Overseas alumni ‘a missed opportunity’ for Australia

Poorly designed outreach schemes, privacy restrictions and standoffish companies combining to waste resource

November 21, 2019
Asian student leaning against picture of Sydney Opera House, Australia
Source: Getty

Australia’s half-hearted engagement with its overseas alumni is squandering an “incredibly powerful” business resource, a Malaysian conference has heard.

Curtin University international education specialist Simon Leunig said his country was failing to capitalise on the tens of thousands of people with Australian degrees in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) member states.

“It’s an opportunity that we need to work on, right across the board,” Dr Leunig told the Asean Australia Education Dialogue in Penang. “There are person-to-person links that occur simply because someone is alumni, and we should be maximising that. At the moment, it’s a missed opportunity.”

Australia has long reaped the soft power benefits of being able to count scores of Asean government and business leaders among its alumni. Many were educated under last century’s Colombo Plan, a post-war foreign development scheme.

But the conference heard that the potential of much larger numbers of early career graduates, who had been trained under the commercial model of international education that replaced the Colombo Plan, had been downplayed.

Dr Leunig, associate deputy vice-chancellor with Curtin International, said there was a “general malaise” in Australian universities’ relations with their international alumni, despite the efforts of Asean-based Australian diplomats to encourage more engagement.

He said the key problem was that foreign and domestic graduates were “lumped together” in alumni outreach programmes. “The bulk of alumni are domestic students so it’s very hard for international issues to get priority,” he said.

There had been a push for international and domestic alumni to be treated separately, but “it’s a pretty hard battle to win”.

Dr Leunig said strong privacy legislation also hampered universities’ dealings with their foreign graduates. “It’s an unintended consequence of what is probably a fair piece of legislation. It becomes quite difficult to engage with the alumni,” he said.

Taliessin Reaburn, Australia’s Singapore-based senior trade and investment commissioner, said Australian businesses in the region were too hands-off in their engagement with alumni.

“Employers aren’t using alumni networks to bring in young professionals who already have an extra layer of capability through their international experience,” he said.

He said South-east Asian companies such as oil giant Petronas regularly visited Australia to recruit Malaysian students enrolled there. “We’re not seeing large Australian organisations do that,” he said.

“Why are they not sponsoring alumni groups? Why are they not investing more heavily? It’s a discussion we are having constantly.”

Sydney-based consultant Peter Church said Australian-trained graduates had opened the door to a new business model for Australian firms hoping to operate in the Asean region.

He said that for many years, joint ventures had been the only option – partly for legal reasons, but largely because Australian companies needed their local partners’ business connections.

Mr Church said the sheer number of locals educated in Australian universities had changed all that. “They understand the Australian way of thinking and also have knowledge of how things work in their countries. That is the new way Australian companies can set up. It’s much easier than trying to do a joint venture.”

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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