Friday, July 6, 2012

No Quick Fix to Asia Literacy Crisis

No quick fix to Asia literacy crisis.

It is just a pity that this concern was absent when the decision was made not to renew funding for the National Asian Languages and Studies in Schools Program in the May budget last year.

Yes, NALSPP had its shortcomings but these were mostly a result of its low funding. Its predecessor, the National Asian Languages and Studies in Australian Schools, was funded for eight years at the equivalent of around $100 million annually today but NALSPP was given only about $20 million a year over half that period.

In any case, with NASLPP gone, the situation has now become very serious, exacerbated by decades of inconsistent policy and inadequate or unreliable funding support by state and Commonwealth governments.

The Asia Education Foundation report, Four Languages, Four Stories, and Professor David Hill's more recent report on Indonesian in universities make it clear that the market is failing to produce the expertise Australia needs, as power and wealth shift from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

In October 2011, The Sydney Morning Herald reported that NSW has just reported its lowest proportion ever of students enrolled in a second language _ nine per cent of 72,391 HSC students. French was most popular, with 1,471. Japanese  had 1376 and Chinese 1091.  Indonesia had just 232 and Hindi a mere 42.

In 1972, when the White Australia Policy was still in place and our population less by a third, 1,190 students did Indonesian language at year 12. Just 1,100 did so in 2010.

Studies of Asia other than languages have fared just as badly too. By any measure, this decline in Asian studies is a failure of policy. Our national dumbing-down in Asia literacy over the last four decades may mean that the only Western country in Asia may instead find itself marginalized in the coming regional debates over trade, security, environment, regional identity, culture and religion.

This has not happened because no one knows what to do.

NALSAS managed to double enrolments in Asian studies in its 8 years before it was axed by the Howard government. Many of its ideas were re-run -- with some success -- by NALSPP in its short life and there are plenty of clear and practical suggestions for further reforms in the AEF and Hill reports, many of which have  backing from school and university groups.

No, the problem is lack of consistent, reliable and substantial funding support for Asia literacy from state and Commonwealth governments. Asia literacy programmes will inevitably cost money, because the market hasn't worked. Unfortunately, support for Asia expertise in Australia has been inadequate for decades. When limited resources have been available, their impact has been weakened by short duration, policy flip-flops and a sense of complacency.

Like it or not, if Australia is to be able to engage effectively with Asia in the years ahead a very large investment by the Commonwealth in Asian studies in schools is urgently required _ and it must be maintained for years to come. There are no quick fixes.

If this big investment doesn't happen soon, the cumulative damage wrought by years of inconsistent, low-scale and short-term policy support for Asian studies will be so great that it will take decades to locate and re-train the teachers and Asia specialists necessary to get us back up to speed.

Ultimately, failure to invest now will cost us a great deal more in terms of national prosperity and security in the future -- and it will greatly diminish our national cultural life.

This is all playing out against the backdrop of our deep-seated and longstanding preference for our Western history over our Asian geography. These are wrongly assumed to be incompatible, when our future depends on demonstrating we can reconcile them.

Yes, the government is at last asking for suggestions, but it is also warning that it has little money to spend. This won't work. There are now no cheap and easy solutions to our national Asia literacy wipe-out. Let's hope the forthcoming Australia in the Asia Century White Paper will make governments get more serious, before it is too late.


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