Asian studies not so lingua franca

There has been a failure to develop the cultural and language skills of Australian students and professionals, writes Nicholas Whitwell.

Nicholas Whitwell is a 2018 Bachelor of Law (honours) graduate from Queensland University of Technology with a previous Bachelor and Masters of Education.

Education and language go to the heart of Australia’s Indo-Pacific security strategy. The attitude that English alone is sufficient in cross-cultural communication reinforces a colonial mindset that the region should engage with us on our terms and disregards thousands of years of culture and civilisation in Asia. English is simply not sufficient when considering strategic engagement, security, and international objectives.

There has been a failure to develop the cultural and language skills of Australian students and professionals. The tertiary sector is jettisoning Asian Studies, the New Colombo Plan is stagnant, and the Quad fails to capitalise on education opportunities. While Australia remains relevant to regional partners, it is reliant on rhetoric rather than programs that deliver economic integration, qualifications, and regional security

Australian universities shedding Asian Studies and languages is well reported. The University of NSW, Swinburne, La Trobe, and Western Sydney have all closed programs, and the University of WA is not far behind. There are now less students studying Indonesian than there were fifty years ago, which has surely played a part in Australia’s growing rift with Indonesia. Regional partners cannot be expected to rely on Australian engagement, without language and cultural knowledge. Australia must rectify the growing issues in education to address national strategic objectives.

In 2021, the federal government abandoned support for tertiary language programs. Speculation could run rife as to why and it is too simple to advocate for an immediate (re)adoption. Students cannot be expected to take up programs that aren’t being supported, universities cannot be expected to run programs at a loss, and Government can’t be expected to support programs that aren’t serving a national interest.

To keep language programs viable, those that are achieving vocational outcomes and are of national interest should be identified. This way they can be prioritised by universities to incentivise student enrolment, and attract government support.

The federal government and universities do not need to undertake this alone. Professional networks, emerging leaders programs, and DFAT partners can all advise on languages that Indo-Pacific partners value. These networks harnessed into a tertiary engagement strategy could provide the federal government with priority areas for targeted long-term commitment.

The government through long-term support develops a body of experts capable of contributing to the Indo-Pacific strategy, universities achieve institutional benefits, and students gain maximal career potential. Weaving together these interests with those of regional neighbours enhances Australia’s security outlook.

Another tool available to build language and cultural education is the New Colombo Plan (NCP). The NCP was launched in 2014 under then Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, as scholarships and internships with an express objective of enhancing Australian university student Indo-Pacific knowledge and engagement. The NCP has undergone revisions under each government since, and now supports approximately 10,000 students a year.

The structural weakness of the NCP is that it is aimed exclusively at undergraduates. It excludes innovative opportunities for the development of postgraduate studies, and multi-campus offerings that would bolster its objectives. It also fails to consider new ideas such as language micro-credentialing, or established practices such as reverse exchanges. It does not support research, or university faculty relationship building. The NCP is competing in a rapidly innovating sector without adopting any innovations itself. Rectifying these issues would enhance the ability of the NCP to achieve its goals and for Australian universities to remain competitive.

A revised New Colombo Plan could identify priority courses for targeted long-term support. An NCP that enables innovative, and vocation-accessing pathways for Australians into the Indo-Pacific would make Australian universities and graduates more desirable. It follows that this would result in increased Australian success in achieving research funding, alumni engagement, and business attractiveness. Australian values, ideals, and connectivity would be embedded into the region and assist security objectives.

Finally, education planning with Quad partners would further demonstrate Australia's long-term commitment to its Indo-Pacific neighbours. Education cooperation from the Quad is almost exclusive to the recently launched Quad Fellowship.

The Quad Fellowship will sponsor 25 students from each of the Quad countries to pursue science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) postgraduate degrees in the United States through Schmidt Futures (a public benefit philanthropic initiative). Expanding the Quad Fellowship to include arts, specifically Asian languages, would empower cultural understanding and knowledge development for strategic engagement.

Australia’s universities are failing spectacularly in Asian Studies and should welcome any Indo-Pacific engagement. An Australian-driven Quad initiative could support broader scholarships and research with regional inclusion. This would bolster not only Quad relations but also our own bilateral partnerships and our positional strength for success in non-traditional security. Involving regional partners would enable benefits outside the Quad, achieve Australian integration, and regional security objectives.

The language of the Australian Government demonstrates a keen focus on strategic security in the Indo-Pacific but there has been a failure to develop the necessary cultural and language skills of Australian students, and professionals. Bolstering our person-to-person ties with even modest cultural and language learnings will pay outsized dividends. In order to achieve Indo-Pacific strategic objectives, Australia should look to Asian studies and languages, for the moment though Asian studies are not so lingua franca.