Australia’s High Commissioner to India and ambassador to Bhutan, Harinder Sidhu, who was in the capital last week spoke to Kuensel’s Tashi Dema on the Australia Awards scholarship and way forward.

Q&A: If you could tell us why the Australian government reconsidered Bhutan for this scholarship?

I am very happy to award the scholarship from this year. We are doing this in an environment where our budget is very limited and because of that we had to pause this award for 2016. We continued to support those who are already in Australia. But even though we still have budget constraints, Australia made it a priority to grant the awards this year because our friendship with Bhutan is so special.

Were there any other factors that contributed to Australia’s reconsideration for the Australia Awards scholarship?

It was always our intention to provide Bhutan the scholarship. The major factor was whether it could be accommodated in our budget. Bhutan is very special to Australia and we have been supporting Bhutanese students to come to Australia to study since 1962 and the Australia Awards have been going on for a few years. It is equally important for us because that is the main way we contribute to the development of Bhutan. Education is the foundation stone of our relationship.

How many Bhutanese were awarded the Australia Awards and Endeavors scholarship this year? 

I have just returned from an important function of awarding scholarships to 45 Bhutanese. There are 33 Bhutanese who were awarded with Australia Awards scholarship and 12 got the Endeavors Awards. Of the 33 Australia Awards, 19 are women.

Will Australia continue to grant this scholarship?

We still have budget constraints but we have found ways to accommodate the scholarship within the budget. Because Bhutan is important to us, Australia Awards will always be our priority whenever and however we can, we will try but we cannot guarantee. What the experiences of last year show is that, we cannot always take things for granted. We cannot always assume it will be there. There is tremendous goodwill and effort to award the scholarship.

With Australia becoming the top destination for Bhutanese to pursue higher studies, what are the expectations of Australia from the Bhutanese students?

Our expectations are simple. We try to make things as easy for students. We are quite generous in the visa arrangements. Students can work part time. In some cases, students can stay for a few years after completing their studies and work full time. Their spouses can work. We ask the Bhutanese students to respect the rules of the visa and stay within those rules. We also hope that the Bhutanese students would enrich us by teaching us about Bhutan by sharing their experiences and building a genuine relationship with Australia and Australians. It is important they don’t just get an education but they gain experiences. We also expect that Bhutanese students give something back to Bhutan after their return through the skills they learn.

There is speculation that the visa procedure has become strict over the years for students aspiring to study privately in Australia. There is speculation that visas are granted only for the higher studies, especially for students aspiring to pursue Masters. Is that true? 

No. That is absolutely not true. A lot of education we provide is mostly on vocational education, skills training in a range of skills from electricians and carpenters to hospitality and hotel management. It is education in the widest sense of words and not just for Masters degree. Bhutan needs people who have skills. For a society to thrive, we need people at all levels.

Can Australia provide employment to Bhutanese?

There are job opportunities in Australia and there are ways that individuals from other countries can get jobs in Australia and work there but that is often done by the individuals themselves. There are no Australian government programmes that give jobs to people from other countries. Like any other governments in the world, we are also concerned with giving jobs to our own people. The opportunity for Bhutanese to go to Australia and work is there but it is not through a government programme. It will have to be on an individual basis.

Australia has played a vital role as Bhutan’s development partner and education has been one area of cooperation. What are some of the other areas of cooperation where Australia and Bhutan can work together?

There are so many areas. The education relationship provided us the reason to connect with each other and think of other things we could work together. For example, the Australia Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) has conducted research and worked with Bhutanese farmers on growing citrus fruit and they have just completed a programme of the research. They will take it away and they will share the information to help farmers grow more fruits to get better returns. We also have some work with RENEW. We are also exploring means to work with Bhutan on tourism.