Australia launches 'reverse' Colombo Plan

Australia launches 'reverse' Colombo Plan
Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop

Some 40,000 Asians, including dozens of Singaporeans, benefited from an Australian university education and built valuable networks through the prestigious Colombo Plan Scholarship scheme from the mid-1950s to 1980s.

From next year, a new Colombo Plan will come into effect. But this time, instead of Asians heading Down Under, thousands of young Australians will head to Asian universities every year to take up courses and internships with companies there.

Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, who launched the scheme in Canberra on Tuesday, said the "Reverse Colombo Plan" - as it is being referred to by Australians - is intended to be "transformational", deepening relationships between Australia and Asia.

She said that over time, the Australian government wants to see study in the region become a "rite of passage" for Australian undergraduate students.

The Australian authorities have pledged A$100 million (S$113.5 million) over five years for the scheme, which is seen to be a centrepiece of Prime Minister Tony Abbot's government.

The scheme, expected to be fully running from 2015, will cover countries from Pakistan to those in the South Pacific. But it will first be piloted from next year in Japan, Indonesia, Singapore and Hong Kong.

Students can apply for scholarships which will pay up to A$60,000 for one year of study abroad. In the pilot year, about 40 scholarships will be awarded for study in the four locations including Singapore.

Another 700 Australian undergraduate students will receive smaller grants of a few thousand dollars for shorter term or semester study in the region.

Singapore's Ministry of Foreign Affairs has said it welcomes the proposal for Singapore to be part of the pilot programme.

Ms Bishop, who spoke to The Straits Times, said the original Colombo Plan was a "triumph in Australian soft power". She said in her travels in Asia, she is struck by the number of former prime ministers, presidents, vice-presidents and industry leaders whose understanding of Australia was built by the time spent in Australia as Colombo Plan scholars.

Colombo Plan scholars who have assumed leadership positions include National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan, former ministers Mah Bow Tan and Yeo Cheow Tong, and Indonesian Vice-President Boediono.

Australian universities said the new plan would add weight to their internationalisation plans.

University of New South Wales undergraduate Kenneth Reid, 22, said Australian students are keen on studying in Asia because of its growing economic importance, but are held back because of the costs. "The scholarships and grants will go a long way in helping Australians experience and gain a deeper understanding of Asia."

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