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Need to foster Australia-Asia youth engagement not dependent on travel

Australia-Asia youth leaders want to “re-convene” in-person programs and restart travel and immersion experiences, but do not necessarily want to revert to the way youth engagement ‘used to be’ pre Covid-19.

Learning abroad alumni, youth-led organisations and alternative TNE programs play a "critical role" in fostering engagement that is not dependent on travel. Photo: pexels

The report "clearly shows that we don’t have good ways of measuring our engagement with Asia, and identifies this is an area of weakness for Australia"

So says the Generation Asia Report 1: Keeping Connected report, jointly published by the Asia Society Australia and IEAA, which analyses the pandemic’s impact on youth engagement in the Australia-Asia region.

Many young leaders across the area recognise “the inherent value of travelling” overseas to gain on-the-ground, in-person experiences, intercultural competencies and language skills, but they also acknowledge “a growing need to foster forms of regional engagement that are not dependent on travel”.

“[Many] emphasise that there are other ways to motivate young people to experience difference, to grow connections and to explore language learning and entrepreneurial opportunities,” the document reads.

The post-pandemic world will see future engagement that is “hybridised and focuses on human capital”, the paper contends.

“Learning abroad alumni, youth-led organisations and alternative transnational education programs play a critical role in fostering and sustaining engagement that is not dependent on travel,” Ly Tran, professor in the School of Education at Deakin University, told The PIE.

The latest report explored “enablers” of Australia-Asia youth connectivity, including: tourism; international education; employment; and civic engagement. It found that international student engagement with Australian education programs during 2020 and 2021 was “not as significant” as the decline seen in tourism and employment.

“International education and civic engagement have driven Australia-Asia Pacific youth connectivity during Covid-19,” the paper reads.

While the number of 18 to 35-year-olds from the Asia Pacific arriving in Australia “plummeted” in April 2020, remaining at very low levels throughout 2021, new delivery modes, such as remote study through online platforms and offshore study hubs, emerged.

The study offers a “more holistic” view of Covid-19’s effects on the connectivity between young people from Australia and across Asia, Keri Ramirez of Studymove, stated.

“When everything else grounded to a halt, it was education along with our bilateral youth associations that allowed us to maintain a degree on ongoing connection to the rest of the Asia Pacific,” Jon Chew, head of strategic insights and analytics at Navitas, added.

“At the end of the day, there is no substitute for face-to-face engagement”

“At the end of the day, there is no substitute for face-to-face engagement. We have seen creative virtual engagement during the pandemic, but I think young people can’t wait to get back on planes and we will likely see a surge in the post-pandemic recovery.”

He pointed to a “very healthy v-shaped rebound” in international student numbers to the UK, US and Canada. “We would hope that now that our borders are open, Australia is not far behind,” he said.

Government statistics show that 584,820 students from the Asia Pacific enrolled in Australian education programs in 2021, down from 711,105 in 2020. In 2018, 682,111 from the region did the same, while in 2019, 754,546 students joined programs.

“The number of student visas granted to international students from selected countries in Asia has remained steady over the last two years,” the report continues.

Students enrolling in Australian onshore education programs while still physically located outside of Australia were encouraged to apply for student visas to enable them to travel to Australia when borders re-opened. It also ensured studies undertaken outside the country count towards the qualifying duration for post-study work visas, the report said.

“A key factor in minimising the effects of Covid-19 was a significant investment made by the Australian institutions in developing hybrid and flexible forms of program delivery during the period of travel restrictions,” Ramirez said. And the hybrid forms of engagement will continue to grow among two groups of students, he predicted.

“Several reports show that mature-age students value the flexibility of these new learning models because it allows them to combine their studies with job opportunities,” he explained, while the second group are domestic Australian students.

“For many Australian university students, the cost of traveling abroad represents a significant limitation and virtual learning experiences will be an effective alternative to obtaining an international experience with enterprises and organisation in Asia.”

“For many Australian university students, the cost of traveling abroad represents a significant limitation”

Demand among Australian students for learning abroad programs in the Asia Pacific remained steady during 2020 and 2021, with interest in virtual mobility peaking in August 2021, the report suggests.

Yet, despite travel restrictions being lifted, demand for virtual mobility continues, it notes.

There is also a need for strategic and ongoing support for students beyond the in-country student experience to “optimise their potential to contribute to the long-lasting relationship-nurturing experience at the individual, institutional, national and regional levels”, Tran continued.

Students’ and alumni’s agency in connecting and advocating, regional engagement and networks have been expanded to some extent, but have remained “largely ad-hoc and organic”.

“It’s crucial to have a systemic and coordinated approach across institutions’ international office, global study/learning abroad office, alumni office and transnational education programs, youth-led organisations and the host stakeholders in the Indo-Pacific to support ongoing youth engagement in nurturing regional ties,” she explained.

“The role of youth in the public diplomacy space should be recognised as an important element in international education,” she added.

Previous research Tran has worked on found that “understandings and connections were created not only during the students’ learning abroad but also upon their return”. “The connections are not limited within the host and home countries,” she noted.

The Keeping Connected report “clearly shows that we don’t have good ways of measuring our engagement with Asia, and identifies this is an area of weakness for Australia”, Chew said. “We probably need greater government, institutional and philanthropic investment so that we a measuring and managing what matters, and this truly matters.”

“What’s clear from the report is that we need to listen to youth both in Asia and Australia to understand why they want to engage and connect, how they want this to take place, and what supports they would like to see,” he posited.

“Often we forget about the ripple effects that an international experience has in our society,” Ramirez added. “This study is an important reminder that our sector is an important catalyst in a better understanding among nations”

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