By Bernard Lane
The ability of business to create internships in large numbers for the Coalition's ambitious study abroad program will begin to be tested next month.
"The challenge will be whether or not they have the resources to provide the internships and/or the mentoring programs that are being proposed," said Macquarie Group chairman Kevin McCann, who heads the steering group for the Coalition's New Colombo Plan.
He said ANZ Bank would be among the companies invited to a meeting next month in Canberra to test how many interns they might take and what kinds of programs would be on offer. ANZ, Fortescue Metals, Indonesia's Lippo Group and Taiwan-based China Steel have shown early interest in the plan.
A selling point for the Coalition plan is the idea that every young Australian sent into the region for study would also get a career-boosting internship or mentoring program with a company, public sector agency or non-governmental organisation. The aim of the plan is to make study in the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean region the norm, not the exception, for undergraduates.
Some in the university sector say that even if business can create enough internships, the academic process for approving these as credit-bearing units is not easy or quick. They say it's more realistic to offer internships as just one option within a flexible scheme of scholarships.
Another school of thought says progress on work-integrated learning within universities should make the approval process manageable.
Opposition foreign affairs spokeswoman Julie Bishop has suggested that universal, credit-bearing internships are necessary to motivate students and justify expenditure of taxpayers' money.
"The narrative of how Asia-literate or Asia-capable graduates will add to Australia's prosperity (and security) must be a key to the success of this whole program," she told a Business/Higher Education Round Table meeting last week.
"I believe (an internship) has to be grounded in the enhancing or value-adding of the undergraduate degree.
"(Students) have to be able to make a connection between having this (overseas) experience and their job career prospects after leaving university."
Mr McCann said he had yet to sound out the business community but generating enough internships in the region could be "quite a challenge".
He said the companies he was involved in — he is also chairman of Origin Energy — were "flat out on their commercial activities, so what's the benefit of having a cohort of young Australians as interns? That's what I've got to test."
He gave the example of the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, which had needed "great and powerful friends", including Dow and Chevron, in order to place 150 students in genuine internships in the US.
"If we're going to Asian countries where Australian companies don't have the same scale, we've got to investigate what capacity we've got to provide a really meaningful experience (for students)," he said.
At last week's Sydney round table, Ms Bishop said the steering group was still discussing whether internships would be paid and, if so, who would pay the students.
Delegates, chiefly drawn from universities, suggested the plan as a whole could be funded by giving students a voucher redeemable for study abroad, by including money in federal teaching subsidies, or by negotiated targets within university compacts.
This article was originally published at The Australian