Monday, October 29, 2012

Asian Century White Paper Sets Tricky Targets for Universities

Asia - Satellite image - PlanetObserver
Asia - Satellite image (PlanetObserver)
by Professor Simon Marginson, Professor of Higher Education at University of Melbourne, The Conversation:

In the slip-stream of the Australia in the Asian Century White Paper, released by Julia Gillard yesterday, there is a one-off opportunity to evolve new programs, open up and engage in Asia at scale. Many of the new programs are likely to evolve in education and research.

The report is short on specific ideas because it wants them to bubble up from below. For a year or two, government will support program initiatives with unusual generosity. Asian Century Taskforce leader Ken Henry has created a window for Asianists with ideas.

Asia for the mainstream

The paper works as a strategy because it is utterly mainstream in tone. It does not rail at middle Anglo-Australia’s lack of Asian awareness from outside, though it could have. It does not dwell on the highly varied specifics of the sub-regions and nations under the heading “Asia”. Nor is it drenched in the rich excitement of 3000 years of Sinic, Indian and Southeast Asian cultures.

Instead it positions itself squarely in the Anglo-Australian mind. It wants to be Tony Abbott as much as it wants to be Julia Gillard. A laconic local drawl lurks behind the spare factual prose and in places you can almost hear it.

The white paper sets out to capture the mainstream, to change its thinking, naturalising regional engagement. Time will tell whether this works but the shift is essential. We must embed ourselves autonomously in the region. Or Australia, that odd nation at the end of Southeast Asia with a union jack on its flag, will be trapped in its history, in denial of its geography. It will become obsolete.

Sending students to Asia

The white paper sets few targets for higher education and science, again fostering an atmosphere where government and non-government initiatives and benchmarks will evolve. It emphasises people-to-people links, local demography and alumni. And it makes all the right noises.

Asian languages in schools, compulsory Asia-related curricula (there will be rearguard resistance to this), more language learning in higher education, stronger research links in the region, and many more Australian students going to Asia during their degrees.

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