Australia's education gravity shift to Asia

It was a while ago, but I often tell colleagues that as a student at the University of Western Australia I was more likely to be sitting in an economics lecture next to a peer from Asia than I was another woman from Australia.

However, despite our great success in attracting Asian students to Australia over the past 60 years, our Australian students have typically bypassed our nearest geographical neighbours, opting to work and study in western countries.

"Higher education meets foreign policy meets our economic imperative - preparing our next generation of leaders to capitalise on Asia's rise."
Suzette Corr, General Manager Human Resources Australia & Group General Manager Talent and Culture | ANZ

Perhaps we have felt more historically aligned with the United Kingdom or had aspirations more closely aligned with the United States? Or maybe it was the language barrier, or even a fear of the unknown shaping our comprehension of what was possible?

Either way, it seems we'd failed to see the huge cultural, social and economic opportunities available from study within our Asia-Pacific region.

This centre of gravity is now starting to shift - we're witnessing an evolution of the Australian mindset. With the fastest growing region on our doorstep we've developed a shared understanding it's time to equip the Australian workforce for the Asian century is clearly developing.

In a relatively short time frame the Australian Government's New Colombo Plan is turbo-charging this shift.

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Photographer: Stephen Ries

The brainchild of Minister for Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop, the New Colombo Plan has been widely supported and welcomed by the university and business sectors as well as the region and most importantly students, with 5000 participating in study assistance and scholarships across the region over the course of 2014 and 2015.

In addition, the New Colombo Plan Business Program will allow business to support and reap the benefits of the program by providing private-sector internships to New Colombo Plan students, bringing a breadth to their experience and helping to prepare this generation for longer term engagement in the Asia-Pacific region.

In essence this is 'higher education meets foreign policy meets our economic imperative', as we prepare our next generation of leaders to capitalise on Asia's rise.

It's a nod to the original Colombo Plan which ran from the 1950s-1980s. A highly successful initiative which saw 40,000 Asian students educated at Australian Universities.

Its aim was to strengthen the social and economic ties between Asia and Australia and we know from engagement with the region that this continues to benefit Australia today.

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Photographer: Stephen Ries


For a bank with a super-regional focus like ANZ the benefits of the New Colombo Plan are clear - cultivating a pipeline of talent with a regional mindset is essential to our success.

ANZ will be participating in the New Colombo Plan's internship program, rolling out the pilot in Singapore, Hong Kong and China. Students with a particular interest in banking and commerce will have the opportunity to experience real-life professional situations and gain insight into what it's like to work for ANZ in the region.

But it's not just ANZ who will reap the benefits. Let me share four reasons why I think the New Colombo Plan is a great initiative.


With Asia's status as the world's growth engine firmly established, it's more important than ever for us to better engage with our nearest neighbours. The New Colombo Plan will be vital in developing the pipeline of future leaders with the skills and connections needed to successfully do business in Asia.

It will help students better understand how Asia ticks. It will thicken the weave of relationships between people who are from, what are at times, starkly different cultures.

The New Colombo Plan will give students the chance to develop lasting connections and relationships, but importantly it will give them a unique understanding of how things are done in Asia.


Put simply, Asian capability is a clear competitive advantage for business. A recent AsiaLink taskforce chaired by ANZ CEO Mike Smith found the higher the proportion of leaders who have cultural training, speak an Asian language or have lived and worked in Asia for more than three months, the more likely business performance will exceed expectations.

It makes good business sense to employ people who actually understand a market in which you are trying to grow. At ANZ, the pilot program will support our existing recruitment activities and act as a feeder of high calibre graduate talent.


In years to come we will look back on the New Colombo Plan as an investment made not just in a generation of students but in Australia's future.

When young people from across the Asia-Pacific came and studied in Australia as part of the original plan it engendered generations of goodwill towards our country - this will be no different.

Through the New Colombo Plan, Australia will create a steady flow of Asia-literate ambassadors who are familiar with the region, and who are likely to become the future community, business and political leaders of this country.


To make a meaningful shift in the capabilities of our nation's workforce we need a coordinated plan involving Government, business and academia.

It's come down to a question of leadership, and it's needed from each of these sectors in order to achieve real change.

Minister Bishop should be applauded for the extraordinary vision and commitment in championing this significant initiative which will pay dividends for decades to come as we deepen regional ties for the next 40 years.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade should be commended for the speed and coordination effort in ensuring the roll out of this program at rapid pace.

It's ambitious, but there is no doubt in my mind that the New Colombo Plan will leave a legacy ensuring our next generation of leaders are well placed to engage and capitalise on Asia's rise.

Suzette Corr is Group General Manager Talent & Culture and General Manager HR Australia at ANZ and a member of the New Colombo Plan Reference Group.

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The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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