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Education: An Asian-inspired policy solution

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17 May 2012 14:45

Arjuna Dibley was Australia's representative to the PABM. He recently returned from Malaysia and Indonesia, where he was a Prime-Minister's Australia-Asia Award holder.

As we hurtle towards (or just wake up to the fact that we are now in) the Asian Century, there is growing discussion about what Australia can learn from its Asian counterparts.

Earlier this year, Tim Soutphommasane called for Australians to look beyond the economic-opportunity fetishism which has dominated the Asian Century debate and instead to look at the non-economic opportunities and lessons our neighbours offer. Joe Hockey seems to have taken up the mantle in his recent speech in London, urging Australia to look to Hong Kong as a model for us to reform our social welfare system and rid Australians of their 'sense of entitlement'. The controversies surrounding Hockey's speech aside, his approach of looking to Asia as a source of public policy ideas is a useful one, applicable across all facets of Australian policy-making, including how we deal with a slump in international student numbers in Australia.

In early March the Malaysian Government held its annual International Malay Language Speech Competition (PABM). Open to participants from around the world, PABM contestants are flown into Malaysia for two weeks where they are fed, accommodated, given a stipend, and asked to compete for a combined prize pool worth US$20,000. Many of the 80 or so contestants are foreign students studying in Malaysia.

PABM culminates in a finals night held at the imposing national convention centre in Kuala Lumpur, and has become something of a Malaysian television spectacular (think: Malay version of Eurovision). The night includes a celebrity MC, hundreds of young performers, singers, and all the foreign PABM contestants wearing matching traditional Malay batik shirts. The ten finalists speak in front of the Prime Minister, senior ministers, bureaucrats, ambassadors of some of the countries represented, reporters, a live audience of around 1000, and cameras broadcasting the event live across the country.

Aside from the volumes of photo opportunities it creates, PABM also allows Malaysia to publicly thank its key strategic and economic partners, including Russia (a Russian judge was flown for the final and two of the top three finalists studied in Russia). The event also allows Malaysia to speak to an internal audience, including its tens of thousands of foreign students. To this end, the Afghan participant who won the competition and spoke highly of being a student in the harmonious (at least compared to his homeland) and well functioning Malay society was a natural choice.

PABM is an expensive piece of public diplomacy; the estimate I heard from organising committee members was 6 million ringgit or A$2 million. It would perhaps be unaffordable and unworkable in Australia. But the basic idea is clever, and one which we could usefully adopt (minus some of the prodigious fanfare) to help combat the problems of perception causing declining international student numbers here. Imagine an articulate Chinese, Indian or Malay international student delivering a speech at the Opera House about the 'fair go', or better still, critically assessing its application in contemporary Australia.

An event styled on the PABM would allow Australia to reach out to countries that send large numbers of students here by inviting them to participate or send judges. It would also give a public voice to this large and valuable group of students who are fundamental to Australia's tertiary education sector.

A PABM-like event in Australia will not address all the problems contributing to a decline in international students, such as the high Aussie dollar and changes to migration laws. However, it can deal with the real issue of perceptions. It would allow Australia to credibly send out a message to its Asian neighbours that we are a nation that welcomes and celebrates international students, and it would provide a counter-narrative to claims that visiting students in Australia are the targets of violence. It might even change Australian perceptions of international students.

Importantly, as we progress through the Asian Century, the event would represent an Asian-inspired policy solution to a problem of Australia's perception in Asia.

Photo courtesy of PABM.

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