By Matthew Cowan, LSU
The Australian Government’s recently released and much maligned Asian Century White Paper has come under sustained fire for failing to measure up to expectations. Long awaited and released to much fanfare, the White Paper sets out to provide a road map for Australians to become more ‘Asia-literate’ by way of deeper engagement with Asia in response to unprecedented change currently underway across most parts of the region. The criticism levelled at the paper is varied and comes from a broad spectrum of Australian society. However, persistent criticism emerging in response to it relates to how its goals are going to be achieved, how it’s going to be paid for, and why it’s taken so long for an Australian government to draft such a document given the apparent urgency of the situation. As Rory Medcalf has already stated, “As for the Asian century, it is 12 years old and counting.”
As it relates to education, the White Paper acknowledges that the study of Asian languages and Asian studies have fallen into a desperate state of decline in Australia despite its proximity to the region. One startling figure from Asialink’s response to the White Paper, Our Place in the Asian Century, has the number of schools teaching Korean in Australia in 2008 at a mere 46. Some may argue, “So what?!”, but South Korea remains Australia’s fourth biggest trading partner. Even more alarming is the rate at which the study of Indonesian in schools is declining with current projections suggesting it will disappear completely at Year 12 level within the next five years. At university level, it’s been reported by Simon Marginson that only around 4% of first-degree students from Australia study in Asia during their degrees. This is certainly cause for concern if Australia indeed wants Asia-literate Australians equipped to actively participate in the Asian century, particularly as the global economy’s epicentre draws nearer to Australian shores.
In response, the Australian Government has begun spruiking the obvious, but hardly innovative, line that studying in-country is the best way to become country-literate. Tertiary Education Minister Senator Chris Evans has stated that, “There is no better way to engage our young people with Asia than to encourage them to study abroad in Asia”. And with that, the Australian Government has hastily put together a new program called the Asia-Bound Grant to the tune of $37 million which pledges to provide 10,000 extra students with the opportunity to travel to Asia to study. By doing this, the Australian Government hopes to generate a “cultural shift” in Australia by diverting Australian students away from Europe and the US where most of them currently go, to Asia.
But how is it going to do that? While a $5,000 grant, for example, is a reasonably attractive enticement at first to encourage students to study abroad, it’s not going to be the money that will entice Australian students to study offshore in the long run. Not at least until it becomes apparent to the student or the student’s family that they are actually going to benefit from the experience – in the short term a quality education and perspective changing experience, and in the long term a better chance at a successful and satisfying career. They will be asking where the added value lies. This is where the White Paper as it relates to higher education is revealing. Revealing in that it doesn’t indicate how students will be taken care of academically, physically and mentally while away. Are adequate academic support and student welfare mechanisms currently in place in the universities that Australian students will potentially be headed next year? While it remains a road map, as stressed by the Government, the White Paper in this regard fails to provide evidence of how student welfare matters will be managed at overseas institutions. Living abroad for extended periods of time coupled with the pressures of study, not to mention the financial strains, presents challenges that a $5,000 grant can’t make go away.
Therefore, it would be unfortunate for anyone reading the White Paper to think that they or their child will receive the quality of education, learning support or array of student services that’s expected from universities back home. Certainly, Australians who have never lived and studied abroad for an extended period of time and are toying with the idea of doing so could easily be hoodwinked into believing that a quality student experience, both academically and socially, will naturally be transferable across borders. Currently this is not the case in most parts of Southeast Asia, let alone across Asia.
Nevertheless, parts of Southeast Asia are looming as supportive places to live and study. Unfortunately, however, the White Paper makes very little reference to the work some Australian universities have been doing for quite some time in Southeast Asia in providing a quality student experience, namely RMIT, JCU, Monash and Curtin universities. The paper does very little to raise the profile of these institutions. Certainly Asialink makes reference to the fact that there are already seven Australian university campuses in Vietnam, Malaysia and Singapore, but fails to go into any great detail as to the quality of the student experience they provide. At RMIT Vietnam, the Student Services department incorporating the Learning Skills Unit (LSU), Careers, Health and Wellbeing, Residence Centre, Student Advisement – the list goes on – indicates the substantial commitment it has to the student experience. The university would not maintain the esteemed reputation it has in Vietnam without it. The point is that the infrastructure and the professionals are already in place at RMIT Vietnam to cater for an influx of Australian students and to provide support for them to a very high standard while they are here.
But where are these Australian students? Why hasn’t this been better publicised? It’s not like influential people in government don’t know we’re here. In the past two years we’ve had flying visits from Kevin Rudd as Foreign Minister, Julia Gillard as Prime Minister, Quentin Bryce as Governor-General and Bob Carr as Foreign Minister. They all commented on how impressive the services and facilities are here. And they would’ve noticed that a lack of Vietnamese language skills need not be a barrier to Australian university students studying here because RMIT Vietnam expects English to be spoken on campus with all classes delivered in English by lecturers of whom many are from ASEAN countries. Unfortunately Senator Chris Evans’ comments, in part, are off the mark when he says that the Australian Government has to make it easier and more attractive for students to study in Asia and support them. This may be the case when attempting to encourage students to study in countries like China and India, but it’s never been easier to gain an Australian university education in Vietnam.
That said, there are still barriers in place in countries like Vietnam that significantly reduce study options for Australian students wishing to study here. This is not addressed in the White Paper. Political science degrees, for example, can’t be offered here due to sensitivities surrounding the content of these programs. Unfortunately Australian universities offshore have very little say in that. Therefore, it’s not simply about encouraging universities to run programs that students are interested in as Senator Evans has said. It’s not as simple as that. Rather it would involve some serious diplomacy on the part of the Australian Government if in fact it wants Australians Asia-literate across a broad range of disciplines across such a broad range of nations that make up Asia. Indeed in Vietnam, it would take a radical change in government policy here for any form of relaxation on this point, which doesn’t appear to be happening any time soon. At institutional level, it’s certainly time for the ‘home’ universities to be taking their offshore campuses more seriously and accepting that their relationship should be much more than the franchise/franchisee relationship that currently exists.
For now, the sharing of curricula and knowledge is very much one way – home to offshore – leaving many lecturers here feeling constrained, overworked and frustrated because of a lack of understanding of what’s actually needed in order to meet educational objectives here. Course content needs to be contextualised for the environment it’s being delivered in and the audience it’s being delivered to. One way of working on developing better understanding across onshore/offshore campuses might be to implement a requirement for academic staff to have experience working across all campuses during the course of their tenure. If the sharing of information, knowledge and curricula becomes two way, it will greatly benefit all campuses, especially the home university campus as momentum gathers for the need to know more about what’s transpiring on the ground offshore in Asia.