AREA studies expertise in British universities faces a demographic crisis in spite of consistent warnings to government in recent years.
A survey by the Coordinating Council for Area Studies Associations, representing groups of specialists in countries outside Western Europe, found that 62 per cent of those responding were aged 45 or over.
Richard Werbner, professor of African anthropology at Manchester University and chair of the council, told a meeting called to launch its database of area studies expertise that the age distribution was an "inverted pyramid".
He warned: "There is a very great danger that human capital will be lost. There is a considerable range of expertise at the moment, but a serious risk unless action is taken that in ten years we will be seriously short of experts in a whole range of fields."
African studies was cited as a particular area of concern. Professor Werbner noted that the decline in Britain contrasts with an immense range of provision in the United States.
Bob Taylor, vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham and a specialist in Burma, said that the warnings made to government over the past 15 years had only limited effect.
"What generally happens is that you get a short-term fix and the overall position does not improve," he said.
Martin Harris, vice-chancellor of Manchester University and chairman of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, said an important concern was the ability to offer decent careers to bright graduates.
"We need to think in terms of their planning horizon. You want to be able to tell a 22-year-old who is thinking of taking a doctorate whether there is likely to be a post-doctoral research post or a full-time job at the end of it," he said.
Several speakers noted the unpredictable nature of government and media interest in particular countries. Professor Harris pointed to Sudan, Sri Lanka and Indonesia as countries in which there had been surges of interest in recent months.
The database, with details of more than 1,000 experts from countries ranging from Albania to Zimbabwe, has been assembled over the past 18 months by a Manchester University team. It can be accessed at http://nt2.ec.man.ac.uk/ areastudies/