Elena Williams presenting at the 2022 NCP Summit

Elena Williams presenting at the 2022 NCP Summit

The New Colombo Plan: Its impact on student mobility and building regional relationships

12th May 2022

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Back in 2014, Australia’s then Minister of Foreign Affairs (2013–2018) and now ANU Chancellor, The Honourable Julie Bishop, was the architect of a signature Federal Government initiative—the New Colombo Plan (NCP)—a premier student mobility and public diplomacy program.

The NCP was conceived with the vision to give shape to a national priority –providing Australian students with opportunities to engage with the Indo-Pacific and enhance Asia capability, which is regarded as critical to Australia’s social and economic development, soft diplomacy and connection with the region.

It is only fitting, then, that The Australian National University was recently host to the DFAT-organised 2022 New Colombo Plan National Summit, Towards 2030 – Reconnecting with the Region. The event brought together scholars, NCP alumni and NCP supporters to celebrate the NCP Community – to create and broker new connections, reconnect, and continue to grow and nurture opportunities with the Indo-Pacific region.

Through the exploration of three diverse streams, the Summit explored the idea of how NCP alumni can continue to develop and utilise their Indo-Pacific connections, skills and experience to support a reconnected region. These streams were: Australia and Global Challenges, Opportunities and Actions, and NCP Alumni.

Higher education consultant and CHL PhD Candidate, Elena Williams, was invited to speak about her research on the impact of The New Colombo Plan on Australian students and Indonesian host communities. Elena spoke first at the opening plenary about the role of the NCP in Australia’s regional public diplomacy, and the challenges for the region looking ahead to 2030, along with Australia's Ambassador for Women and Girls, Christine Clarke CSC. In an afternoon session, Elena outlined her research in more detail on Australia-Indonesia study abroad and measuring impact for Australian students and Indonesian host communities, alongside Deakin education researcher and ARC Future Fellow, Professor Ly Tran. The session focused on outcomes from learning abroad for Australian students and host communities in the Indo-Pacific, as well as how to 'reactivate' learning abroad post-COVID.

Ele1Elena presenting at the Summit

We recently caught up with Elena about this landmark summit and research showcase opportunity…

Tell us a bit about your research/PhD thesis.

Thanks for the opportunity to chat! My PhD research explores how Australian students and Indonesian host communities experience study abroad programs in Indonesia, and the ways they forge relationships with one another. Since 2014, more than 10,000 students have studied in Indonesia with funding from the Australian Government’s NCP scholarship initiative, which aims to build better bilateral relationships between Australia and our Indo-Pacific neighbours. I’m interested in student and host community experiences in particular, and how they understand the impact of these programs in their own lives, as we don’t hear enough from them in the scholarly literature examining Australia-Indonesia study abroad, or in DFAT evaluations of the NCP, despite their lived experience and deep understanding of the program. This is particularly the case for Indonesian host communities.

Through a case study of the longest-running facilitator of study abroad programs to Indonesia, the Australian Consortium for ‘In-Country’ Indonesian Studies (ACICIS), I’m interviewing alumni of the program from 2014 – 2019, and the Indonesian communities which hosted them. Through focus group discussions and interviews I’m inviting alumni and host community members to define and reconceptualise what ‘impact’ means to them in their own lives, so that we might better understand the quality of these people-to-people connections, and whether programs such as the NCP are meeting their stated aims of deepening Australia-Indonesia relationships.

What was your experience at the NCP Summit, and why do you consider the opportunity significant?

I had the opportunity at the NCP Summit to speak in both the opening plenary panel and in an afternoon research session on the importance of building and maintaining people-to-people relationships in our region, and about the challenges in measuring the impact of ‘soft power’ initiatives between Australia and Indonesia. The NCP continues a long tradition of ‘international education as public diplomacy’ which we first saw in the 1950s with the original Colombo Plan scholars in Australia, and the many Australia Awards recipients who have followed since. These opportunities are enormously significant not only for the student who travels abroad, but also for the communities which host them, their friends, families, partners, colleagues and others when they return home and share their experiences.

For the past eight years, we’ve seen the NCP making a real difference in Australia’s regional public diplomacy efforts, and in building knowledge of Australia’s nearest neighbours among a new generation of young students. As we look towards 2030 and face regional challenges together, the quality and the health of these partnerships is essential. As I discussed at The Summit, the NCP has been a crucial step in the right direction for many Australian students, but more can be done to support our returning NCP students further their interest and expertise in Indo-Pacific issues. Indo-Pacific electives need to be better embedded in their degrees when they return home. Selection criteria for graduate jobs could include Indo-Pacific language and cultural competencies in their ‘Essential’ lists, not only ‘Desirable’, setting the standard for the kind of workforce we want to see in a changing Australia.

And importantly, students need to be better supported to continue learning the languages of their host countries once they return to Australia through increased national language funding. For Indonesian alone, there are currently only 12 universities nationally offering Bahasa Indonesia at a tertiary level. At an average of $50 million a year since 2014, we have invested significantly into the NCP: we now need to match that funding with a significant national investment in Asian languages if we want to truly build on the gains of the NCP and developing an Asia-literate graduate pool that deeply understands our nearest neighbours.

What was the highlight of the Summit for you?

The highlight for me really was having the opportunity to meet so many NCP scholars and alumni on the day, and to feel student mobility coming back to life. Researching student mobility over the past two years during this period of significant immobility has been quite a surreal experience, so it really was wonderful to see everyone gathered together in the room and to hear about scholars’ upcoming plans for study abroad, and the ways NCP alumni have been drawing on their study abroad experiences since returning. I previously worked as the Resident Director in Indonesia for ACICIS between 2013 and 2017, and I know that study abroad can be a deeply transformational experience for both students and host communities. Having the opportunity to engage with students again and hear their stories first-hand was a wonderful reminder of that.

Ele2The panelists at the NCP Summit

How has the pandemic changed the face of student mobility, in your opinion? Is there a silver lining or something positive that’s come out of it?

As Professor Ly Tran and I discussed in our afternoon session, we have witnessed a lot of changes for student mobility throughout the pandemic. Many programs, including ACICIS’, shifted to virtual or online delivery where they were able, and embraced innovative approaches to teaching and program delivery, through Zoom, WhatsApp, video tours, and other platforms. While this was challenging at times for students and did not offer the traditional experience of ‘going there’, I did find it remarkable that many of the elements of learning abroad were able to be fostered through virtual formats, such as: language learning, cross-cultural classes and internships, and intercultural modules completed online. In addition, we saw that virtual study abroad became a more inclusive and diverse space, offering students who might not normally be able to participate in a traditional study abroad experience—such as those with caring responsibilities, a disability, or from low SES backgrounds—the chance to join their peers online. This has significant potential for learning abroad moving forward as we begin moving back to the region, thinking through these lessons and how we can create more inclusive and accessible study abroad experiences for all students. I think that’s definitely a silver lining and a key lesson learnt from the pandemic.

Ele3Ly Tran and Elena

What, according to you, are the top challenges facing students heading to the Indo-Pacific region today?

Learning abroad poses numerous challenges for students heading out to the Indo-Pacific region, but as I’m discovering through my research it’s precisely through these challenges that opportunities for growth, personal reflection and increased mutual respect can occur. A lot of the literature on study abroad and experiential learning focuses on the ways that students can grow and develop a sense of who they are and how they belong in the world when they’re pushed out of their comfort zones in disorienting and unfamiliar experiences. When students study overseas they’re often operating in vastly different socio-linguistic, economic and political environments, constantly navigating new environments, social mores and cultural expectations. While this can be challenging, this also opens up the opportunity for students to say ‘yes’ to new opportunities and to really push themselves. In doing so, they acquire much more than academic skills alone; they gain skills such as intercultural communication, empathy, understanding, and an ability to broaden their perspective on the world.

At the Summit, we also discussed regional challenges such as Covid-19 recovery, gender and social inclusion, and climate change issues, but underpinning all of those issues is the strength and quality of our bilateral relationships with our neighbouring countries, and our ability to respond together to these challenges. Students heading out to the Indo-Pacific are going to play a significant role in solving many of these regional challenges moving forward, and forging the friendships and professional partnerships they need in the region through their study abroad program is a crucial part of that work moving forward.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Student mobility is often understood as a form of ‘soft power’ for Australia in the region, as a way of building bridges and expanding our influence. However, as I mentioned to students at the Summit, the word ‘soft’ implies it’s somehow ‘easy’, or that building relationships doesn’t take considerable time, effort and investment. We know that it does. And we know that when it’s done right it can yield significant results.

There remain numerous gaps in our understanding of student and host community experiences of study abroad in Indonesia, and of the ways the NCP is affecting their lives and the lives of their families, friends and communities. I’m grateful to the alumni who have been sharing their stories with me so far in my fieldwork and am looking forward to speaking with many more alumni and host community members over the next six months in Australia and Indonesia. I think there is a real strength in storytelling through qualitative data, a strength in illustrating personal experiences that we don’t see in quantitative data alone. I’m looking forward to sharing students’ and host communities’ stories of change in my final thesis and other publications to demonstrate the value and importance of study abroad as a way of building a better Australia-Indonesia relationship.


Elena Williams is a PhD candidate at the School of Culture, History & Language at ANU. You can read more about her research on Australia-Indonesia relations here.

Updated:  7 July 2017/Responsible Officer:  Director, Culture, History & Language/Page Contact:  CHL webmaster