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October 2012

The Australian government's new policy paper, Australia in the Asian Century, was released yesterday. It's late, and I don't mean the extra six months it took to be released. 'The Asian Century' has been going for quite a while, and Australia is still playing catch-up.

We have had some great government papers on Asia before, the Garnaut and Ingleson Reports being two of them, and it's a pity that governments have such short memories about those documents. The recommendations in the new White Paper about Mandarin, Hindi, Indonesian and Japanese being core languages for schools and universities is a pared-back version of the Ingleson Report's recommendations, and a sad reflection on the fact that governments seem to have given up on Thai and other significant Asian languages.

The problem with the language recommendations is that they are largely unfunded. Existing schemes are not being replaced, and while the government is prepared to spend large amounts elsewhere, it does not want to commit in other vital areas. The solution to lack of funding is that everyone can study on-line, especially through the new National Broadband Network. This seems a remarkable confusion between a medium and its content, and anyone who has done any on-line teaching will tell you, it's expensive to set up, difficult to maintain, and students always prefer face-to-face experiences. As someone with 15 years' experience in the area, I know that students find the discipline of self-learning involved very difficult, and the main virtue of on-line learning is that it is a good supplement to class-room experience.

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