THENUMBER of young Australians working and studying in the Asia-Pacific region will rise significantly if initiatives gaining support are successful.
Powerful voices have spoken out over the past fortnight urging the federal government to act.
James Wolfensohn, president of the World Bank, said at the University of Sydney last month that Australia each year should send 5,000 young people abroad for two years as an "Australian outreach corps" to learn about Asia.
His suggestion was followed up by Tony Abbott, the parliamentary secretary for education, who told a conference a week later that Mr Wolfensohn's scheme should be adopted, with thousands of Australians going to Asia for work experience and training. He said it was analogous to the government's Green Corps programme, in which young people are being encouraged to take on environmental jobs.
Last week, the Australian Vice Chancellors' Committee called for a tenfold increase in government spending on the University Mobility in Asia and the Pacific Programme (UMAP) from Aus$1.3 million (Pounds 545,722) to $13 million as a way of enhancing Australia's long-term engagement in the region.
UMAP is a student and staff exchange programme, a joint venture between the federal Education Department, the AVCC and 20 countries across the Asia-Pacific.
An opinion poll commissioned by the committee found that 80 per cent of respondents believed it was either important or very important for Australian students to take part in exchange programmes during their courses in order to participate in the new global environment.
Acting AVCC president Geoff Wilson said the poll findings demonstrated the high level of understanding within the Australian community about the importance of student exchanges. He said the survey highlighted the fact that the general public had a strong sense of what was best in the national interest.
"This shows that the reasons for the AVCC's call for the government to expand the student exchange programme is widely understood within the community," Professor Wilson said.
"People seem to have a solid grasp of the new challenges being faced by universities and the nation as a whole in terms of the rapidly growing forces of globalisation. They see the impact of the Internet and the revolution in communications and transport and they have said that to meet those challenges we have to be part of that globalisation, not just an observer."
Professor Wilson said Australia now had the opportunity to emulate similar government-backed student exchanges in Europe, such as the Socrates-Erasmus programme that the European Community funded to the order of $150 million a year.
The European programme expected to have 10 per cent of all students each year participating in international exchanges as a means of weaving long-term understanding of their disparate perspectives, he said. It was an example Australia should emulate, initially by expanding UMAP.
Mr Abbott, parliamentary secretary to federal education minister David Kemp, described his idea as a "Colombo Plan in reverse". The Colombo Plan was an Australian aid scheme introduced in the 1950s that over the next 30 years gave thousands of Asians scholarships to study here, until a Labor government allowed universities to charge foreign students full fees.
"This is the kind of initiative needed to turn Australia's engagement with Asia from an economic bargain into a meeting of minds and hearts," he told a conference in Sydney.
"This kind of institutionalised support is necessary if Asia is to be as important to Australia's psyche in the future as Europe has always been in the past."
Mr Abbott suggested that if his idea was taken up by the government, it would probably subsume the UMAP scheme, which he said was "never going to excite people the way this proposal does".