International Education for Australia: From the Colombo Plan to the Asian Century

Sir Zelman Cowen Oration and Dinner

Professor Margaret Gardner AO, Monash University
International Education for Australia: From the Colombo Plan to the Asian Century 

Tuesday 3rd October 2017

At the beginning

Let me begin with a story of international education.  This year in Jakarta, I had a series of meetings with Indonesian alumni of Monash University.  One meeting was, I believe, emblematic of the rich outcomes of international education – and it is why the title of this oration is international education for Australia.  

Senior Indonesian alumni, whose time at Monash was during the 1960s and 1970s, were reminiscing of their days in the halls of residence when Clayton campus was definitely in the outer suburbs of Melbourne.  Every Friday afternoon they met for their Cappuccino Club discussions and socialising – to dream of what they would do when they finished studying.

By 2017, they were government ministers, senior civil servants, successful business people, academics, leaders in their community in Indonesia.  They still meet, they have had influence beyond what they might have imagined as students, they remain friendly to and fond of Australia – for some their sons and daughters also came to Australia to study.  And it was the cappuccinos, the coffee culture that Italian immigrants brought to Melbourne, that they embedded in their experiences of university in Australia.  

You cannot measure this experience, those links, this influence, but it is a vital part of the purpose of universities and of what international education means for Australia.

In the beginning

When European universities were being founded in the Middle Ages, much was different from today; the boundaries between nations, their forms of government, even the nature and dimensions of the world understood by scholars were clearly profoundly different from that which Australian universities now inhabit.

Early European universities were a new form of institution.  They began with a notion that scholars could and would travel to seek and to disperse knowledge, even though the compass of travel by scholars to the university at which they wished to study and between universities was limited by today’s standards.  

The early texts that occupied scholarly interests were drawn from societies and times far distant from medieval Europe.  It was that knowledge, principally drawn from the Romans and Greeks that unlocked new approaches, challenges to the orthodoxy and an openness to a wider world of ideas and experience.

It was the excitement of new ideas and the breadth and depth of the conversations to be had among people from many places that made these universities attractive to scholars and to others.

Kings and princes formed these new institutions, these universities, because they saw an advantage to their principalities and kingdoms in gathering these sometimes unruly and rebellious scholars together.

Australia’s first universities came with the occupation of Europeans and drew their inspiration from the examples they knew – principally from England and Scotland. Yet, of all the many things that distinguish current Australian universities from these early European models, some of the features that gave birth to this new form of civil institution are evident today.  

In order to serve the institutional purposes for which universities were established, access to knowledge, and to the scholars that create and transmit it, has always depended on the ability to access that knowledge and those scholars irrespective of borders.

It is argued that academic freedom, that underpins universities today, derives from the academic charter provided by the University of Bologna in the 12th century to guarantee a travelling scholar ‘unhindered passage in the interests of education’.[1]

While a university may have been established to serve a nation or a region, its ability to do so depended in significant part on borderless exchange of knowledge and scholars.  

Common usage today in Australia is to speak of international education, distinguishing it from domestic education.  Yet the distinction between the two refers to the different fees charged to international and domestic students.  This distinction is largely meaningless when we consider the purposes of a university.

Yet it is to this modern distinction between the education of the citizens of a nation and those from other countries, and the role of international education in this context, that I want to turn first.  

As the title of this oration implies, there is a story to be told about international education in Australian universities that spans the period from the late 1950s to the 21st century.  It is a story that deserves to be understood by a broad community for its service to Australia and its future. And it is a story that then needs to be placed in context, not only for what it will do for Australia, but also for how it serves a broad and worthy purpose.

From wool to wonks

Today in Australia when we talk of international education, and particularly international education in universities, we understand its importance to the future of our universities and to our nation.   We recognise it largely because international education, of which higher education is the most significant part, is Australia’s largest service export and its third largest export industry, earning $28.6 billion in 2016-17.[2] These facts have now been repeated sufficiently in the last decade that they have become general knowledge.

No longer riding on the sheep’s back, nor even dependent on what we dig from the ground, Australia’s prosperity for the first time in its history is in significant part dependent on the international quality of its education – which is in turn dependent on its scholars and in the knowledge they generate and disseminate.

It was never supposed when universities were founded, whether in the 12th, the 19th or the 20th centuries, that their impact on the prosperity of nation or region could be so direct.  And it would not have been predicted in the 1950s, when we rode high on that sheep’s back, that Australia would be a place whose universities would assume such significance.

The sheep’s back is a cautionary tale, since its height in Australia in the 1950s was a peak overtaken by innovation, through the rise of synthetic materials. The rise of international education in Australia begins in the 1950s and does not reach current peaks until the beginning of the 21st century.  We cannot and should not assume its current success is proof against innovation, competition or calamity.

International students

International students in higher education in Australia now number over 300,000, making up some 26% of total higher education students.  While some nations with larger populations, such as the United States and the United Kingdom have a larger number of international students, the proportion of international students in Australian higher education is higher than for any other nation.[3]

International students in Australia today are drawn from over 190 countries.  The largest number of students is from China, some 113,000 who make up almost 37% of international higher education students in Australia, followed by India with almost 15%, with the rest of the top five countries from which international students come being Nepal, Malaysia and Vietnam (each about 5%).[4]

The majority of Australia’s international students come from the nations around us, and form a substantial human bridge between Australia and those nations.  

International staff

Academics in Australian universities are also increasingly diverse, though they are slightly more likely to come from the United Kingdom, North America and Europe than from China, India and the countries from which international students are drawn.  In 2006 over 40% of academics in Australian universities were born overseas (compared to 25.7% of the total workforce).[5]

The proportion of international students and staff in a university’s population are the indicators used in international rankings to estimate how internationalised a university is.

But universities seeking to be internationalised, and in this we can count the overwhelming majority of Australian universities, consider a broader range of indicators.  These include the number and proportion of their students, whether domestic or international, having an overseas study experience to broaden their horizons, and the number and type of relationships they have with universities or others beyond our borders.  In these relationships we can include

  • memoranda that encourage collaboration between universities, as well as substantial alliances where each university devotes funding as well as other resources,
  • partnerships in which degree programs are delivered in part or in full in countries other than Australia (or transnational education), and
  • campuses offshore in which the Australian university delivers a range of degree programs and where they may also undertake research.

Student mobility overseas

Australian universities have substantial outcomes against these other indicators. In 2016 some 44,000 Australian students went overseas to participate in an international study experience.[6] The top five destinations were the USA, China, UK, the Oceania Region and Italy. Japan, India and Indonesia come close behind and are recording high year on year growth – particularly India, where visits have surged nearly 500% since 2009.[7]

These numbers represent around 19% of Australian domestic undergraduates studying overseas during their degree, in excess of the 15% of US students who undertook overseas study as part of their degree.[8] It suggests that Australian students are some of the most internationally mobile students in the world.

Transnational education

The numbers of memoranda with universities in other countries are so numerous that they are not anywhere reliably centrally recorded.  However there are a number of very high profile consortia or alliances where research funds are allocated, joint appointments made, and educational ventures begun that give an idea of what may be encompassed.  Examples include Universitas 21, the Association of Pacific Rim Universities, Monash-Warwick Alliance and the recently concluded Plus Alliance, between the University of NSW, King’s College London and Arizona State University.

Transnational education, in the form of degree partnerships from arrangements for joint PhDs and Masters through to pathways from pre-bachelor degree programs to bachelor degrees, has flourished. In 2015 nearly 85,000 students were studying with Australian universities in an offshore location. The majority of these students were in Singapore, China, Malaysia, Vietnam and Hong Kong.

Branch campuses

Australian universities have also established branch campuses in overseas countries.  In 2017, there are some 14 Australian university branch campuses from the United Arab Emirates (where in 1993 University of Wollongong’s Dubai campus was the first Australian offshore branch campus established), Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, South Africa, China, India and Ontario, Canada.  Singapore and Malaysia have the largest number of Australian branch campuses with three each.

Monash is the Australian university with the largest number of branch campuses with four, beginning in 1998 with Sunway Malaysia, through Johannesburg, South Africa, Mumbai, India and its most recent in 2012 in Suzhou, China.  It also has among the largest number of students with over 7,000 students in its Malaysia campus. RMIT has over 7,000 students across its two Vietnam campuses in Saigon and Hanoi.[9]

Branch campuses require universities to offer education and undertake research in countries with different legislative settings, as well as different societal and economic features.  Some of these Australian campuses are relationships with government or with public education providers, others with private educational providers, for profit and not-for-profit, some with companies or foundations that are not involved in education.  There is a complexity in the operation of such campuses that underscores both the autonomy and the willingness and ability to take risks that has fuelled the international scale and reach of Australian universities.

Australian university internationalisation

So while much is rightly made of the contribution that international students make to Australian universities and to the wider economy and society, there is a richer story of internationalisation, than is generally understood.

Australian universities have reached out to draw in the best researchers and educators that they can hire from across the world – valuing talent above national identity.

They have worked to draw international students to them, enriching the experience of Australian domestic students, as well as creating a major service export.  They have also worked to ensure that increasing numbers of Australian university students have an international study experience that broadens their education and capabilities.

Australian universities have made links not only with universities in countries from which their institutional tradition derives, such as the UK, but also with universities in the countries around us.  And by establishing branch campuses in those countries, some universities are also more closely engaging with those nations’ governments, their companies and their communities.

This Australian story is not the story of university systems everywhere.  Even though it is not unique, this story is rarely seen at this scale nor so widespread across all the public universities in a system.  How did we get here? And what might we expect next?

From Colombo to New Colombo Plan

While there were Australian universities founded in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, their numbers were few. The Universities of Sydney, Melbourne, Tasmania, Adelaide, Queensland and Western Australia fall into this category. Most Australian universities were founded in the post Second World War period or post the Dawkins amalgamations of the late 1980s and early 1990s.

The Colombo Plan is the first and iconic Australian intervention into international education. Percy Spender, then Australian Minister for External Affairs, proposed the Plan at a meeting of Commonwealth Ministers in Colombo, in what is now Sri Lanka in 1950.  Richard Casey, launched the Plan in 1951, observing that:

“[F]or Asian students ‘to see Australia at an impressionable stage in their lives and to exchange views at our universities and with our officials should do a great deal to break down prejudices and misunderstandings on both sides”.[10]

There were six countries in this aid program, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Britain, Japan and the United States – countries well beyond the Commonwealth.

By December 1960 a decade later, 3184 students from Colombo Plan countries had been granted study awards by Australia.[11] Most Colombo Plan students were from Indonesia and Malaysia.  

The Colombo Plan students, however, represented only a small part of the total overseas students in Australia, where the majority were privately sponsored.  By the mid-1960s Australia could and did boast that they had trained one Colombo Plan student for every 1,000 in the Australian population, which was higher than any other country.[12] By 1966 international students, primarily from Asian countries, had risen to about 6% of total students in Australian higher education.[13]

This Colombo Plan was an aid program to build closer links with Australia’s Asian neighbours. So iconic was the Colombo Plan that in 2014 when Foreign Minister Julie Bishop wished again to foster closer ties to our Asian neighbours she launched the New Colombo Plan.  This is a Plan to take Australian university students into the region, since so many students from Asia now come to Australian universities of their own accord, privately funded.  This New Plan involves a scholarship program and a mobility program covering longer and shorter stays abroad.

In 2017 some 105 scholarships and 7,400 mobility programs were funded under the New Colombo Plan with students going to any one of 40 different countries in the Asia-Pacific region. Outside this program, as noted earlier, Australian students increasingly undertake mobility programs in the Asia Pacific.

The Colombo Plan was important, but only part of the beginning of a flow of students from the Asia-Pacific region into Australian universities, just as the New Colombo Plan is an important catalyst, but only part of a larger flow of Australian students choosing to spend time during their studies in an Asia-Pacific country.  

These Plans separated by more than sixty years are not about the major services export that is Australian higher education today, but rather the soft diplomacy that ties us more closely to our Asia-Pacific neighbours.  

Both Plans emerged amid growing recognition that Australia’s future over coming decades would increasingly depend upon the political stability, as well as the economic growth, within the Asia-Pacific region.  They also reflected awareness that education was a singular opportunity to advance those interests.

This was a point not lost on Sir Zelman Cowen.  In 1966 Australia had been one of only five countries to participate in the inaugural International Intervisitation Program (IPP) in the United States. The IPP was “the first international meeting designed deliberately to bring together senior educational administrators and distinguished academics interested in research and theorizing about educational administration”.[14]

Four years later the second IPP was hosted in Australia. It included as keynote speaker the newly appointed Vice-Chancellor of the University of Queensland, Sir Zelman Cowen, whose credentials for internationalisation had been established a decade earlier when, as Dean of the University of Melbourne Law School, he had introduced exploration of Asian legal systems into his curriculum, particularly Indonesian law, as well as drawing on his experiences as visiting professor at Chicago and Harvard to emphasise class participation in his curriculum – then a distinctively American method of teaching.

In his retirement address as Chair of the Global Foundation in 2003, Sir Zelman Cowen observed:

“A graduate in our time, of course, must have the capacity to work in a globalised world…Graduates now and in the future will need to be capable of operating in different locations around the world, as well as in their home cities […] “Australian higher education cannot maintain its standards, let alone improve.., without a global perspective.”[15]

Towards the Asian Century

The majority of the students who came to Australia from Asian countries through the 1950s and 1960s paid fees (just as domestic students did in those years).  Although their numbers grew, more than doubling from 1966 to 1988, their proportion in the rapidly growing Australian university student population fell to less than 5%.[16]

And then, in the 1980s, there was a major inflection point in this trajectory.  The then federal Labor government accepted the recommendations of the Jackson Review.  The Review recommendations suggested splitting aid to foreign students from places for foreign students, allowing the latter to be charged fees that covered the full costs of their education and for the universities to keep these fees. It was this Review that recognised international education could become a services-based export. A program permitting Australian universities to charge full tuition fees for international students was introduced in 1985.[17]

When the Jackson Review made its recommendations some 3% of students were international, a proportion at that time similar to the US but below Canada, UK and some other European countries.[18]

With this policy change, all Australian universities embraced the enrolment of international students. Today international students in Australian universities are around 26% of total university students, with the UK around 15% and the US at 5%.[19] The internationalisation of Australian universities over the last three decades has been rapid and extensive.

Australia has benefited from a contribution of over $15 billion from universities from this major export industry.[20] Australian universities have been able, with the benefit of international students’ fees; to provide a better quality education to domestic students; to ensure that research is at international best quality as Australian university strength in the international rankings attest; and that the capabilities of graduates, both domestic and international, and the discoveries, inventions and advances that fuel future improvements in our economy and society are made possible.

Without the international students who have chosen to come to Australian universities, and the willingness of Australian universities to welcome them, none of these benefits would have eventuated.  

When the Gillard Government commissioned the Australia in the Asian Century White Paper in 2012, it was to help Australia seize the opportunities that would appear as a result of the ascent of Asian nations, particularly China and India, but also our South East Asian neighbours.[21]

The recommendations of that paper were to build on our comparative strengths and to enhance the capabilities necessary for success. In both of these goals investment in education and skills was key.  The recommendations also suggested that stronger social and cultural links were vital to providing the security and stability in the region that would allow Australia to be part of this Asian century

Political changes in Australia meant that this White Paper quickly faded from public view, though this did not invalidate its analysis and conclusions.  

Australian universities have continued to build the social and cultural links needed and recommended for the Asian Century.  Universities are a comparative strength for Australia.  They have developed their capacity to educate and research, not only within Australia, but also with partners in our region and for the people of our region.

In conclusion

Since the 1980s Australia has built an increasingly internationalised university system that not only serves the nation economically, but also builds its links and its place in the Asia-Pacific region.  

The hundreds of thousands of graduates who have been educated in Australia, and now work across the Asia-Pacific region and the world, are important because they have had educational experiences that provide the foundation for rich contacts with the nations around us.

We have yet to achieve the levels of cultural competence across nations and across our graduates to which we aspire, but Australian universities do aspire and strive to make that potential real for domestic and international students alike.

The links with researchers in universities in our region and with industry partners and government agencies provide the means to engage in our region on issues as diverse as public health, governance and justice systems, transport infrastructure and sustainable resource use.  In future these links should be part of the way we engage not only in solving global challenges, but also in being part of global innovation and supply chains.

How did we get here?

We got to this point because at key moments federal government policy opened the door and Australian universities stepped firmly through.  We got to this point because, despite the White Australia policy in place during the years of that first Colombo Plan, we opened our minds on immigration and engagement with our region.  

We know, according to the Scanlon survey that most Australians today remain convinced that immigration is a benefit to the nation and that multiculturalism is a good thing.[22] The majority have remained so convinced in about the same proportions for more than a decade, and despite the surges of populism beyond Australia and within it.

This has been an important foundation for welcoming international students and staff to Australia and for allowing them the potential to stay in Australia.  

This has supported international education. And, as well, it has provided the open borders necessary to support the attraction of talented students and academics that are the wellspring of high quality education and research in universities.

Where to from here?

The internationalisation of Australian universities is of major benefit to Australia. And the benefits are greater and more long lasting than a number in the national accounts or the budgets of our universities.

Let me talk of some of Monash’ current students, Pouya, Namik, Atifa, Kristy and Shani.  Pouya and his family came to Australia as refugees from Iran, Namik and his family fled civil strife in Sri Lanka, Atifa and her family came from Afghanistan via Pakistan, Kristy came on an alumni scholarship from a disadvantaged background in Hong Kong and Shani from rural disadvantage in regional Victoria. Among this group are Australian citizens, Australian residents, international students, and refugees who are treated under Australian policy as if they are international students.  They are all talented young people facing hardship.  

Between them they are studying for degrees in science, biomedicine, law and occupational therapy.  They see the opportunity a degree will bring them, their families and communities and the difference they may make.  Their communities are in Australia and beyond.  They may stay in Australia or go elsewhere. I am sure they meet fellow students for coffee.  I hope they look back on their time at university with the fondness I observed in those Indonesian alumni.

They show us that universities are and should always be international.  What they learn comes from scholars and research that have no borders.

There is no international education or research that is separate from domestic education and research. There is no high quality domestic higher education or research, or high quality Australian university, unless it is also international.  True excellence in university education and research cannot be realised without some depth of global engagement and understanding.

Internationalisation is necessary to the purpose of universities.  Without the openness that this brings, vitality is sapped and they wither.

The breadth of internationalisation that we find in Australian universities is their future and their purpose.  And it is from this broad and worthy purpose, that all the benefits, measurable and immeasurable, economic but also profoundly social and human, come to this nation of ours.  It is worth encouraging, it is worth protecting, it is a benefit without borders.


[1] With many thanks to Felix Gedye for his research and editing.

[2] Rui Yang, “Indigenizing the Western Concept of University: The Chinese Experience”, Asia Pacific Education Review, v 14, 1 (March 2013): p86.

[3] Australian Bureau of Statistics, International Trade in Goods & Services, Australia, August 2017 (Cat. No. 5368).

[4] OECD, “Indicator C4: Who Studies Abroad and Where?” Education at a Glance 2015: OECD Indicators, pp355-6.

[5] Department of Education and Training, International Student Data 2017, Canberra, 2017.

[6] Graeme Hugo, “The Demographic Outlook for Australian Universities’ Academic Staff”, CHASS Occasional Papers, November 2008, p30.

[7] AUIDF Learning Abroad,, accessed 29 September, 2017.

[8] AUIDF Learning Abroad,, accessed 29 September, 2017, URL:

[9] Institute of International Education (IIE), “Open Doors 2016 Executive Summary”,

[10] Cross-Border Education Research Team (C-BERT), “Branch Campus Listing”,

[11] Daniel Oakman, “‘Young Asians in our Homes’: Colombo Plan Students and White Australia”, Journal of Australian Studies, 2002, 26 (72), p89.

[12] Margaret Gillett, The Colombo Plan and Australia’s Role in its International Education Program, Ann Arbor, Columbia University, 1961, pp124-125.

[13] David Lowe, “The Colombo Plan and 'Soft' Regionalism in the Asia-Pacific: Australian and New Zealand Cultural Diplomacy in the 1950s and 1960s”, Alfred Deakin Research Institute Working Paper, No.1, 2010. p11.

[14] Australian Bureau of Statistics, Year Book Australia, 1967, Canberra (Cat. No. 1301.01) and Department of Education and Training (DET), Higher Education Students Time Series Tables: Selected Higher Education Statistics 2000, Commonwealth of Australia 2001.

[15] Eric Hoyle, Stanley McMahon (ed.) World Yearbook of Education 1986: The Management of Schools, Routledge, p311.

[16] Zelman Cowen, Where To? Questions for Australians by The Rt Hon Sir Zelman Cowen, former Governor General of Australia,, 9 June 2003.

[17] DET, 2001.

[18] Australian Government, Review of Australian Higher Education: Final Report, December 2008, Canberra, p90.

[19] Margaret Gardner, “International”, The Dawkins Revolution: 25 Years On (ed. Gwilym Croucher et. al.), Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2013, p270.

[20] IIE, 2016.

[21] Department of Education and Training, Export Income to Australia from International Education Activity in 2016, Canberra, May 2017.

[22] Australian Government, Australia in the Asian Century: White Paper, October 2012, pp2-3.

[23] Andrew Markus, Mapping Social Cohesion: the Scanlon Foundation Surveys 2016, (Monash University, 2016) p.2.