Australia urged to understand ‘social impact’ of Asian exchange

More ‘coherent’ mechanism is needed to develop regional ties, expert says

January 23, 2021
Source: Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade website
Nursing student Karita McCarthy in Vietnam

A new study takes a rare look at university exchange programmes from the point of view of the developing nations that host students from mostly wealthier, anglophone nations. The report’s authors called these perspectives an “under-researched” topic and stressed that Asian motivations and experiences are different from those of traditional Western receiving nations.

Researchers at Deakin University in Australia interviewed 32 organisations in China, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia and Vietnam that hosted students from the New Colombo Plan (NCP), an Australian programme that sends 10,000 students a year to 40 Indo-Pacific states. The NCP supports both elite scholars for a year of for-credit study, as well as “mobility students” who partake in non-governmental organisation internships or work placements.  

“It is essential for Australian universities to encourage and assist their students’ development of background understanding… prior to departure” and to “understand the potential social impact of their engagement”, the authors write in the Journal of Studies in International Education.  

They called for a “more coherent and coordinated mechanism” from the Australian government to sustain alumni and other connections beyond just exchanges.

Their research found that host nations perceive visiting Australian students as “valuable actors who have the potential to contribute” to local training, English teaching and community projects, as well as a means to “humanise industry links and transnational university partnerships”, according to the report. They also see the NCP as “a catalyst that facilitates the execution of [the host country’s] international agenda”.

Ly Tran, a co-author of the paper who has been studying the NCP since its inception in 2014, told Times Higher Education that “Indo-Pacific host communities tend to more explicitly treat NCP students as active knowledge agents in their reciprocal learning, intellectual exchange and mutual learning of English and local languages”.

Interviews showed that host organisations valued the “immediate and tangible” outcomes of such exchanges.

For example, Chinese university representatives saw the NCP as a way to garner future research partners. One admitted that they had previously failed to make “deeper” overseas connections, and so the NCP allowed them “to have some connection educationally, to learn from such programmes, to introduce some new systems”.

An Indonesian government official echoed that sentiment, nothing that they had previously found it difficult to strengthen ties with Australian institutions.

Exchange students were also seen as a boon for universities’ business ties. Host organisations sent their Australian visitors to industry gala dinners or had them star in television advertisements to promote rural areas. One Malaysian organisation said that their presence in local workplaces “challenged local staff to think a little bit differently, to practise their English”.

Because an aspect of social or community work is “pre-built” into the NCP system, there is “deeper engagement and more explicit and significant impacts”, the report says.  

In Japan, for example, NCP students visited a seaside area hit hard by the 2011 tsunami. “One or two nights in a local fisherman’s or farmer’s home would provide a very different and unique experience,” said one Japanese host.

The Covid pandemic has put a damper on such exchanges worldwide. However, the NCP is going ahead in 2021 in online form. 

“Internationalisation through outbound mobility needs to be revisited in an increasingly virtual world,” Professor Tran said. “Virtual and augmented reality could be inclusive and allow both Australian and local students in the Indo-Pacific the chance to undertake WIL [work-integrated learning] anywhere in the world.”

However, virtual exchange greatly depends on the technological capacity of the host country. And some experiences, like staying in a Japanese fishing village, cannot be replicated online.

Programmes such as the NCP have also come under fire in Australia, which is growing increasingly wary of foreign ties. As part of her larger body of work on the NCP, Professor Tran will publish an upcoming report on its political “tensions and challenges”.

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