Crumbling cornerstone? Australia’s education ties with Southeast Asia

Australia should avoid a narrow focus on export revenue and instead make educational ties with Southeast Asia a priority for strengthening strategic ties with the region, a new Lowy Institute Policy Brief argues.

The report, Crumbling cornerstone? Australia’s education ties with Southeast Asia, by Director of the Lowy Institute’s Southeast Asia Program Susannah Patton notes that despite a focus by successive foreign ministers on relationships built through education links, education has been a declining asset for Australian engagement with the region. In the decade prior to the pandemic, Australia became a relatively less important study destination for students from Southeast Asia. 

“The era that established this unique network of influence across Southeast Asia is largely over,” Patton writes. “The cabinets of both Singapore and Indonesia each now contain only one minister who studied in Australia, an appreciable decline compared to even ten years ago. Australia can no longer take for granted the proposition that it will educate the next generation of Southeast Asian leaders.”

Patton says that in response, Australia should reconfigure its education offerings to the region’s students. “Scholarships are an important lever of government policy. They should be tailored to support a blend of in-country and remote or online study, and be targeted to attract emerging mid-career professionals.”

And, she writes, education strategy cannot be focused only on the region as an export market. 

“The government needs to put adequate resourcing into developing new initiatives and pathways that respond to the interest from the region in human capacity building,” she writes. "This is especially so in areas where Australia has an advantage, such as in vocational education and training, and education quality and standards."

The Policy Brief is available to read and download from 2230 AEDT on Sunday 6 November at the Lowy Institute website.


Shane McLeod, Director Media and Communications