Learning beyond borders: Educational exchanges in ASEAN-Australia relations

Cross-border educational exchanges among youth are a substantive, compelling component of ASEAN-Australia public diplomacy and should be nurtured.

High school students at the ASEAN-Australia Youth Forum 2019 in South Australia. Photograph: Asia Education Foundation Facebook page.

ASEAN-Australia relations are, to borrow cricket parlance, on a good wicket. The two sides mark four and a half decades of ties in 2019, with the milestone following a year of diplomatic bonhomie. Sydney hosted the very first ASEAN-Australia Special Summit in March last year and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison later attended the 33rd ASEAN Summit in Singapore in November (Yuen-C, 2019). While trade, security, and infrastructure are natural focal points for cooperation, youth affairs are another key area of focus. Canberra’s ‘Australia now’ programme, launched in 2018, recognizes this. Essentially functioning as a soft power initiative, the programme seeks to promote Australia within a nominated ‘country or region of strategic significance’ (‘Australia now’, 2019); ASEAN being the chosen partner for 2019. This year’s programme focuses on tapping into the youth demographic and includes several events focusing on different youth sectors such as innovation (Startup Thailand 2019), public diplomacy (Australia-Vietnam Young Leadership Dialogue 2019), and culture (Festival Sinema Australia Indonesia 2019). The significance of ASEAN as the focus for the 2019 Australia Now programme is hardly understated, for it underscores the importance of interregional educational exchanges in providing the foundation of ASEAN-Australia youth relations.

Australia Now logo. Photo: Australia Now Media Kit

Education in ASEAN-Australia relations: An Overview

Looking at the bigger picture of the various youth linkages between Australia and ASEAN, it is obvious that education is the primary point of connection. This is clearly reflected by the number of ASEAN students studying in Australia, which has grown exponentially over the last few decades. In 2017, there were over 100,000 Southeast Asian students in Australia, making up a sixth of all international students in the country (‘Why ASEAN matters: our shared connections’, 2019). Being globally recognized and highly ranked, Australian universities are natural choices for the burgeoning ASEAN student population. The geographical nearness further enhances the appeal. In a survey conducted by the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, Australia ranked as the third most popular choice for tertiary (university level) education, with over 20% of the respondents ranking it their top choice (Tang, Thuzar, Ha, Chalermpalanupap and Qian, 2019). In turn, there is a growing interest in ASEAN among Australian students.

Boosting education ties

Given the scale of educational interaction, youth cooperation has been flourishing between the two partners. In 2014, they signed a bilateral strategic partnership and adopted a 4 year ‘Plan of Action’ (2015-2019). The plan includes several action points related to youth and education such as expansion of internship programmes, regional collaboration on technical and vocational training, and qualification recognition (‘2015-2019 Plan of Action To Implement The ASEAN-Australia Strategic Partnership’, 2015). In 2015, the Australian government created the Australia-ASEAN Council which aims to boost cooperation and interaction through ‘stronger business, science, education, arts and cultural links’ (‘Australia-ASEAN Council at a glance’, 2019). More recently, at the special summit last year, the Australian government announced fifty ‘Australia Awards ASEAN’ Scholarships. The government’s flagship New Colombo Plan initiative (which encourages Australian students to undertake exchanges and mobility programmes in the Indo-Pacific) has also introduced a new ASEAN Fellowship in 2018.

New Colombo Plan Scholars 2019. Photo: Australian Embassy Thailand.

The logic and value of educational exchanges

Beyond the obvious economic value, there are convincing arguments for Australia and ASEAN to focus on educational exchanges as a medium of public diplomacy. The first is the massive youth bulge (or ‘demographic dividend’) in ASEAN. The five largest ASEAN economies by population (Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, Philippines and Myanmar) alone have over 90 million young people in the age group of 15-24 years (i.e. the age group for youth as defined by the United Nations). That is more than three times the entire population of Australia. Although there are far fewer Australians in the same age bracket, there is immense scope for mutual cooperation and growth due to the interest of Australian youth in Southeast Asia and their connections to the region. For example, ASEAN countries accounted for over 40% of all destinations for all cumulative NCP scholars at the end of 2018(‘Why ASEAN matters: our shared connections’, 2019). Secondly, such programs are proven to help students. For example, studies of the experiences of Australian students on mobility programmes in different ASEAN countries have shown that they help to develop better interpersonal skills, cultural understanding, and more confidence (Bretag and van der Veen, 2017). Hayley Winchcombe, the inaugural NCP ASEAN Fellow and Director of AASYP, expressed that her experience working at think tanks, institutions, and commercial bodies in both Jakarta and Singapore, ‘exposed her to high-level policy issues in ASEAN and developed her skills in stakeholder management, an essential skill for success in the Asian Century’ (Winchcombe, H,2019, Personal communication). Similarly, Jesse Elias Christian, an Australian business student, stated that his time in China and Singapore as an NCP 2017 scholar helped him develop knowledge of ‘international relations, languages, culture, and business management’ (Christian J, 2019, Personal communication). Finally, cross-border educational ties help to build critical understanding and sustain relationships, in both the near and long term. In the disruptive, mobile, digitally connected environment of today, people-to-people connectivity has become critical for countries and regions to see each other as cordial partners. As Jesse puts it, the NCP experience ‘opened my eyes to the Indo-Pacific as a vital part of Australia’s future and motivated me to join organizations such as AASYP, so as to continue to foster understanding between Australia and ASEAN’ (Christian J, 2019, Personal communication).

What can be done better?

As mentioned above, much effort is already underway to bolster existing youth relations. However, more certainly can and should be done, particularly on the quality and learning from exchanges and interactions. For example, an important step for Australia should be to increase awareness about the diversity and intricacies of ASEAN member states among young Australians. In engaging ASEAN, it is vital to not miss the trees for the forest. While ASEAN is certainly more than the sum of its member states, those states themselves can vary vastly in indicators such as economic size, levels of development, education, and even aspirations. As such, a more nuanced and culturally sensitive approach is required as opposed to ‘one size fits all’. Another focus area should be the inclusion of a larger number of stakeholders in the programme. Along with universities, co-opting other stakeholders such as businesses, civil society organizations, and think-tanks will create more holistic outcomes.

To conclude, borrowing another sporting analogy, youth and education relations have so far been a slam dunk for both ASEAN and Australia. Here’s hoping that both sides keep scoring.


1.Yuen-C, T. (2019). Leaders of Singapore and Australia to meet for key dialogue. Retrieved from: https://www.straitstimes.com/politics/leaders-of-singapore-and-australia-to-meet-for-key-dialogue

2.Australia now. (2019). Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Australian Government. Retrieved from: https://dfat.gov.au/people-to-people/public-diplomacy/australia-now/pages/australia-now.aspx

3.Why ASEAN matters: our shared connections. (2019). Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Australian Government. Retrieved from: https://dfat.gov.au/international-relations/regional-architecture/asean/Pages/why-asean-matters-our-shared-connections.aspx

4.2015-2019 Plan of Action to Implement the ASEAN-Australia Strategic Partnership. (2015). Centre for International Law, National University of Singapore. Retrieved from https://cil.nus.edu.sg/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/2015-2019-ASEAN-Australia-Plan-of-Action-1-1.pdf

5.Tang, S., Thuzar, M., Ha, H., Chalermpalanupap, T., & Qian, A. (2019). The State of Southeast Asia: 2019 (p. 33). Singapore: ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. Retrieved from https://www.iseas.edu.sg/images/pdf/TheStateofSEASurveyReport_2019.pdf

6.Australia-ASEAN Council at a glance. (2019). Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Australian Government. Retrieved from https://dfat.gov.au/people-to-people/foundations-councils-institutes/australia-asean-council/Pages/australia-asean-council-at-a-glance.aspx

7.Bretag, T., & van der Veen, R. (2017). ‘Pushing the boundaries’: participant motivation and self-reported benefits of short-term international study tours. Innovations In Education And Teaching International, 54(3). doi: 10.1080/14703297.2015.1118397

8.Byrne, C. (2016). Australia’s New Colombo Plan: Enhancing regional soft power through student mobility. International Journal: Canada’s Journal Of Global Policy Analysis, 71(1), 124. doi: 10.1177/0020702015617786

More to explore