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To be part of the Pacific family, Australia must develop its educational engagement

Education is a diplomatic tool, and the way governments use (or abuse) education and scholarships in their international relationships gives us a clear insight into how governments view their diplomatic partners.

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Unfortunately, Australia has historically demonstrated a lack of interest and respect for Pacific communities on this front. If we want to be a part of the Pacific family, we must work to develop our educational engagement with them.

In the early 1950s the Australian government offered some scholarships to Pacific territories (this is before they were independent states). The scheme was called the South East Asian Scholarships, which – unsurprisingly – caused some confusion in these Pacific territories.

It was written about in the Pacific Islands Monthly – with the author clarifying that it wasn’t because “someone in Australia had confused his geography“. The signal here was clear – the Australian government wanted to give some scholarships to Pacific Island territories, but it didn’t want to create a scholarship specifically for that area.

It cared, but not as much as it cared about other diplomatic relationships.

This was not the only example I came across in researching Mandates and Missteps: Australian Government Scholarships to the Pacific – 1948 to 2018. What has become very clear was the way in which Australian governments over the decades have used policies and programs in the Pacific – especially in education – that had been designed for other contexts.

This has impacted the success of these programs but has also impacted on Australia’s relationship with the territories and then independent nations in the Pacific.

Examples of diplomatic failures include the Australian government being blindsided by the Solomon Islands security pact with China, and blunders include Australia’s Leader of the Opposition Peter Dutton’s “joke” about rising sea levels.

These examples can be seen to demonstrate a lack of respect, or consideration for the needs of the Pacific community. Providing solutions to problems of the Pacific that are designed with and by the people of the Pacific is vital to Australia’s interests – this is especially true when it comes to tertiary education.

In the 1950s and 60s Australia played a role as coloniser and regional leader in the Pacific, and assumed a level of power and status that was tied to Empire and race hierarchies.

Now, Australia is going to great lengths to improve its diplomatic ties with Pacific Island nations to combat the perceived security threat posed by Chinese influence in the region and address the realities of climate change.

But many decisions made by Australian governments over the last decade – from assuming support and the choice to purchase nuclear powered submarines as part of the AUKUS deal – have demonstrated Australia’s failure to understand (or preparedness to ignore) the cultures and politics of what are now independent Pacific Island nations.

That is not to say there is no specific education funding provided to the Pacific. There is some support to universities (such as the University of the South Pacific and University of Papua New Guinea), there is TVET support through the Australia Pacific Training Coalition to fund vocational training programs, and DFAT funds a Pacific Research Project run by the Lowy Institute and the Australian National University.

There is also a small scholarship for Pacific students to study at Pacific universities.

“When it comes to the Australia Awards scholarships, the requirements of what is a global program are not necessarily suited to Pacific contexts”

But when it comes to the Australia Awards scholarships, the largest and most visible program, the requirements of what is a global program are not necessarily suited to Pacific contexts. Also lacking is a real focus of the Australian international education community on the Pacific.

Students are able to access opportunities in the Pacific through the New Colombo Plan, but again this was a program designed for South East Asia that was expanded to the Pacific.

So, what should the Australian government and the Australian education community do to become more engaged with the Pacific communities with whom we share history, and importantly a future?

Changing the way the international education community views the Pacific is one place to start.

Transnational partnerships and support across Pacific universities – without a focus on profit, but a focus on capacity development – would be a great place to start. A new co-designed scholarship that focuses on the need of the Pacific specifically would also be of benefit.

Resources and support for exchange between Australian and Pacific universities, and a focus on teaching Australian students more about the shared history of Australia and the Pacific would pay dividends for the relationship between Australia and Pacific Island nations in the future.

And more Australian universities need to do more to support Pacific students to come to Australia, and to support their own academics to work with Pacific communities to advance our shared interests.

Australia shares a significant history with the Pacific, and our futures are intertwined. Understanding each other better may make navigating that future just a little bit easier.

About the author: Anna Kent is an Executive and Project Officer in the Faculty of Arts and Education at Deakin University. Anna is a Senior Fellow of the International Education Association of Australia and was the inaugural convener of the IEAA Scholarships and Fellowships Network. She is due to publish a book examining Australia’s education engagement with Pacific Island nations. 

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