Whatever our failings, Australia should help with education in Asia


We do have issues to address but we should do so with an eye on our role as a partner in the region

The disconnect between the opportunities on offer to Australian universities and private higher education providers in their domestic and international operations, and the challenges impacting providers in parts of our region, could not have been more evident than last week when I was fortunate to be in Cambodia.

I started to read the Productivity Commission’s 5-year Productivity Inquiry: Advancing Prosperity report while I was there, on the day after I visited the Tuol Sleng Museum. It was profoundly disturbing to walk through an educational institution, a secondary school, transformed into a detention centre where thousands were tortured. To have earlier met with a former child soldier who now guides tours through the temples of Angkor, where only a couple of decades earlier he had patrolled the same fields with a machine gun trying to protect his family and village during the civil war, was also inspiring and deeply upsetting.

In Australia, with the higher education Accord process underway and recommendations from the Productivity Commission looking at ways in which the higher education sector and its regulator, TEQSA, can improve teaching quality and make a further contribution to advancing Australia’s productivity – it is easy to focus only on what’s wrong within our system. We do have issues to address in Australian higher education but we should do so with an eye on our role as a partner in the region: the contrast with the opportunities (or lack thereof) for students, universities, and the many private higher education providers in Cambodia is stark.

For those who are interested Kimkong Heng (a PhD student at UQ) has compared the two higher education systems.

Charles Sturt University’s support, through the New Colombo Plan, to improve the management and operations of Cambodian NGOs fits well with Australia’s development partnership with Cambodia. Sadly, it has been difficult to find other examples of Australian universities currently engaged in Cambodia.

In collaboration with ASEAN, the Australian government has made funding for digital skills and a suite of broader VET scholarships a key part of its funding commitment through the ASEAN-Australia Comprehensive Strategic Partnership. As the partnership evolves it would be good to see if one day it may also include a specific higher education focus and as TEQSA and the sector look to make improvements – to see if lessons to strengthen the quality of teaching can also be shared.

Claire Field is a consultant and has provided advice to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade on the ASEAN-Australia VET and Digital Skills initiatives