Australia and Bhutan do not share one of the more consequential relationships in international affairs. Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade describes the trade and investment relationship with Bhutan as “modest,” diplomatic speak for barely existent. Formal diplomatic relations were only established in 2002, although these are conducted from the Australian High Commission in New Delhi. However, in the past few weeks an interesting convergence has taken place between the small Himalayan kingdom’s burgeoning democracy, and a key element of Australia’s economic and soft power strategies.
Having transitioned from an absolute monarchy to a democracy in 2008, Bhutan’s recent election (its third) has produced a decisive victory for the new Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa (DNT). While the Australian government may be agnostic on who governs Bhutan, there would be some interest in Canberra in noting that the incoming prime minister, Dr. Lotay Tshering, the incoming foreign minister, Dr. Tandi Dorji, (as well as at least two other cabinet ministers) are all graduates of Australian universities. The ascension of these politician to the heights of Bhutan’s political system are exactly the kind of outcomes Canberra would desire from its international education strategy.
In recent decades Australia has made a considerable effort to attract international students to its universities. Education has become Australia’s largest service industry, and a key component of the country’s continued economic growth. A recent report by University College London’s Centre for Global Higher Education predicts that Australia will overtake the United Kingdom as the second largest destination for international students in 2019 (behind the United States). The Australian government also forecasts that international student enrollments will reach 940,000 by 2025, a considerable increase from the current 650,000.
There are three broad pillars of Canberra’s education strategy that are designed to be beneficial to the country. The first is a fairly obvious economic benefit. International students not only pay large fees to attend Australian universities (far greater than those of local subsidized students), but they also collectively spend considerable sums of money on living expenses while in the country. The export value of international education is considered as the sum of these two components. In 2017 these components generated 30.3 billion Australian dollars in economic activity (US$21.8 billion) for Australia.
The second pillar is the retention of skills. Upon graduation international students are able to apply for a work visa for up to 4 years (depending on the qualification). For Australia this provides an opportunity to capture the skills these students have just gained. There is a further hope that those who excel in their fields will subsequently be able to move onto other skilled visas and eventually permanent residency and citizenship. This is a route Australia has created in an attempt to try and poach the best and brightest.
The third pillar is where these members of the new Bhutanese government come in. For those international students that return to their countries of origin, the hope is that they will join their local professional classes while preserving their developed network of friends and colleagues within Australia, as well as maintain both knowledge — and a sympathetic view — of Australia. The hope is that this will create the conditions for greater cultural and economic exchange between the two countries. With this pillar in mind, to have a country’s prime minister and its foreign minister both with considerable experience in and knowledge of Australia is a huge victory for this facet of Australia’s education strategy. It is precisely the kind of outcome the strategy would hope to secure.
The obvious desire would be that such graduates from Australian universities would find their way into senior positions within larger and more powerful countries. However, though small, Bhutan is not without an interest for Australia. The recent standoff between India and China on Bhutan’s Doklam Plateau has the potential to become a serious flashpoint between two countries, both of which are of major importance to Australia. This makes keeping an eye of developments in Bhutan, and having reliable sources of information, vital to Australia’s interests. Any relationships that the new Bhutanese prime minister and foreign minister may have developed in Australia could prove vital for facilitating these streams of information.
With Australia looking to continue to enhance its reputation as a destination for international students it will be hoping that an outcome like the makeup of the new Bhutanese government will become more common in other countries. These Bhutanese politicians follow the former chief minister (2012 – 2017) of the India state of Uttar Pradesh, Akhilesh Yadav (who holds a masters degree from the University of Sydney) as political figures whose experience and understanding of Australia could prove highly valuable to the economic cooperation, cultural exchange, and strategic knowledge that Australia is attempting to facilitate via its international education strategy.