentin Bryce.

It therefore gives me great pleasure to announce today that her Excellency the Governor General has agreed to be the official patron of the new Colombo Plan. Your Excellency, thank you [indistinct] …and the Australian people this honour.

[Applause]

Ladies and gentlemen, in launching the pilot program today, I ask her Excellency, the Governor General, to make a few remarks. Thank you.

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