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JET-ting into the Indo-Pacific: English Teaching as a Tool of Diplomacy

21 Jul 2022
By Shaun Cameron
A Classroom in Japan. 
Source: Dylan James, Flickr,

English is a common language in trade and relations, but many throughout Southeast Asia and the Pacific cannot speak it. An Australian English-teaching initiative may address this inequality, while fostering lasting relationships.

This month the Australian cohort of university graduates participating in the 2022 Japanese government’s Exchange and Teaching (JET) Programme will touch down to begin a year of teaching English as a second language (ESL) across over 1,000 public organisations and schools across the country. As of 2019, over 70,000 participants have taken part in the programme since its inception in 1987, including 7,900 Australians. Having recently returned from teaching English abroad, I wondered if Australia could take such an opportunity and strategy for public diplomacy and capacity-building in its own neighbourhood.

English in the Indo-Pacific

The English language has developed into a lingua franca in diplomacy and international trade and relations, but the world’s largest ranking of countries by English ability showed that in 2021 Southeast Asian nations such as Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand, and Cambodia all sit at low or very low English proficiency. Pacific nations such as Samoa, the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, and Palau have also shown low proficiency or difficulties in teaching and measuring English instruction within schools. The Australian government has recognised that limited English fluency hampers the ability of students to compete in an internationalised world, while Education First have reported correlations between rising national English proficiency and increased productivity and innovation.

Regional governments have tried to address English language deficits by trying to recruit thousands of foreign English schoolteachers and mandating English classes for primary schoolchildren, but the calculus of more teachers and lessons leading to better language ability isn’t so simple. In nations such as Cambodia and Thailand, significant educational inequalities exist in education, particularly in regional and rural areas. In Thailand, teaching practices are often outdated and unadaptable to changing classroom technology and environments. Access to additional private tutoring, top-tier schooling, and English language schools is reserved for those with disposable income in a country where 33 percent of the population have a bank deposit balance below 500 baht (around AU $20). For comparison, the average annual fee at a local international-tier school could be over 650,000 baht (AU $26,500).

An Australian “JET”?

A program similar to JET for regions such as Southeast Asia and the Pacific could offer an opportunity for tertiary-qualified Australians, usually along with an ESL teaching qualification, to capacity-build by teaching English in schools without the adequate ability to recruit and attract high quality foreign teachers. Such a program could further offer the potential to build relationships and goodwill like that of the Defence Cooperation Program (DCP) by building ties with local students, teachers, and administrators, as well as the next-generation of leaders, public servants, and educators. The DCP is an Australian military program providing nations throughout the Indo-Pacific with training and education opportunities within host countries or at Australian tertiary or military institutions ‒ including English language training ‒ and even counts the King of Thailand as one of its participants. The DCP has been lauded for establishing people-to-people links that have helped ease diplomatic tensions between Australia and other nations at key junctures.

Teaching English within public schools likely won’t have the same diplomatic effect, in the short-term at least, but could offer an opportunity to address education inequality by providing English teaching throughout regional and rural areas. In some cases, foreign teachers could fill gaps in the curriculum by teaching other subjects such as math and science, albeit in English along with a teacher’s aide. Boosting the English proficiency of our neighbours could also complement Australia’s strategy for diversifying Australian university cohorts by attracting new students. Research has further shown that improved proficiency in English can promote international trade and provide avenues for empowerment and self-determination to regional nations in engaging in global commerce.

The Logistics of Such a Program

As with JET, local organisations could pay an average salary, with additional program funding to standardise teacher wages to that of metropolitan-earnings and to provide education technologies and internet penetration that are often lacking in local schools, particularly during COVID-19 lockdowns and school closures. This additional support might limit some of the primary failures of JET, mainly that while the programme has been heralded as a public diplomacy success, Japan’s English proficiency has actually declined since 2016. Some possible explanations for this decline include an education system focused on exam-preparation, the inherent language differences and difficulties between English and Japanese, and an existing English education focus on grammar and reading. Any Australian program would need to address these barriers, while also considering colonial histories as a barrier to English education in some nations and possible disparities in salary and pedagogy between foreign teachers and their local counterparts.

Australia’s public diplomacy agenda already supports around 10,000 Australians per year to study and undertake internships as a part of the New Colombo Plan (NCP) throughout the Indo-Pacific. While the program provides valuable outcomes to participants and hosts, participation is limited to undergraduate students and evaluations focus on barometers of success such as student mobility and the benefits of the program for individual participants’ career prospects. An Australian JET program could act as a complement to the NCP, with a focus on engaging community-level organisations in host countries, such as schools, and local capacity building.

Allowing for participation from groups other than undergraduate students will lead to greater inclusion and ability to leverage the skills and abilities of professionals in the field. Such an approach facilitates further opportunities for engagement; if a JET-like program could be implemented to complement the NCP, then further strategies surely exist in formal engagements between public servants in regional government agencies and other institutions. This strategy of collaboration is more similar to that instituted by the DCP and could reap similar rewards in long-term people-to-people links.

As Australia looks to build relationships and influence in the Indo-Pacific this type of program, along with the NCP and other avenues of engagement, could offer an opportunity to institute long-term public diplomacy with the next generation of leaders, students, and educators in the Indo-Pacific, while possibly addressing regional education inequalities and a lack of English proficiency hampering the futures of regional neighbours and allies.

Shaun Cameron is a postgraduate student in international relations and national security at Curtin University. He has a background in academic research, psychology, and teaching. He works as a public servant in Canberra.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.