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'Australia Centres': Why we need our own Goethe Institut in Asia

'Australia Centres': Why we need our own Goethe Institut in Asia
Published 9 Dec 2015 

This is the fourth in a series of posts marking the launch  of A Larger Australia, the book of the 2015 Boyer Lectures, by Lowy Institute Executive Director Michael Fullilove.

Among some of the intriguing ideas in Michael Fullilove's 2015 Boyer Lectures is the proposal for a global network of Australia Centres. As Michael argues in his final lecture, 'The Birthplace of the Fortunate':

Increasingly, everything we do as a country will be touched in some way by developments in Asia. We need to redouble our efforts to understand Asia - and to project Australian voices into Asia. In addition to expanding our diplomatic network, Australia should establish cultural and educational centres in key Asian capitals, modelled on the UK's British Council, Germany's Goethe Institut, China's Confucious Institute and the Japan Foundation.

Australia's own 'Goethe Institut' would project a confident, self-assured nation to the world. Michael concludes: 

The Australia Centres would be vehicles to promote Australian ideas, culture and services in Asia. They would host exhibitions and festivals, promote Australian education, arts, science, and sport; provide language teaching, act as hubs for existing programs such as the New Colombo Plan, and connect Australians with their Asian counterparts. They would boost our profile and complement our bilateral diplomacy.

This is an idea worth sustained discussion. Armed with professional skills, Australians are already a quiet force in global affairs. Michael Fullilove talks of a diaspora one million strong, 'our own world wide web of ideas and influence.'

Alongside the Australian diaspora, there are perhaps two million alumni of Australian universities now back home working in Asia. These are students who first came to Australia for their professional education, and return with a rich Australian experience. Many retain contacts and warm memories of their Australian connection.

When in December 2009 senior Australian officials met with members of the Malaysian cabinet to discuss education policy, the meeting began with a roll-call of where ministers were educated. A majority nominated Australian universities.

The sheer reach and extent of Australian alumni is little discussed in Australia, where international education is described as an export industry rather than a way to integrate this nation with its wider region. Yet with nearly 600,000 annual international enrolments in Australian schools, universities and vocational institutions, most returning to their country of origin to begin professional careers, this nation has a superb foundation for connectivity across Asia. Formative educational experiences create lasting personal links.

As Michael Fullilove observed in his fourth Boyer lecture, national strategy depends on a wider set of considerations than export revenue alone. As a nation wedded to the international liberal order, we also face key questions of persuasion, influence and culture — Joseph Nye's 'soft power' — as an important counterbalance to the traditional manifestations of economic and military power. [fold]

From this perspective, the history of Australia's Asia engagement since the original Colombo Plan of the 1950s is important. The Colombo Plan brought future leaders from many Asia Pacific nations onto an Australian campus and into direct contact with Australians. The many positive experiences on both sides helped, among other consequences, to hasten the end of the White Australia Policy.

Later initiatives such as Asialink, supported since 1990 by the Myer Foundation and the University of Melbourne, continue to enrich and deepen relationships between Australia and Asia. The recently implemented New Colombo Plan does important work encouraging young Australians to study in the region, and so participate in the regular flow of ideas and people between nations.

Such independent initiatives can work effectively in tandem with the Australian Government on Asian engagement as a key national goal. Australia Centres through Asia could work with arts, philanthropy, university, business and community groups to highlight bilateral links. As with the British Council, they could organise and support links by touring cultural productions, support language acquisition as do the Alliance Française, Dante Alighieri Society and Geothe Instits, and develop local bodies of specialist exchange as pioneered by the Confucius Institute network.

Whether attached to embassies or nurtured by other partner institutions such as the Menzies Centre for Australian Studies at Kings College London, Australia Centres could encourage a flow of speakers and artists to Asia, provide support for touring exhibitions and nourish chambers of commerce. Above all they would reach out to the Australian diaspora, by birth or education, and link them to Australian activities. Here is a simple proposal that adds to Australian voices already living and working across Asia, and encourages this nation to find its place in the world.

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