The study of Asian languages and culture in Australia is in a "crisis" exacerbated by the Bali bomb and the withdrawal of all Australian university students and staff based in Indonesia.
A report by the Asian Studies Association of Australia says that less than 5 per cent of university students undertake any systematic study of Asia and less than 3 per cent are studying an Asian language.
These figures are significantly lower than the targets proposed by a government inquiry 13 years ago. It recommended that by 2000, one in five students should be undertaking some study of Asia and one in ten learning an Asian language.
Robin Jeffrey, vice-president of the Asian Studies Association, said that while Australia's need for a thorough knowledge of Asia was growing, the nation's capacity to impart it was shrinking. Professor Jeffrey said fewer Asian languages were being offered by fewer universities than even five years ago.
The association report says the study of Indonesia and its language has faltered over the past five years while that of India and the countries of South and West Asia was contracted strikingly.
It warns that the momentum for the study of Asia that built up in the late 1980s and early 1990s is collapsing. Budget stringencies have led to a serious contraction in the number of university subjects devoted to Asia, while the pool of specialists is shrinking as a result of retirements and the lure of jobs overseas.
The report calls for a package of measures, using new technology, "to achieve critical mass and stability in the teaching of languages, particularly those in low demand".
Among its 15 recommendations, the report urges the government and education institutions to send strong signals to the community about the importance of understanding Australia's "largest, nearest and least-known strategic partners".
Until Bali, at least 26 universities had formal links with Indonesian institutions, which included student and staff exchanges, academic collaboration and joint research projects. Ten universities continue to offer offshore programmes in the multi-island nation, ranging from foundation courses to certificate, bachelor and masters degrees.
Prime minister John Howard urged Australians based in Indonesia to leave immediately. He said the situation was "infinitely more dangerous" and that the government's advice was to get out of the country. Universities have advised academics to avoid travelling to Indonesia.