Now's a bad time to take eye off Asian ball

'Abysmal' Australian provision may isolate nation as East rises. Phil Baty reports from Adelaide

October 27, 2011

Credit: Getty
Warning signs: Australia will miss out if it can't understand Asian culture

Australia could miss out on the "huge opportunities" presented by the rise of India and China because it is failing to develop its scholarship on Asia.

The warning was made at the Australian International Education Conference in Adelaide, when experts said that the country could be alienated as global power shifts to the East.

One speaker warned that Australia's current provision in Asian language and culture was "abysmal".

Amitabh Mattoo, director of the Australia India Institute at the University of Melbourne, told delegates that India would soon have 600 million people of working age - more than the combined workforces of Western Europe.

The country requires a hugely expanded higher education system, he said, with as many as 1,500 new universities planned, but it could not manage such expansion alone.

"Ironically, at the moment when there are such huge opportunities offered by India, understanding of India in Australia is at its weakest," he said.

"Thirty years ago, the study of contemporary and ancient India was probably in its most exciting period in Australia. Some of the most intellectually exciting work on India was done in Australian universities. Today, the study ... is in decline."

Besides his own Commonwealth-funded institute, he added, "you can't see scholarship of India being nourished or nurtured". Yet exploiting opportunities in Asia would "require first of all an ability to understand the dynamic forces and complexities of this region", so Australia risked missing out because of these weaknesses.

Speaking at the same session at the conference, held from 11 to 14 October, Simon Marginson, professor of higher education at the University of Melbourne, focused on China.

He said the "sky was the limit" in terms of its move towards a mass higher education system, with high levels of private and family investment plus strong state support.

"This is an educational development of quite extraordinary significance," he said.

"As the economic power of the Confucian-heritage countries grows, so their cultural forms (will) come to the fore. The rise of China is not a process of Westernisation overcoming Chinese traditions: it is a splicing together of those two elements."

This meant that the nation's unique cultural traditions needed to be better understood, he said.

"We are in a race against time to understand the culture and languages of the region and our current provision is abysmal," he said. "We all know that as each year goes past the problem gets worse."

Professor Marginson also suggested that Australia needed to improve research capacity in its elite universities "because it is going to be research universities that play a key role in circulating the knowledge that enables us to have something to offer".

He added: "Unless we are more than competitive in relation to our capacity to generate and transmit knowledge at the highest international level, we won't have an advanced knowledge economy-type role in the region. It's as simple as that."

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