The new plan, launched by prime minister Anthony Albanese at the ASEAN Indo-Pacific Forum in Indonesia, sets out how Australia will deepen connections with its northern neighbours as many Southeast Asian economies experience strong economic growth. 

But the strategy warns that overall Australian investment to date has been “underweight”, with foreign investment ‘stagnating’ over the past decade. 

The government is looking to change this in what Albanese described as “the most significant upgrade of Australia’s economic engagement with ASEAN for a generation”.

He called it “an overdue strengthening of our engagement” and said the region is “where Australia’s economic destiny lies”. 

Australian officials have previously spoken about the need to become less reliant on China, its major trading partner, amid geopolitical tensions and China’s economic downturn. 

Among the recommendations in the strategy is increased investment in promoting Australia’s education system to students in the region as well as increasing cooperation between education providers to enhance qualification recognition. 

It describes Australia’s education system as a “national asset” in engagement with Southeast Asia, adding that the sector has been “integral to building enduring relationships and economic prosperity with the region”.

“More young people will be looking to tertiary education”

Over half a million Southeast Asian students have studied in Australia over the past 20 years. 

The strategy, which was developed by special envoy to Southeast Asia Nicholas Moore, predicts strong demand for education services from Southeast Asia until 2040, driven by a growing middle class and a large youth population. 

To harness this demand, the report notes Australian education providers will need to be “responsive to evolving student preferences and industry needs”.

“As the region grows and needs an increasingly skilled workforce to meet the demands of technological advances and the clean energy transition, more young people will be looking to tertiary education,” it predicts. 

The government will also encourage universities and vocational education providers to offer work-integrated learning opportunities as part of course offerings to Southeast Asian students, as well as coordinating a nationwide initiative to engage alumni and connect them with businesses in both Australia and Southeast Asia. 

Shane Dillon, CEO at Vietnam-based talent platform Cturtle, said he was pleased to see the inclusion of alumni networks, as ASEAN graduates with Australian qualifications are a “sizeable group… wanting to be engaged”. 

“The strategy mentions ‘alumni’ 36 times showing the critical role they could play in building capacity and awareness in Australia and Southeast Asia of each other’s markets,” Dillon, who was involved in consultations for the strategy, said. 

Moore also advised the cabinet to develop a nationwide plan to strengthen Southeast Asia literacy among businesses, government and the education system. 

Ly Tran, professor at Deakin University’s school of education, emphasised the importance of this point, arguing that increasing student mobility does not go far enough. 

“It is critical to develop a whole-institution approach and better coordination across different stakeholders, to facilitate a comprehensive approach to internationalising the student experiences and building sustainable capacity for Australian-ASEAN relations, rather than mainly depending on mobility or student exchange,” she said. 

“It is important to leverage Southeast Asia experiences, skills, knowledge, languages and networks that international students from ASEAN bring to Australian institutions and Australian communities. 

“This is a potential huge resource to build Southeast Asian capacity for Australian young people and the broader community that we have not yet effectively tapped on.” 

She added that Australia’s commitment to Asian language education and Asian cultural literacy should be at the centre of the government’s strategy to enhance the experience of incoming international students from the region.