Australia has to fund the Asian century, whether we like it or not

Australia is all for engaging with India. But are we willing to pay? EPA/Anindito Mukherjee

It will take some time for the full detail of the Asian Century White Paper to be digested by the public and elaborated by the government, especially by Craig Emerson as the designated Asian century minister.

However, at this very early point there are apparent continuities between what we saw the Prime Minister do in her recent trip to India, and what appears in the report. Put perhaps too crassly, in India we saw a lot of reference to what is already going on, and an absence of a clear forward funding direction and commitment. The same might be said of the White Paper.

All talk, no cash

For example, during the prime minister’s stay in India, the Indian Council for Cultural Relations announced it would [fund five professorial chairs](http://www.pm.gov.au/press-office/joint-statement-prime-minister-australia-and-prime-minister-india](http://www.pm.gov.au/press-office/joint-statement-prime-minister-australia-and-prime-minister-india ) in Australian universities. While full details are not yet available, if those chairs were to be fully funded (including Australian salaries plus on-costs), that would mean India was supporting at least $1 million per year. In return, Prime Minister Gillard announced that the already established Australia India Institute at the University of Melbourne would be funded at $500,000 per year over the next three years.

There are two notable things about this. First, there was no reciprocal move to fund, say, Australian Studies chairs in India, where some small but excellent institutional efforts are helping deepen understanding about Australia. Second, “investment” in the Australia India Institute must be seen as puny, at best.

Beyond even that minimal investment, there was little else in New Delhi but a repetition of past initiatives. The Australia-India Strategic Research Fund, the Australia-India Fellowship Scheme and the Australia-India Education Council are all under way, the first having done good work, but there was really nothing new, substantive or ground-breaking. The new Water Technology Partnership will be helpful, but is unlikely to take the overall relationship to the new levels being talked about.

Asian literacy

Chapter six in the report concerns “Building Capabilities)”, and covers educational issues. This is an important section. Whatever else might be argued, the educational platform on which we build our Asian capability will determine the ultimate success of future regional engagement, and the report essentially acknowledges this.

While there is an essence of truth in suggestions that Australia’s expertise in, say, India, has shifted away from a traditional base in the humanities that is no argument against the need to increase broad Asia literacy. It might well be, for example, that medical scientists and engineers are now venturing into India from Australia, but without a cultural understanding base those ventures will prove problematic.

The Green Revolution in India, initially a more technocratic development, ended up with a lot of unforseen social consequences simply because of the absence of a cultural basis of understanding. The white paper does argue for such an understanding being developed – there will be more Asia expertise on company boards, for example – but there is no real explanation of or practical mechanism for creating that understanding.

Fighting the funding freeze

As far as universities go, one main “objective” is to have ten Australian institutions in the world’s top 100 by 2025 (there is no mention of which ranking system might be the arbiter). The school system will be in the top five globally. The logic is that the current tertiary sector reforms will keep assisting Australia to better engage with Asia over the coming period. Australia will provide a “world-class education” as a result of those ongoing reforms and as part of that will produce “Asia-relevant capabilities”. Indeed, the universities are seen as the site for the production of top-level expertise and specialised knowledge/skills on Asia.

It should be noted here that these aims are set against an awkward backdrop. There is a war of words between the government and the higher education sector about research funding “increases” or “decreases”. This is funding that has a significant bearing on universities’ ability to investigate then enlighten about Asian subjects and issues.

The government sees uncapped university places as an addition to capacity, in that more students get trained, but the sector sees a challenge to the “quality” that government also sees as one of the products of its reforms to date. All that is subsumed with the broader funding debate, with the government effectively sitting on the Base Funding Review report that has investigated the efficacy of current funding systems and levels. This is hardly an indicator of commitment to funding Asian century initiatives, especially in view of the current scramble to create a budget surplus.

That major caveat aside, the objectives in chapter six are sound but unremarkable: a larger number of Australian students will study overseas and take a part of their degrees in Asia, while all universities will have formalised links in Asia. Many in the system will be unmoved by this.

Australia was a leader in the University Mobility in Asia and the Pacific (UMAP) program that encouraged and supported student study exchange that began back in the 1990s – an Asian educational leader recently told me he wished Australia would come back into that program strongly, because we left it. And there must surely be no university in Australia without a formal exchange program in Asia? Most will have had several for years.

Friends or opportunists?

India appears in chapter six, mainly in reference to the massive upgrade program there that intends to improve the skills of up to 500 million people. The idea is that Australia will be a major provider of services to that program, an idea that has been working away for some time.

It is a variation on the theme earlier in the Asian Century report that targets the “rising middle class” in Asia as a source for the consumption of Australian goods and services, including the lucrative if now challenging international student industry. The ever-present danger here is that Australia gets read as an opportunist rather than as a partner, despite all the rhetoric that stresses the partnership approach. The Asian century paper does not dispatch that view entirely: there are lofty aims, not much hard cash commitment, but several “opportunities” cited.

The Asian Century White Paper is welcome, then, and will be much pondered upon. However, if the India case is anything to go by, the gap between desire and action might take some time and effort to narrow, and time is not all that readily available.