Once upon a time in Colombo
Set up 60 years ago to benefit Asia’s newest nations, the Colombo Plan helped change the face of Australia’s first international university, writes Louise Williams.
When a young Tennyson Rodrigo first set foot 60 years ago on the campus that would become the University of New South Wales he might not have recognised the moment as a turning point in Australia’s history.
The Ceylonese student’s first impression on taking up chemical engineering in 1952 was of a surprisingly modest campus; the university only having opened three years earlier.
In fact, he was astounded to find himself studying physics in an unheated, corrugated-iron “Nissen hut” – originally designed as quick-to-assemble accommodation for the army – in the thick of a Sydney winter.
But, as one of the first batch of Colombo Plan students, Rodrigo was part of a program that marked the beginning of Australia’s engagement with the region.
The Colombo Plan would eventually bring more than 20,000 of Asia’s brightest to study under a scholarship scheme to help the region’s newly independent nations develop through education; changing the lives of the students and the Australians they met in the process. The Colombo Plan graduates have gone on to fill many influential positions in the region’s governments and businesses, often serving as de facto “ambassadors” for Australia and retaining strong family and business ties.
And for UNSW it was an important step towards becoming Australia’s premier international university.
“Through the Colombo Plan, UNSW emerged as a distinctly outward-looking university,” says Ms Jennie Lang, UNSW Pro-Vice-Chancellor (International). As well as welcoming international students, the university actively recruited international staff and later signed some of the first exchange agreements to enable its Australian students to study overseas.
“Our Colombo Plan graduates had the professional skills to help build the emerging nations in Asia, cementing UNSW’s place in the economic and educational development of our region,” Lang says.
For Rodrigo, the decision to study in Australia was unequivocal; there was no chemical engineering program available in the then Ceylon, now Sri Lanka. He admits with good humour that he hadn’t expected to find such makeshift facilities on the new campus and sometimes envied students who had ended up at the well-established University of Sydney. However, he says, his lecturers proved to be among the world’s best in their fields.
“I am happy to have been part of the humble beginnings of UNSW. In six decades it has blossomed to become an academic institution of significant stature,” he says from his home in Colombo, where the program was initiated at a Commonwealth Foreign Ministers meeting in 1950.
“In parallel, Australia has left behind its inward-looking legacy (of the “White Australia” period) and transformed itself into a multinational and multi-ethnic country that is a shining example to the rest of the world.”
Rodrigo, too, thrived as the university, originally called the New South Wales University of Technology, steadily built its reputation and developed its campus.
His first experience in the relatively new chemical industry was in Australia during the year-long professional attachment at Lever Brothers that was part of his course.
“For the first time I was rubbing shoulders with trade-union types, shop-floor personnel and getting used to the deafening noises of electric motors, fork-lift trucks and the hot vapours of hydrogenated oils and fats and the sweet perfumes of toiletry ingredients,” he says.
When Rodrigo returned to Ceylon after five years in Australia, he was fortunate again, he says. He found himself planning, implementing and managing his young nation’s two largest industrial projects: its first oil refinery and its first nitrogenous fertiliser plant. A similarly impressive career followed.
“My challenges were to maximise the opportunities that appeared on the horizon,” he says of his determination to make friends in Australia at a time when most Australians were unfamiliar with Asia and its cultures.
He says his stay was made all the easier through the people he met at the International Friendship Centre where the Colombo Plan students lived in Sydney. The large house with a common living room and piano, a natural swimming pool and table tennis was ideal and the remarkable “Honorary Warden”, Dr Ronald Winton, was a local doctor well known for his humanity and tolerance.
At the time, the household mix of Chinese, Malays, Indians, Pakistanis, Nepalis, Filipinos, Indonesians, Fijians, Papuans and others – and of Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Christians and Jews – was unusual in Australia, he says. Consequently, the students were keen to share their culture, especially their music, dance and drama traditions.
“It is with some personal pride that I can say I was the first person to play the Indian musical instrument, the sitar, on ABC radio by invitation,” says Rodrigo.
It was such a rare and exotic event in the 1950s that a photo of the beaming young man with the sitar made the front page of the ABC Weekly magazine.
Today, more than 20 per cent of UNSW’s students are from overseas, the percentage having steadily risen since the Colombo Plan, bringing an international perspective to classes and fostering strong personal and professional links with Asia, says Lang.
UNSW has graduated more international students than any other Australian university and now has active links with more than 300 partner universities worldwide. And the first Colombo Plan students have been followed by children, grandchildren and, recently, even great-grandchildren.
Rodrigo says the Colombo Plan helped him develop his “inner potential” and was a valuable “door-opening gesture by Australia to forge better understanding of the economic and cultural aspirations of the region and the region’s strategic value to Australia itself”.
“I established special friendships with the Asian students and those newly arrived migrants from Europe,” he says.
“But, I would be remiss if I failed to recall that some of my dearest friends were ‘fair dinkum’ Aussies with their spirit of ‘fair go’ – the descendants of early settlers who displayed genuine curiosity about Asian life and culture.”
UNSW is trying to reconnect with Colombo Plan students for a gala dinner in November to mark the program’s 60th anniversary. alumni.unsw.edu.au.
THE SPIRIT LIVES ON
The Colombo Plan scheme lives on in the form of the Federal Government’s AusAid Scholarship program. In the spirit of its predecessor, the program awards scholarships to students from developing countries to study in Australia so they can acquire skills to contribute to development back home.
Last year 182 AusAid students from 37 countries in Asia, Africa and South America were studying at UNSW.
Nagina Akhtar’s work to mitigate the social exclusion of women in Pakistan earned her a Human Rights Award, but she believes there is more to be done to improve the situation of women in her home country.
Studying a Master of Human Rights Law and Policy on an AusAid scholarship, Akhtar hopes to use the skills learned here to initiate decision-making processes regarding social justice and education for women. As Deputy Director of the Population Welfare and Human Rights ministries in Pakistan, Akhtar has witnessed first-hand the discrimination against women. As a well-educated woman from a rural area in Pakistan, Akhtar is an exception. Only one in every 500,000 Pakistani women has the opportunity to receive a tertiary education.
“Women suffer in Pakistan and this is often because they’re unaware of their rights. They’re not getting an education, whereas the boys in the family do get sent to school,” Akhtar says.
“When I finish my Masters … I will have specialised knowledge to initiate policy change. Before I started this degree, I couldn’t have a say, but now I have a greater understanding of the law and principles relating to human rights.”
Donald Gumbis, a university lecturer from Papua New Guinea, is studying a Master of Arts in International Relations. On his return to the University of Goroka, Gumbis aims to give his students a wider perspective.
“I hope to introduce new courses at my university and to build on its knowledge base. It’s important that Papua New Guinea, and most importantly, the students, are kept abreast of issues of globalisation. Even though we are so close to Australia, we are at risk of falling behind,” he says.
By Cassie Chorn.