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As universities struggle through the pandemic, Asia studies programs are being cut at an alarming rate, indicating a national move away from engagement with Asia. By Wing Kuang.

Universities cutting Asia studies

A student participating in the consortium program.
Credit: Australian Consortium for “In-Country” Indonesian Studies

Theo Mendez is supposed to start his PhD this year, but the 22-year-old Asia studies student is caught in two dilemmas.

The first comes from his university, the University of Western Australia. Earlier in July it proposed a structural cut on its school of social sciences. The proposal included cutting 16 jobs, removing the anthropology and sociology majors, and moving the Asian studies program from research to teaching only.

Mendez had already secured a PhD scholarship at the university, but the proposal made him unsure about whether he should invest his next three years at a university where research about Asia is at risk. Yet as he pondered if he should move to the eastern states, Mendez realised there was another greater and more severe challenge awaiting him and his generation.

As Covid-19 continues to batter the higher education sector, Australian universities began rounds of job cuts and program restructures, with Asian language programs highly targeted. In December 2020, Swinburne University axed its Chinese and Japanese programs. Prior to this, La Trobe University had proposed scrapping its Indonesian and Hindi courses. Western Sydney University also cut its Indonesian language subjects.

As the University of Western Australia joined the trend, cuts to Asian programs extended from language to research. On July 18, La Trobe announced a further 200 job cuts, which would downsize its Asia program, renowned for its research expertise.

With the wave of redundancies likely to continue, several Asian experts told The Saturday Paper that universities were “short-sighted” for the cuts. They worried that, as borders remained shut, the cuts would leave a gap of Asia literacy in this generation.

Kate McGregor, president of the Asian Studies Association of Australia, told The Saturday Paper she worried there would be fewer students in the next three years who have been exposed to Asia.

“And as an academic myself,” she said, “I would be thinking about the loss in terms of training a future generation of specialists to understand the region.”

Over the past decade, Australia has been promoting Asia literacy among its younger generation. In 2012, the Gillard government launched the “Australia in the Asian Century” white paper. It outlined the rise of Asia by 2025 and called for Australia to play an essential role in the region. In preparation, the white paper suggested promoting Asian literacy to young Australians, and incorporating Asian languages, histories, geographies, arts, culture and relevant skills in the country’s education curriculum.

As universities introduce more Asian language courses, some saw a growing interest from students. Dr Laura Dales, a senior lecturer in Asian studies at the University of Western Australia, said there had been an increase in enrolments in Korean and Japanese studies at UWA since 2014. But for some programs, such as La Trobe University’s Indonesian and Hindi courses, scrapping was proposed because of low enrolment.

A spokesperson for the Department of Education, Skills and Employment told The Saturday Paper the Commonwealth has approved the closure of some language programs “after the relevant universities provided evidence of low student enrolments over several years and demonstrated that the courses had become financially unsustainable”.

On the other hand, compared with the quantity of languages, the younger generation seems to have greater interest in gaining a deeper understanding of Asia – and Mendez exemplifies this.

After studying the region in high school, Mendez was inspired to undertake Asia studies at university to gain more in-depth knowledge. His PhD project, which he planned to start in the coming months, was about Australia–South Korean relations in clean energy.

Last year, Mendez, as part of his honours thesis, spoke to 14 university business students about their perception of Asia. He found that, unlike the older generation, which saw Australia as an outsider, his interviewees tended to see themselves as part of Asia.

“There was an appetite for a deeper understanding of Asia and a more comprehensive Asia education,” said Mendez. “It was just they didn’t know where to find it.”

 

Studying in the region has been a popular way for Australian students to expand their Asia literacy. Liam Prince, director of the Australian Consortium for “In-Country” Indonesian Studies, which co-ordinates options for students to study in Indonesia, told The Saturday Paper there had been a significant increase in the number of Australian students studying in Indonesia, from 442 students in 2012 to 2061 in 2019, making it the sixth most popular overseas destination for Australian students.

The most popular country in 2019, according to a report from the consortium, was China, with 8567 Australian students studying there.

Prince said the growth of Australian students studying overseas related to support from the federal government, business sectors and Asian institutions, which offered scholarships such as the New Colombo Plan to encourage Australian students to study in the region. Australian students were also able to interact with young people from the regions by joining youth-led organisations such as Australia China Youth Association or ASEAN–Australia Strategic Youth Partnership.

While acknowledging there was an improvement of Asian literacy in the past decade, Philipp Ivanov, chief executive of Asia Society Australia, said he had noticed a change.

“In the last five years, we have seen a gradual decline in interest [by] government, as well as [by] the general business community, in investing into programs that promote better understanding of Asia in Australia,” he said.

Ivanov believes the policies of Asia literacy need to be updated. Apart from Asian programs at universities, he said there needs to be a stronger economic connection and diversification of trade with Asia. He also called for Asian Australians to be empowered to be part of the leadership of the country.

So far, neither has been achieved. Conversely, Asian programs at universities are facing continuous cuts. “We are facing the danger of the whole generation of Australians losing interest and the connection with Asia,” Ivanov said.

Dales, who under the University of Western Australia proposal would no longer be able to conduct research, said the changes were a reflection of the federal government’s attitude towards Asia.

“The general stance is to move away from developing an engagement with Asia,” she said. “We are spending less money on fostering the relationships, the intellectual engagement that we need in the region.”

Alison Barnes, the president of the National Tertiary Education Union, said Covid-19 had exposed the ongoing crisis of universities being underfunded and heavily relying on international students for income – but that alone doesn’t explain the cuts.

“What is quite extraordinary is that our federal government essentially walked away from Australian public universities when they faced the biggest crisis they’ve yet to face,” Barnes said.

“The Australian government has provided no lifeline or rescue package to our universities, and this has terrible consequences for Australian students and staff at our universities, and these consequences will be felt for many years to come.”

In response to questions, the spokesperson for the Department of Education, Skills and Employment cited a national increase of 16 per cent in enrolments in all language courses for March 2020 and 2021.

“The Australian government recognises the importance of language education in both our universities and schools,” the spokesperson said. “That’s why the government has reduced the cost to students of studying foreign languages by 42 per cent through the Job-ready Graduates package.”

The incentive hasn’t stopped universities cutting their Asia studies programs. Dales says the issue is not just the cuts but the fact Australia needs Asia literacy more than ever.

“If Covid has taught us anything, it’s taught us that we are all connected,” she says. “We’ve seen great, terrible consequences of the pandemic on our doorstep in Indonesia, we’ve seen massive devastation that I think is often only represented in the media as Australians are no longer able to visit Bali.

“Our responsibility to our neighbours in need [has] come to the fore in Covid times.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 31, 2021 as "Asian sentry".

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Wing Kuang is a freelance journalist based in Melbourne.