Tag: Higher education

From 13 unis to 1: why Australia needs to reverse the loss of South Asian studies


By Craig Jeffery* & Matthew Nelson**

South Asia is crucial to the future of Australia. But Australia has just one (small) program focused on South Asian studies across its many universities.

This has not always been the case. In the mid-1970s, 13 of Australia’s universities offered undergraduate subjects on South Asia (India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, and the Maldives). Students could learn about South Asian coins at ANU and Sanskrit at the University of Wollongong.

Australia boasted some of the leading scholars on South Asia. ANU nurtured subaltern studies – the study of social groups excluded from dominant power structures – which became a global movement in the field of post-colonial analysis. Leading post-colonial scholar Dipesh Chakrabarty was based at the University of Melbourne. Other luminaries active in that period include A.L. Basham, Anthony Low, and Robin Jeffrey.

But, even as the Australian university sector has expanded since the 1970s, it has withdrawn support for Asian studies, and South Asian studies in particular. There is currently only one South Asia or India program – at ANU.

Only five of the 40 Australian universities offer semester-length subjects on India or South Asia. Six universities offered an Indian language in 1996. Now only two do so.

Several universities, often supported by government grants, have launched country or regional research initiatives since 1990. The National Centre for South Asian Studies, based at Monash, is one of these. But Australian universities have not built any strong or sustainable South Asia programs for students.

A trend at odds with national priorities

This point sits oddly alongside a high-level commitment to South Asia in Australia. The Australian government is exploring new forms of engagement with India, including the Quad security dialogue involving India, Australia, Japan, and the US.

At a social level, Australia is increasingly Indian. In 2019 more than 700,000 people in Australia claimed Indian descent. Hindi is among the fastest-growing languages in Australia, and India is the country’s leading source of skilled migrants.

Historically, there are fascinating connections between Australia and South Asia. The lives and work of Australia’s “Ghans” (cameleers) is one famous example.

Moving forward, Australia needs a knowledge base to match this longstanding and increasingly important commitment to India and South Asia more generally.

Out of step with global academic practice

Australian universities could learn from their counterparts in other parts of the world how to integrate area studies into their teaching. Outside of Australia, most of the top universities in the world make great play of their area studies expertise. Area studies enables people to apprehend their own distinctive humanity, anchors innovative cross-disciplinary teaching across the university, and provides a basis for re-evaluating assumptions about a person’s disciplinary field.

Students arriving at Oxford, Yale or Columbia know that if they are studying law, business, art, politics, education, design, technology, anthropology, economics, agriculture, military affairs or modern media, they will need to think about how to apply their disciplinary knowledge to specific places. A “whole of university” commitment to area studies teaching, including South Asian studies, has long been a key mechanism for drawing on multiple disciplines.

Even with small numbers of area studies majors, the world’s best universities do not see area studies as a niche endeavour. On the contrary, they see it as a central feature of their global mission. Strong universities without robust, independent, and widely accessible area studies programs open themselves up to accusations of antiquated parochialism and a poor understanding of the interdisciplinary trends that powerfully shape our world.

What should South Asian studies offer?

Today, South Asian studies programs in Australia should include internships, opportunities to study abroad and virtual classrooms connecting Australian students to their counterparts elsewhere.

Asian studies programs should also include language options, because effective communication with rising regions like South Asia is essential. Keep in mind that only 10% of India’s population speak English.

At its most fundamental, good area studies and good South Asian studies allow people to understand that they are, as French philosopher Michel de Montaigne put it in an essay on global education written 450 years ago “like a dot made by a very fine pencil” on the world map. It teaches them how they fit within a global whole.

Beyond this, area studies helps people understand and confidently engage with forms of difference and diversity. It fosters key skills for interacting with peers overseas as well as global diasporas. This includes connecting with foreign organisations, managing communications and cultivating an active sense of global citizenship.

Area studies allows us to develop an understanding of our common humanity across national boundaries – something Indian scholar Veena Das has written about in her book Critical Events.

Now is the time for Australian universities to place area studies teaching at the core of an internationally engaged education. We must provide a much larger number of Australians with a deeper understanding of South Asia.

* Professor of Geography, The University of Melbourne.

** Associate Professor, Asia Institute, The University of Melbourne.

Source – The Conversation, June 14, 2021, Published under Creative Commons Licence.

Axing protection for national strategic languages is no way to build ties with Asia


By Melissa Crouch*

We all had hoped for a positive start to 2021, but that has not been the case for Australia’s engagement in the region. The Australian government has shown disregard for the importance of our ties with Asia by axing its commitment to national strategic languages.

The Commonwealth has identified the study of languages such as Indonesian as being of national strategic importance since 2006.

From 2013, the government committed to promoting national strategic languages. These included Arabic, Indonesian, Chinese (Mandarin), Hindi, Japanese and Korean. The list potentially included any other languages identified by the Commonwealth.

This priority list was clear recognition that Australians must improve their capacity in these languages to be equipped for the Asian Century.

Funding terms no longer protect languages
One way the government promoted and protected these languages was through Commonwealth funding agreements with universities.

Every few years, the Commonwealth comes to an agreement with each university on the terms and conditions of the funding it provides. A condition of these agreements was that a university had to consult with the Commonwealth and obtain its approval if it planned to close a particular course. This included courses in nationally strategic languages.

A university could not close a language program involving a nationally strategic language without government approval. This condition was important symbolically as well as practically. It emphasised to universities the importance of commitment to Asian languages.

Funding agreements every year up to 2020 included protection for national strategic languages. This year the provision has suddenly disappeared from the agreements without consultation.

What this demonstrates is the nonsensical nature of the government’s new funding scheme for universities. It appears to offer an incentive for students to study a language by reducing fees for these courses. In reality, the government has made it easier for universities to cancel a language program.

And the government is aware several universities have proposed closing language programs as their budgets feel the pinch from the COVID-19 pandemic. These include La Trobe (Hindi and Indonesian), Swinburne (all foreign languages), Murdoch (Indonesian), Western Sydney University (Indonesian) and Sunshine Coast (Indonesian). Removing protection for national strategic languages shows the government’s commitment to the Indo-Pacific region is mere lip service. (Since the original announcements, the programs at La Trobe and Murdoch have been given temporary reprieves.)

Universities will lose by axing languages

From enhanced diplomatic relations and cultural engagement to trade relations and social and religious ties, language learning has no shortage of benefits for individuals, communities and the nation as a whole.

Universities must acknowledge what they stand to lose if they close their language programs. Recent decisions like Swinburne’s to close its Japanese and Chinese programs, now confirmed to staff, come at a real cost to the university.

The best universities in Australia know they attract students by leading with world-class research. However, a shrinking number of universities can credibly lay claim to world-class research that is relevant to the region in terms of language programs and academic country expertise. Any university can pay consultants to produce a slick marketing campaign but that is meaningless if the university lacks the expertise to back it up.

Closing language programs could lead to a loss of international students, particularly higher degree students, on top of those already lost to COVID-related border closures. These students are often attracted by specific country expertise that Australian universities and academics have to offer.

Australia was once known as the mecca of the academic world for Asian studies expertise. The breadth and diversity of its language programs was an integral part of that. It’s time to rebuild that status.

A blow to regional engagement

By cancelling language programs, universities are forfeiting their leading role in promoting deep and long-term engagement with our region. Quite simply, the lack of commitment of many universities demonstrates a gap in deep understanding of the importance of the Indo-Pacific to Australia.

The region has no shortage of challenges and its political, economic and social well-being directly affect Australia. COVID-19 is a stark example of this. Australia can’t afford to be monolingual in its engagement with the region.

What happened to a positive start to meet the challenges of a post-2020 world? Surely our government with its stated ambitions in the Indo-Pacific region must prioritise structural arrangements with our universities that ensure the next generation can equip themselves with the language skills they need for the Asian Century.

* Professor and Associate Dean Research, Law School, UNSW
Source- The Conversation, 9 February 2021 (Under Creative Commons Licence)