International education and civic engagement key to Australia-Asia youth connectivity throughout COVID-19

28 April 2022

Keeping Connected, the first of three reports to be published through IEAA’s research partnership with Asia Society Australia, unpacks the impact of COVID-19 on Australia-Asia youth engagement.

Kirrilee Hughes
IEAA, Bestari Consulting

Edmund Mollison
IEAA Research Intern

Despite two long years of closed borders, physical isolation, disrupted delivery modes and job cuts which have impacted many IEAA members, international education remained a primary driver for Australia-Asia youth connectivity during COVID-19, write Dr Kirrilee Hughes and Edmund Mollison.

Our students and other Australia-Asia youth leaders also embodied remarkable resilience and innovation in maintaining youth connectivity in the face of the very real challenges young people faced during the pandemic.

Image of Australia Indonesia Youth Exchange Program / Value Learning Intercultural Specialists in a Zoom Meeting

Photo courtesy of Australia Indonesia Youth Exchange Program / Value Learning Intercultural Specialists. 

Tracking youth connectivity

Australia-Asia youth engagement complements existing diplomatic and business relationships. It is underscored by fluency in new technologies and is driven by young people’s desire to foster innovation and to develop exploratory people-to-people relationships. Four channels of youth engagement are explored in the report: tourism, international education, employment and civic engagement.

This research is unique in presenting, for the first time, an evidence-based assessment of Australia-Asia youth engagement trends. The indicators included in the report can also be used to track the extent and pace of re-engagement as young people across the region move through the impact of COVID-19 on their lives, studies and careers. 

As international education professionals, many of us have been focused on student immobility within our region over the last two years. In light of other youth engagement channels which profoundly declined during COVID-19, the fact that more than half a million student visa holders from the Asia Pacific engaged with Australian education during COVID-19 is remarkable. And despite being unable to deliver or participate in physical learning abroad programs, Australian educators and students alike experimented with ‘virtual mobility’ design and delivery, driving interest in these programs beyond COVID-19 and broadening access and inclusivity for future cohorts. When placed in the broader context of restricted travel and limited engagement opportunities for young people across our region, these are achievements of which the international education community, including our students, can be proud.

Whilst international education helped to sustain momentum for regional youth connectivity throughout COVID-19, we must not dismiss the many lost opportunities for Australian students and the challenges faced by international students who remained in Australia. For example, a forthcoming IEAA White Paper, Learning Abroad in Australian Universities, estimates that between 120,000 to 180,000 young Australians have been unable to participate in university learning abroad programs since early 2020, half who would normally head to Asia. This is cause to ‘double down’, leverage our COVID-19 learnings and ensure opportunities abound for students from Australia and across the Asia Pacific in ways never seen before.

Reimagining Australia-Asia youth connectivity

Keeping Connected also gives greater insight into the motivations and sentiments of young people key to the future of Australia-Asia relations through interviews conducted with volunteer leaders of Australia-Asia youth and young professionals organisations, including IEAA Young Professionals. As a demographic significantly affected by COVID-19, particularly in terms of disruption to education, networking and career development, understanding young people’s interests and concerns adds depth to the quantitative indicators provided in the report.

The creativity and adaptability harnessed by these young, Asia-engaged volunteer leaders, determined to keep bilateral and multilateral ties strong between Australia and Asia, should not go unacknowledged. Impressively, many of these organisations saw the global ‘online pivot’ during the pandemic as a means to build their communities in ways that pre-COVID-19 modes of operation would not allow. The rapid uptake of online video conferencing meant that local events suddenly became transnational, improving their reach, access and inclusivity. Demonstrating their digital literacy, the Australia-Japan Youth Dialogue, used GATHER to replicate the social mingling that usually characterises in-person youth dialogue events. GATHER uses avatars, virtual rooms and games to achieve this. 

These interviews establish the resilience and entrepreneurial ambition among this generation of young people, leveraging what resources they had to provide meaningful events and experiences for their organisation’s members. For example, the Australia India Youth Dialogue’s Rapid Response Challenge sought to encourage innovative problem-solving within the Australia-India bilateral relationship. They launched a grant scheme and funded two alumni-led projects: Girls Take Over Parliament India and Australia and the Australian Indian Digital Creative Festival. These initiatives are inspiring examples of adaptive responses to a restricted environment in which young people chose to engage and collaborate in spite of the deeply restrictive nature of the pandemic.

Looking forward

Despite causing deep-seated disruption to Australia-Asia youth connectivity, COVID-19 also seeded innovation in Australia’s international education community as well as in bilateral and multilateral youth-led engagement. In particular, young people from across Australia and Asia demonstrated their resilience and willingness to ‘experiment’ with new modes of engagement, their commitment to building genuine connections and, importantly, are excited to take these learnings into post-COVID-19 contexts. Whilst travel and in-person interaction were sorely missed throughout the pandemic, this research highlights that our next-gen Australia-Asia leaders have embraced digital literacy and innovation and continue to deepen ties between Australia and Asia.

Download Keeping Connected from Asia Society Australia’s website. 

Additional resources also include a directory of initiatives launched by Australia-Asia youth-led organisations during COVID-19 and a short survey on Australia-Asia youth volunteering. Subsequent reports in the Generation Asia series will address links between Asia literacy and employability as well as how the diverse talent of young Australians and international students from Asia can be championed Submissions, case studies and comments from IEAA members on this project are welcome and encouraged. 

Contact IEAA’s Research Manager for more details.

About the Authors

Edmund Mollison is currently a research intern with IEAA. He is in his final semester of a Bachelor of International Studies at RMIT University. With his plans for a learning abroad experience during his degree cancelled, like many of his peers, Edmund is looking forward to travelling abroad post-graduation.

Dr Kirrilee Hughes is IEAA’s Research Manager, an international education consultant and has led the research team who authored Keeping Connected. Kirrilee has held leadership and strategy roles for global education organisations as well as sessional teaching and research positions at leading Australian universities. Kirrilee is an IEAA Senior Fellow and has special expertise in Indonesia and broader Southeast Asia.