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Thinking and Educating Like Asia to Compete With Asia

Education was seen as a very important element of the Australia in the Asian Century White Paper launched on Sunday by Prime Minister Julia Gillard at the Lowy Institute. Education standards are set to be pegged to a very challenging and likely impossible goal. This target, already outlined prior to the release of the discussion paper aims to have Australia’s education system in the world’s top five by 2025. This aspiration forms the underlying basis for tackling the “Asian Century” with the most intelligence and vigour Australia can possibly muster.

It is the specifics that matter in this, the Asian Century. A goal to improve our education outcomes dramatically, though near impossible to achieve in under 15 years is a worthy goal to strive for over the mid to long-term.

In a time when Asia already is beginning to dominate the world economically, it is important that the curriculum which guides and drives our places of education adequately responds to the realities of our place in the world. Language is an integral part of competing in an Asian dominated world as is a cultural and educational immersion in different countries in the Asia-Pacific region.

A somewhat dramatic rethink of how we “do” education and mould our young people is a necessary ingredient. This rethink must include early childhood education as well as what are recognised as the more traditional levels of education, primary, secondary and tertiary schooling.

First and foremost we must, if we want to compete in Asia, think like many Asian countries do. We must “Asianise” our education system. Young minds are incredibly malleable and our education system must make early progress in shaping the lives of Australian children.

Even in the early years, when children are traditionally learning things such as sharing, they also need to be learning in a more extensive way how to read and write and begin to perform tasks usually part of the early  primary school years. The shift in how we educate the very young should even extend to teaching languages.

When children reach primary school age they should be well and truly prepared for a complete and focused formal education in the traditional subjects to begin.  The ALP Government have announced that the states will be required to implement a policy where at least one Asian language is taught in every school. This is an eminently reasonable request but only if the commonwealth provide substantial support to implement this.

When it comes to secondary school, the language question is more complex. It would beneficial if Asian language lessons were a compulsory part of all schools throughout the whole senior school experience. Failing that, language should be compulsory in the early years of high school, but a readily available option in senior years.

Tertiary education provides a further opportunity to get Australia’s students “Asia ready”. But tertiary education again presents a complex equation. It is more difficult to begin learning a language later in life than it is to take it up at early age. Policy-makers also need to be wary of impacting too much on the personal choices of our young adults and a one-size fits all approach is far from ideal.

Hopefully, over time, with students beginning to learn second languages at an earlier age there will be an increase among those undertaking tertiary studies who continue with language lessons as a matter of course. If people wish to take up a language at this later stage that should also be supported as not everyone knows exactly what trajectory they want their career to be guided along before they hit universities and colleges.

Particularly for courses like international business and international relations, basic introductory or business-related language lessons must form a part of the university and college experience. Ideally, these should be uniform prerequisites but should not automatically be limited to Asian languages. We still need to continue to pursue expertise in European languages regardless of whether our focus is in Asia or not.

Ideally, courses like education should have a similar focus toward Asian language training as degrees with an international focus. All universities should at least offer as part of their education courses, some of the key Asian languages including Mandarin, Indonesian, Japanese, Hindi and Korean. Again, this must not be to the detriment of important and widely used European languages.

Temporarily, because of the shortfall in Asian literacy, there will have to be some assistance for business but this should not be applied carte blanche.

That’s the language factor, but what of the educational and cultural exchange involving our university students?

The government has announced an intention to adopt, or more accurately steal the Coalition’s idea for a “Reverse Colombo Plan”. The new iteration of the Colombo Plan and more recently, Kevin Rudd’s Australia Awards will not just see Asian students coming to Australia for a period of study, but also lead to Australian students being able to travel to Asian institutions to further their opportunities.

This idea has the potential not just to enhance the language skills of budding young professionals, but also to imbibe greater cr0ss-cultural understanding in the young people of our region.

A big challenge we will face in at least attempting to shift towards a wider interest in Asian languages is attracting enough teachers. This model makes the task incredibly difficult not just because of the funds required to finance it, but because of the scale of the recruitment task needed to make Asian language training pervasive.  Importing teachers with language knowledge is an important short to medium-term goal.

We are already lagging behind in our Asian capabilities and readiness. We must at least try to catch up with the realities of our position. We almost certainly will not achieve all of our objectives.

This way of changing education is replete with grand aims that are unlikely to ever be realised fully. The logistical task and financial requirements are immense. However, even if we fell short, which is certain, we would still be better equipped to take advantage of the opportunities and deal with the challenges of living in a booming region of the world.

Foreign Investment and the Coalition With the National Party

Foreign investment has been in the media a lot recently. Increased talk about foreign investment as part of the Australian political discourse has amped up over the last few years in particular with reports of particularly Chinese-based companies buying up farmland, chiefly across New South Wales. It’s prompted raised concerns from some in Australian politics. The interesting thing is that most of the questioning of foreign investment in Australia, again mostly in relation to farmland has come from the conservative side of politics. What is not so surprising  is that most of the scepticism around foreigners buying up and investing in our country from the right side of politics has come from the National Party, the party traditionally of the farmers.

But what is very interesting about this and different from previous times is the willingness of the National Party’s major coalition partner, the Liberal Party to indulge the National’s in the debate with a proposal to examine more deeply, at a lower threshold, more of the proposed investments of companies from outside of Australia.

There’s been much mixed messaging from the Coalition, from National Party Senator Barnaby Joyce openly questioning the appropriateness of too much foreign investment at any opportunity, to Tony Abbott in China appearing to talk down to China about their investing in Australia whilst overseas as a guest in their country. Then just in the last week or so we had Joe Hockey and Tony Abbott both talking down the prospects of a change in foreign investment rules and scrutiny by the Foreign Investment Review Board.

Then today, flanked by Joe Hockey and Leader of the Nationals, Warren Truss, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott announced a discussion paper which flags a lowering of the purchase price of agricultural land and businesses at which the Foreign Investment Review Board will examine purchases.

The paper proposes that the FIRB look at purchases of agricultural land valued at over $15 million dollars and purchases by foreign companies of agriculture businesses valued at $53 million. This is way down from the current threshold at which injections of funds of $214 million and over are examined by the review board.

The change in policy has copped criticism from both sides of politics, with the ALP jumping at the chance to have a dig at the party of the free market for wanting to lower the scrutiny threshold.

But there’s also been criticism from their own side of politics, with not just conflicting words in the lead-up to today’s decision from Liberal and National Party politicians, but also from former Coalition MP Peter Reith who launched an attack on Twitter today. Mr Reith in comments today on social media said that the move was “crazy, stupid politics.”

Reith also said that the decision “is just a quick fix to satisfy the Nats, but which will come back to bite the national interest”. Peter Reith, in saying this is not far from the truth, perhaps even spot on with his comments.

The Nationals, in an incoming Coalition Government, which now appears a certainty, would have much higher influence within the joint party-room than they do at present in the current parliament. So this announcement today can easily be seen as a move to placate the National Party ahead of the next election. Tony Abbott and the Opposition leadership undoubtedly realise there will be much more competition of ideas and much more competitive and vigorous debate from two contradictory standpoints within the Coalition caucus.

But what about the decision itself and what Tony Abbott says it will mean for the future of foreign investment in Australia?

Well, for his part Mr Abbott says he wants to “make it absolutely crystal clear that the Coalition unambiguously supports foreign investment in Australia.” Further, he says “we need it, we want it, it is essential for our continued national prosperity.” He also said, “what’s very important though is that the public have confidence that the foreign investment we need and want is in Australia’s national interest.”

Well, it seems pretty ambiguous the level of support there is on one side of the Coalition for further foreign investment in Australia. The Liberal Party are undoubtedly all for it, with the current level of examination likely deemed more than sufficient, perhaps too much for a number in the Liberal and National Party room. But the National Party, particularly given the words of its loudest member, Senator Barnaby Joyce, is certainly far from sure about people from overseas investing in Australia.

The Coalition for its part says that the move is all about increased “scrutiny” of foreign investment decisions as they relate to agricultural land. But this standpoint, is actually to be taken as read and believed, has unintended consequences at best.

If it’s just about a ramped up level of scrutiny in foreign investment and every investment decision that applies to this lower threshold is given the tick of approval, then there’s just unnecessary bureaucracy and red tape for inevitable decisions.

But more likely, with the same “national interest” test applying, albeit at a lower monetary level, then smaller purchase decisions, much smaller ones in fact, will be denied if the national interest test requirements are not met.

Could this and other recent decisions and thought bubbles or proposals of a similar protectionist nature be a sign of things to come?

Reverse Colombo Plan a Positive Thought That Needs to Become Reality

A good and diverse education is probably the most important part of the life of any child or young adult growing up in any nation around the world. So it goes that the Colombo Plan introduced by Sir Robert Menzies while in government, with a main goal being to foster the education of people from developing nations in our region was a good idea with a strong world view a major outcome for students involved.

Further, so it goes too that the idea of a reverse Colombo Plan as proposed by the Abbott-led Opposition is a smart adaptation of the current iteration, the Australia Awards, which will give more Australian based students the opportunity to study in an Asian nation, better preparing those chosen for the already proclaimed ‘Asian Century‘.

The Colombo Plan as far as it went for Australia as with the current Australia Awards grants students from Asian nations scholarships to attend university here in Australia and it had been undertaken by some now very well established business and political leaders in our region.

Not only was the original Colombo Plan responsible for educating some of the talented people in leadership positions around Asia but it was and is also a very smart diplomatic move that was in a big way a part of Australia beginning to open itself up to the non-European world which really first started to occur under Menzies and successive Liberal and Labor Prime Ministers and has continued to evolve ever since.

A strong worldview is very important in the development of the minds of students who as a result become well-equipped to deal with and be aware of their region and the world around them.

The Colombo Plan and its latest version too has and will allow young adults to get a better education than they may well have been able to have had they remained in their country of birth for tertiary studies.

The plan to send Australian students on scholarship to Asian universities will have much the same effect on our students that the Coalition plans to give the opportunity to travel overseas for their education.

It will allow Australian students a first-hand experience at cultures they may have been exposed to here in Australia but may not have immersed themselves in or learnt so much about the particular range and diversity of cultures and beliefs that exist in our regional vicinity.

The knock-on economic benefits of a Colombo style plan, whether it be the existing setup or a future reverse iteration would also surely be a not insignificant positive because of students plunging money into universities here and abroad through purchases made on campus that aren’t part of scholarship funds.

Not only that but the positives for the broader economy of respective nations having extra people coming in and spending money not just on education but on leisure and tourist activities are also a worthy part of the equation.

There is an argument that has been doing the rounds, courtesy of former Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd, that the reverse Colombo Plan would be responsible for less overseas students being funded to come to Australia and this is in some respects true. If funding levels remained the same on our behalf and there was no funding agreed to by Asian nations as part of the plan, of course the result goes without saying.

However, there is no particular reason why funding could not be negotiated between nations involved in the Colombo Plan so that Australian students could benefit from an overseas education in Asia. It doesn’t have to result in the same or similar numbers of Australian students being given scholarships to be educated in Asian universities as those from Asian nations educated here, though that would be the optimal outcome.

The extra funding too could be found by engaging with businesses from Australia and the Asian region and seeking funding from them to allow for more scholarships for Australian students to study in this corner of the globe and this has been highlighted as an avenue of investigation by the Coalition. It seems reasonable to assume that businesses would certainly be amenable to the move, especially if it meant access to a broader range of talent.

Continuing and expanding this program to include a bigger outward flow of students is a positive idea from the Coalition and one that deserves more thought and planning so that it is actually realised under a future government and is an idea that would benefit from an earlier implementation if they felt like they were struggling for a good idea.

Australia: the World’s Value-Added Foodbowl?

Australia, way back over 200 years ago from the time of the First Fleet literally grew as a nation “on the sheep’s back”. As a nation Australia began to grow a broader agriculture sector which included a diverse combination of crops across particularly along the length of the eastern mainland states of Queensland, New South Whales and Victoria. That sector also included other animals in addition to sheep, with cattle and dairy farming playing a crucial role in the early economy.

Indeed agriculture does still play a crucial role in our economy albeit a much diminished one in recent decades with our comparative standing in various exports dropping markedly in some cases.

In the global community Australia is among the biggest exporters in the world of wheat, beef, wool and dairy and our three biggest exports are grain/oilseeds, meat and dairy that has obviously been the case for a prolonged period of time, given the industries on which Australia established itself as a fledgling colony and then nation state in the 1900s.

Agriculture in Australia now sits at only a 3% share of GDP in itself and last night Prime Minister Julia Gillard made a speech to the Global Foundation conference in Melbourne where Ms Gillard said she saw Australia becoming  a foodbowl power, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region, where a rapidly growing population needs increasing access to a variety of different food imports.

The Prime Minister in her speech last night said that Australia should harness our potential in agriculture, like we did in the past and like the mining sector is now harnessing the potential of our vast mineral wealth.

There is certainly a space for Australia to grow its agriculture sector again, particularly when faced with an economy that at present is powering along on resources which are finite, but the way we do it and the markets and niches we seek to develop as a nation are a lot more intricate than just producing and distributing food across our region and the world.

Prime Minister Gillard in her speech to the foundation did acknowledge that Australia would have to focus its efforts, for the most part, on exporting food products which are value-added, rather than simply trying to up exports of foods that have not undergone the value-adding process.

Australia as a nation simply cannot compete with nations in the region on many basic fruits and vegetables which can be produced in similar climates around our region with much lower input and final product costs than we can achieve in Australia.

We would also tend to be seeking more niche and higher-end markets with our value-added production, thereby in a way limiting just how much we can grow the sector, but still an improvement.

We would have to focus on sending more goods from Australia to countries in our region like China, which is booming and will have a bigger middle class market, as well as countries like South Korea and Japan, even though the latter continues to struggle with economic woes both prior to and exacerbated by the horrific earthquake and tsunami event that destroyed so many lives and areas of the economy with it.

Far from just focusing on Asia, there is huge potential for our food exports to go elsewhere, particularly to the United States of America and Europe in a bigger way than at present and that is being worked on at present in a fairly big, if little discussed way.

There is also huge potential to continue to expand the market for our top class wine, with very few countries in the world producing truly exceptional wines, making this market a great hope for Australian producers. This market could be expanded and is beginning to be delivered to Asia and for that to continue would be a massive boon for the economy.

In a way, it seems that the speech the PM gave last night was a subtle way of saying, “hey, here’s a way that we can keep the decline of manufacturing somewhat at bay if we do more food processing in Australia”.

If we add the processing of food products to the agriculture sector of the Australian economy, we suddenly get a sector that is approximately 12% of Gross Domestic Product, a significant sector by any measure when the services sector takes up over 2/3 of the overall national economy on its own.

So Australia can definitely look to becoming a major food exporter to both the region and the globe. There are various challenges, not the least of which is a water shortage along the Murray-Darling Basin food bowl and this will mean that the challenge to grow our food exports will be a medium to long-term effort, rather than a rapid expansion, which would be difficult in itself anyway even if external factors didn’t exist.

The vision is there, but helping to move the idea to a reality will be a long and enduring process that will require the political will of governments of both political stripes to oversee its development.

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