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.
Politicians of both sides have trotted out the dreadful cliche that 'Europe is our history and Asia our geography', well the news is that Asia is also our history. There are many excellent features to the Henry White Paper, so I don't want to sound too negative. It gives a realistic assessment of the significance of Asia, and hopefully will act as a wake-up call to those who are stuck in the fantasy of Australia being an Anglo-Saxon outpost that somehow ended up in the wrong part of the world. The changes that are needed in Australia to meet the challenge will be quite profound, and they include Australians coming to recognise that 'Asia' is not something 'out-there', but already integrated with Australia. At the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival, I recently heard Alice Pung give a devastating and subtle critique of the exclusion of people of Asian descent from being 'Australian', and that mind-set is still powerful amongst many in our community.
One positive indication in the White Paper is that it will address the Anglo-Saxon mindset. The recommendations about having company directors, and other kinds of leaders with Asian experience and knowledge, are significant. It looks like the government will use funding mechanisms such as Gonski schools' funding, and perhaps the compacts with universities, to make educational institutions more responsive. This would be a strong positive feature of the White Paper's impact, since it would mean that integration of learning about Asia would become a core activity of schools and universities, not an 'add-on' dependent on special project money. At the University of Sydney we've been lucky to have a leadership committed to research and teaching about Asia, but the recent threats to axe Indonesian language in other institutions shows how much the attitudes of university executives count, as well as how important the economic bottom line is. Too many in universities think that Europe and the US are the centres of the world when it comes to theory, history, art or anything else of significance.
So perhaps we should celebrate the Henry White Paper with cynical optimism, and await the details.