From periphery to pivot: The role of Western Australia’s higher education sector in encouraging ‘Indian Ocean thinking’

19 March 2021

Image credit: Camels at sunset on Cable Beach, Broome by Lauren Bath

Written by Sven Schottmann and Seth Kunin

Professor Seth Kunin is Deputy Vice-Chancellor, International (DVCI), at Curtin University, Australia’s seventh largest university with around 61,000 students. Curtin University has a specific Indian Ocean region focus with campuses in Singapore, Malaysia, the United Arab Emirates and Mauritius, as well as deep and longstanding partnerships around the wider Indian Ocean region.

Dr Sven Schottmann is College Director and Principal of Curtin College on the Curtin University campus in Perth, and Adjunct Associate Professor at the School of Humanities, Languages and Social Sciences at Griffith University. Curtin College is a member of the Navitas network and is marking its 21st anniversary in 2021. The college provides pathways into Curtin University programs in Perth and in Singapore for domestic and international students from around the world, many of them from the countries of the Indian Ocean region.

“The Indian Ocean has not always received the same level of attention in our strategic thinking as the Pacific Ocean. Australia has tended to see itself as a Pacific Ocean state … With a combined population of over three billion people in Western Australia’s time zone, it’s about time that the Indian Ocean Rim is no longer ignored.”

Internationally, Western Australia is arguably best known for three things: its resource wealth; the enviable climate and lifestyle of its capital city, Perth; and Perth for billing itself as the most remote city of its size in the world. The latter dynamics, in particular, have long helped foster perceptions of isolation, distance and of being different from the rest of the country. However, the profound geopolitical realignments which have accelerated the economic and security connections between the Indian and Pacific oceans to give rise to the single strategic system called the “Indo-Pacific,” are offering an attractive alternative geographical perspective for Western Australia.

Instead of being disconnected and isolated, Western Australia is centred as the strategically well-placed intersecting point of the gigantic dual-Oceans system, with its vast minerals resources and agricultural potential underpinning the growing role of its tourism, research, education, financial, transport and trading sectors. From this point of view, Perth is not an isolated city at the edge of a continent, but a true fulcrum of the Indo-Pacific, and Australia’s main connection to the emerging Indian Ocean sub-system that contains nearly three billion people living in Oceania, Southeast Asia, South Asia, the Middle East, eastern and southern Africa, and the western Indian Ocean islands. Adopting what we call “Indian Ocean thinking” and capitalising on these developments will offer Perth as an international study and research destination immense opportunities over the coming decades.

Western Australia’s links with the wider Indian Ocean region are deep and longstanding. They go far beyond the export of mining and energy products. The trade between First Nations peoples from northern parts of the state and the islands of modern-day Indonesia are documented from at least the sixteenth century onwards. These trade links formed the southeasternmost extension of the long-distance trade networks that have long circulated and exchanged commodities, ideas and people across the Indian Ocean. The seasonal predictability of the monsoon winds that blow in one direction for part of the year and then in the reverse for another, made crossing the Indian Ocean comparatively easier than, for example, trans-Atlantic passages. Geography and environmental factors have facilitated economic and cultural exchange between the coasts of Africa, the Arab-Islamic world, the Indian subcontinent, Southeast Asia, and China for millennia. Trans-oceanic trade “unified and hierarchized” the Indian Ocean, and produced a cosmopolitan world that is often said to be one of the earliest examples of a truly global economy.

After European settlement of Western Australia in the early nineteenth century, Muslim cameleers from what are parts of India and Pakistan today, played vital roles in opening up inland trade routes. The port of Fremantle had appended itself into the ancient Indian Ocean commercial networks even before Australia existed as a country, exporting sandalwood to Singapore and China, as well as jarrah and horses to India by the middle of the nineteenth century.

Demographically, too, Western Australia enjoys a significant advantage over the rest of Australia in engaging with the wider Indian Ocean world. Many of the state’s earlier waves of non-European migrants hailed from around the Indian Ocean region, including Mauritians and Reunionese, Dutch nationals from the Netherlands East Indies, Anglo-Indians and Anglo-Burmese, Malaysians and Singaporeans, or South Africans and Zimbabweans. To this day, Western Australia remains a favoured destination for many international students from southern and eastern Africa, making Perth one of Australia’s most visibly African capitals, and reflecting once again its unique Indian Ocean outlook.

The task ahead

Since the late 1960s, Australia has made great stride in redefining itself as a country in and of the Asia-Pacific. Western Australia is now called upon to ensure that this established Pacific outlook is complemented by a focus on, and much greater engagement with, the dynamic Indian Ocean region. The Indian Ocean today is the world’s largest business corridor connecting Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Oceania with Europe and the Americas, with a volume of traffic surpassing both the Atlantic and the Pacific. Some of the globally most significant air and sea transport hubs fringe the Indian Ocean, many with direct links to Perth. Dubai, Singapore and Nairobi have emerged as the modern-day successors to Cambay, Malacca or Zanzibar.

Western Australia is a major drawcard for international students and visitors from around the Indian Ocean. The state has become Australia’s largest exporter to our closest Indian Ocean neighbour Indonesia, and five of our top 15 trading partners are located in the Indian Ocean region. Over 40 percent of Australia’s exports by value depart from Western Australian ports, and an advantageous location has enabled the development of strong links with the many different subregions of the Indian Ocean world.
Over the next decade, Western Australian universities and education providers will have the opportunity to play pivotal roles in facilitating even greater linkages with the Indian Ocean community. This can include encouraging more student mobility (both inbound and outbound), delivering more trans-national education products and services at the growing number of offshore campuses operated by Western Australian universities overseas, expanding research collaborations with partners from across the Indian Ocean, and offering expertise to Australian businesses seeking customers in new export markets. The Western Australian international higher education sector can do its part to help further visions of the Indian Ocean as “a region that is free, open and inclusive, … [where] international rules and norms are respected, where investment and infrastructure builds growth and development, rather than indebtedness and reliance.”

Western Australia’s public universities are already actively engaged with the Indian Ocean region, and have set up branch campuses in Singapore (Curtin and Murdoch University), Malaysia (Curtin), Sri Lanka (Edith Cowan University), the United Arab Emirates (Curtin and Murdoch University) as well as Mauritius (Curtin). Many other programs are being delivered with offshore partners across the Indian Ocean region. The University of Western Australia hosts on its campus a number of significant, regionally focused research centres, including the Australia-India Institute, the Australia-Indonesia Centre, and the Africa Research and Engagement Centre. UWA is also affiliated with the Perth USAsia Centre and the Australian Consortium for In-Country Indonesian Studies (ACICIS). But much more can be done to facilitate greater engagement with our Indian Ocean partners, including encouraging greater inter-campus mobility for those with existing offshore operations, or perhaps a joint effort to extend the New Colombo Plan to more Indian Ocean littoral states, turning it into a true Indo-Pacific engagement scheme. Under track 3 diplomacy initiatives, new sister city agreements could be forged to encourage greater people-to-people linkages across the Indian Ocean region.

Working together through StudyPerth, the Department of Jobs, Tourism, Science and Innovation, or Austrade, Western Australian education providers might consider joint missions to Indian Ocean markets to present a horizontally integrated image of sparkling Perth as Australia’s premier gateway to the region. In a fiercely competitive setting, it will be become increasingly important to remind partners and customers overseas what a great place Western Australia is to study, invest, visit, or set up home. Many things which the sector could do wouldn’t even cost a lot of money. For example, individual institutions could connect better with Perth’s diverse Indian Ocean communities – both the longstanding and well-established ones, as well more recently arrived ones. We could partner with high school partners to inculcate a sense of connectedness rather than isolation, distance and remoteness among those whom we are teaching. Indian Ocean perspectives should be included in curriculum material as a matter of course, and should become engrained in our thinking as the state’s unique advantage. This in turn will help enhance the employability prospects of Western Australian graduates, well networked with colleagues and future leaders from across the Indian Ocean world, and familiar with their ways of doing business.

The global realignment currently underway provides outstanding opportunities for Perth and Western Australia to turn old stereotypes of isolation and remoteness on their head. Through concerted efforts to support state and federal government initiatives of engaging with our partners around the Indian Ocean world, Western Australian universities and education providers stand to reap the benefits of the opportunities which geography and history will be presenting to the state over the coming decade. From its perceived peripheral role in Pacific-facing Australia centred on the eastern seaboard, Western Australia’s strong links with the emerging Indian Ocean region will translate into an increasingly central role in both domestic and regional politics in the future.

  • Speech of the Defence Minister at the Indo-Pacific Conference, 19 August 2019. Accessed 31 December 2020.
  • Rory Metcalf (2013), ‘The Indo-Pacific: What’s in a Name?,’ The American Interest, vol.9 no. 2 (November-December). (accessed 4 January 2021). Also see Rory Metcalf (2020), Indo-Pacific Empire: China, America and the contest for the world’s pivotal region (Manchester: Manchester University Press).
  • Shanti Moorty and Ashraf Jamal (2010), Indian Ocean Studies: Cultural, Social and Political Perspectives (London and New York: Routledge).
  • E.g. Philippe Beaujard (2005), ‘The Indian Ocean in Eurasian and African World-Systems before the Sixteenth Century,’ Journal of World History, vol. 16 no.4, pp. 411-465; Akhil Gupta (2008), ‘Globalisation and difference: Cosmopolitanism before the nation state,’ Transforming Cultures e-journal, vol. 3 no.2.
  • Louise Reynolds (2019), Speech of the Defence Minister at the Indo-Pacific Conference, 19 August. Accessed 31 December 2020.
  • Denis Rumley (2013), ‘Western Australia: Peripheral State and Indian Ocean Orientation,’ The Otemon Journal of Australian Studies, vol 39, pp. 7-20.
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