ACYD Publications Manager, Neil Thomas: 'It's not the Asian dream, it's the reality'

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IN a recent article ‘Rude awakening from Asia study dream’, Natalie Karam questioned whether there was sufficient demand from Australian students for the Asia study abroad opportunities offered by the ALP’s Asiabound scheme and the Coalition’s broader New Colombo Plan.

Ms Karam raises salient points that need to be addressed for the Australian educational sector to thrive in the Asian Century. But her factual premise is not completely sound, her arguments accept stereotyped views of Asia as unchangeable, and she does not mention Asian languages.

Firstly, there in fact does seem to be demand for Asia study. Bernard Lane reported in The Australian that the first round of Asiabound grant applications was heavily oversubscribed, and that a full allocation of $10.6m has been made to 52 institutions to provide opportunities for 3700 Australian students to participate in semester, short-term, and language study programs in Asia.

Despite the quoted concerns of an industry professional that student interest will not match allocations, as universities and not individuals make Asiabound applications, it is unlikely the money will not go towards inducing student participation in new Asia study programs. This is because universities must return any unspent funding. Furthermore, Asiabound allocates $3m to fund a national campaign promoting the benefits of Asia study to students and parents.

We should not underestimate the power of political leadership and financial incentive to impact the attitudes and choices of the Australian population.

The article also ignores booming Australia-Asia youth engagement. The Australia-China Youth Association Group alone boasts over 5000 members across chapters in 20 Australian universities, with high-level support from the ANU and DFAT. The Australia-China Youth Dialogue, Australia-India Youth Dialogue, Australia-Korea Youth Dialogue, and Australia-Indonesia Youth Association have all been founded and grown rapidly over the last few years.

Secondly, I agree with Ms Karam in the sense that student demand could indeed be higher. She insightfully identifies many reasons why Australian students “haven't quite embraced the fact that our future is inside of Asia”, but she accepts cultural stereotypes as immutable barriers and does not offer solutions.

Essentially, “Asia does not seem new, exciting or different to us…the casual familiarity we have with the region is a turn-off.” I concur with Ms Karam that it is ignorant to assume that “eating pad thai” and “lazing by the beach” mean you have ‘experienced Asia’.

But Australians should not just accept Michael Wesley’s insight that we are “insular internationalists”, well travelled but ignorant of the places we go. It seems the problem is that Australians do not know enough about Asia to realise how diverse and interesting it really is, and that it boasts texture far richer than its tacky tourist hotspots.

Education is the key. This is precisely why we need political support and promotional funding for programs like Asiabound and the New Colombo Plan, to show Australian students that Asia is in fact a dynamic and liveable region, not just a place to swig Bintangs and splurge on room service.

The ‘Asia and Australia’s Engagement with Asia’ national curriculum priority is also a positive step towards expanding the cultural and educational horizons of future generations.

Thirdly, a topic absent from Ms Karam’s article is what I believe to be a major reason why student demand for Asia study has not been as high as it should be; Asian languages.

Judging from the article and her LinkedIn page, it seems Ms Karam does not speak an Asian language. From my own experience, this can be a game changer. People naturally prefer to interact in their first language, especially in their own country. Ms Karam’s lament that living in Asia is disappointing compared to holidaying there due to the lack of “student life” is misguided; it exists everywhere but is primarily conducted in the local language.

The article also depicts Asian students as distant and perplexing: “Our relative ‘otherness’ was intriguing to one another.” But the language of cultural inscrutability masks the reality of fundamental human commonalities behind different beliefs and customs. The key is being able to communicate them.

I am not saying that studying in Asia without an Asian language is worthless, it is an invaluable experience that I would recommend to any Australian, but if you met an Asian student in Australia who could not speak English I doubt you would invite him to the pub to have a drink and watch the footy. Language and cultural participation are intertwined when Australians go to Asia too.

I study Chinese (with law and politics), and whilst I am not eloquently fluent, being able to hold my own at the dinner table and read the Chinese news has led to meaningful friendships, professional employment, and an increasing ability to partake in Chinese society.

So, whilst Asiabound and the New Colombo Plan are laudable policy, a better way to promote tertiary study in and of Asia would be to implement the 2012 Australia in the Asian Century White Paper recommendation to teach Australians an Asian language throughout primary and secondary school. That would mean they are interested and equipped for immersing themselves in an Asian society when they start university. Learning a second language at university is possible, but the younger you are the better.

However, prospects are uncertain. In 2010, the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations released a report showing Asian language schooling in free-fall, with for instance only five per cent of Australian schools teaching Chinese. Neither the ALP nor Coalition has committed funding to realising the White Paper’s aspirational goal, though the Coalition have announced a target of 40 per cent of school graduates speaking a foreign language within a decade.

Australia should follow the example of the Victorian state government, the leader in realising the possibility of a bilingual Australia through its ‘Vision for Languages Education’ policy and Hamer Scholarship program.

Speaking the languages and understanding the cultures of Asia would enrich the social life of the nation, augment strategic involvement in the region, and boost business within the interaction-based non-primary sectors the Australian economy rapidly needs to diversify into. Monolingualism is not a national strength.

Ultimately, to argue that current lack of huge demand justifies winding back educational engagement with Asia is prematurely defeatist.

Asia is not a dream we need to awake from. It is a reality we need to act upon.

This article first appeared in The Australian on the 30th of August 2013: