An Asia-illiterate society: Asian studies in crisis


A curious aspect of Australian public policy is how little attention is being paid to one of its most troubled areas. The teaching of Asian studies and languages is contracting so dramatically that Asian specialists are now worried that the foundations for Australia's Asia engagement are faltering, perhaps terminally. Australia's capacity to understand its region is, they claim, 'stagnant or declining'. Only Chinese and Japanese languages are holding their own, but even here we are talking about a tiny number of students, around one per cent of all undergraduates, and these figures are distorted by the large numbers of overseas students. In no sense is there a critical mass of Australian students who are becoming 'Asia-literate'. Yet politicians ignore it, journalists (with one or two rare exceptions) won't write about it, and opinion editors won't accept our pieces.

Yet the neglect is occurring amidst a resurgence of interest about Australia-Asia relations. Tony Parkinson of the Age speaks approvingly of the Howard government's crafting of a 'pragmatic and credible policy of engagement with Asia'. Steve Lewis from the Australian is equally as laudatory, writing that Howard will have the 'last laugh on his many detractors' as Asian leaders lay 'out the welcome mat' for him this month at the ASEAN summit in Laos.

Prime Minister Howard's visit to Indonesia so quickly after his re-election stimulated much of this attention. Earlier problems with Indonesia, the regional fall-out from Hansonism, and Howard's image as an American 'deputy sheriff', are now dismissed by journalists as 'political blemishes' which belong in the past. We have new Australia-friendly leaders in Indonesia and Malaysia, free trade discussions with China, free trade agreements with Singapore and Thailand, and much focus on an invitation from ASEAN for John Howard to attend their leaders' meeting next month.

This would all be very encouraging if it wasn't for some disturbing facts and figures telling a more nuanced story. Indeed, the very same journalists who are now talking up Howard's 'valued partnership' with Asia, have shown little interest in the dwindling state of Australia's Asia-knowledge base.

In 2002, the Asian Studies Association of Australia (ASAA) published a Report detailing alarming results of their research into the state of the teaching of Asian studies and languages at Australian universities. Few university students are learning anything about Asia, and more worryingly, even fewer will do so in the future. Less than five per cent complete subjects which are substantially devoted to the study of Asia or an Asian country, and less than three per cent study an Asian language. At the top, there is an academic brain-drain to overseas universities and, at the same time, retiring Asia-specialists not being replaced.

Only at the ANU are Asian studies burgeoning. The University of Western Sydney is the latest to drop the teaching of Indonesian language, while Monash University, once a world centre for Southeast Asian Studies, now runs an Indonesian program with only one permanent staff member. Only five universities currently have programs teaching about India and South Asia, compared with fifteen in 1988.

And even though the languages of China and Japan are doing better than most – Mandarin Chinese grew steadily between 1988 and 2003, with Japanese showing modest proportional gains – the base is so narrow. In 2003, together with Indonesian, they attracted only 1.6 per cent of Australia's 800 000 students. Indonesia language learning had also grown in the 1980s and early 1990s, but the momentum was lost and by the end of the decade, enrolments were falling; in 2003 it had no more than 1600 students at all levels around Australia.

Thus the 'big three' Asian languages together had no more than 13,000 students overall, a significant proportion (sometimes as much as half to three-quarters of a language class) of whom are overseas students choosing to do a familiar character-based language to augment their subject load. Meanwhile some of the key languages of lower demand — Korean, Arabic, Hindi, Thai, Vietnamese — are in danger of being wiped out altogether.

The last study of Asia in Higher Education was the Ingleson Report of 1988. It estimated that 2.9 per cent of students studied Asia-based subjects (including languages), which suggests that the 2001 figure of five per cent is a significant increase. But Ingleson defined 'Asia-based' as a subject 'wholly' devoted to Asia, whereas for the 2001 Report the measure was 'more than half' devoted to Asia, which makes the 2001 figure of five per cent look stronger than it should be. Taking this into account, plus the distorting overseas students numbers, the ASAA Report – while acknowledging that general 'reference to Asia' in university courses was more common – concluded that 'Australian students were little more likely to include in-depth study of aspects of Asia in their course in 2001 than they had been in 1988'.

The decline in the study of Indonesian tells the most compelling story. Once the centre of Indonesian studies, the University of Sydney has indicated it may not run its Indonesian program next year. Dean of Arts, Stephen Garton, acknowledges this would be a 'diabolical' budgetary-driven decision. But as David Hill, Professor of Southeast Asian Studies at Murdoch University, has noted, universities are run as businesses and 'if there aren't bums on seats, they are not going to fund it'.

There are a variety of reasons why students are deserting Asian languages. Political instability and economic uncertainties followed the Asian economic crisis of 1997 and the East Timor crisis of 1999, while fear of radical Islam and alarmist talk of the need for border protection have helped shift students' interest away from Asia. The Howard government's claim that Australia's engagement with Asia should not shut out our interests in North America and Europe may have provided a subtext in which students stopped seeing Asian countries as places of relevance and meaning.

Whatever the reasons, it is clear there is no market-driven solution here. Language programs are expensive to run, and cash-strapped universities cannot be expected to maintain low-enrolment classes because they are in the 'national interest'. What is needed, Hill argues, is 'far-sighted policy intervention by the government … if the government wants people who can work as intelligence operatives, who can monitor conversational Indonesian, the kind of Indonesian that might be used by Jemaah Islamiah, then we've got to train up people who are that good and to do that we've got to be prepared to fund it'.

Hill's observations were backed up by this year's Flood Report into Australia's intelligence services which highlighted the lack of 'necessary language skills' amongst its agencies. Given that it takes five years for a non-Asian to learn an Asian language, common-sense tells us we need some imaginative long-term planning. Again, what is most important here is the decline in specialist knowledge, and the trends are clear. The ANU's Professor Jamie Mackie believes that the decline in Indonesian language teaching now threatens 'the sustainability of our analytical capacities on matters Indonesian', with a critical shortage of Indonesian specialists looming.

But all this remains very under-reported. Perhaps because it's hard to pin-point blame and its effects are long-term, it is not great copy for crisis-driven journalism. One journalist told Asian Studies Association President, Robin Jeffrey, that 'termites in the basement' don't make a good story until 'the house falls down'. By comparison, in 2002, federal Education Minister Brendan Nelson scrapped the $240 million National Asian Languages and Studies in Australian Schools Program (NALSAS), which at the time had 750 000 students enrolled in learning Indonesian, Korean, Chinese or Japanese.

The cancellation of this program received a lot of coverage. I suspect this is because the axing of the NALSAS program can be linked directly to government policy, whereas the crisis in universities cannot. Indeed, the Prime Minister responded to the Asian Studies Report with the comment that how universities spend their money is a decision for them, and the Federal government does not interfere in these processes. In the case of NALSAS, the house fell down, whereas for universities, the termites are still gnawing away.

However, although the crisis may have more to do with funding cuts and restructurings across universities than explicit government policy, the result is the same for schools and for universities. Fewer and fewer Australians are learning about our neighbours, their histories, cultures and languages. It is difficult to see how this isn't an issue of national concern, to which government, the media and business should be more aggressively reacting.

The Asian Studies Association does have a plan whereby a modest investment of $15 million over five years would have far-reaching effects. The details are outlined in their document Maximising Australia's Asia Knowledge and include ideas such as the creation of named, endowed chairs (say, the ANZ chair of Indonesian) as well as a number of other fellowships and teaching positions, and a 'Council for Maximizing Australia's Asia Knowledge and Skills' to oversee it all.

In August, I attended an Asialink/ANU National Forum on Australia's future engagement with Asia. There was enthusiasm for Asia becoming 'a great national project'. Sounds good, but – as important as Prime Ministerial summits are — it will not be realised by men in suits meeting other men in suits in Asian capital cities. It must be diffused amongst large numbers of Australian citizens, and be based on the common-sense recognition that understanding our locality will only happen if new programs and policies are developed specifically dedicated to the task. It may have been tiny, but Australia's Asia-knowledge base was once rigorous. Not any more, and without government intervention, this valuable national asset is being irreversibly eroded. It's time more people noticed.

Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)

XHTML: You can use these tags: <a href="" title="" rel=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>