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A problematic start to the New Colombo Plan

Parliamentary Secretary Brett Mason says Asian languages aren’t essential in Asia. AAP

About a decade ago I had a slightly prickly conversation with an Australian who had just returned from a business trip to China. As usual, I was grumbling about the legendary reluctance of Australians to learn foreign languages, especially Asian languages.

The businessman was genuinely bewildered.

“Why would you want to learn Chinese?” he spluttered. “Everyone I spoke to in China used English!”

This attitude is almost the norm in Australia, but it is still a small shock to hear it echoed by Senator Brett Mason, the parliamentary secretary in charge of the government’s New Colombo Plan initiative. At a conference on Education in Asia earlier this week he acknowledged that command of Asian languages was desirable, but students didn’t necessarily need it to benefit from the New Colombo Plan program. English is the de facto language of business in Asia, he argued, and students shouldn’t be “artificially” driven into the study of Asian languages at university when there were increasing opportunities in Asia to study in English.

Senator Mason and the New Colombo Plan seem to be contradicting the ideals of the original Colombo Plan. In its tertiary study facets, the original Colombo Plan brought, and continues to bring, thousands of students to Australia to study for extended periods in what for most is a foreign language (English). The new Plan has started off with relatively short study placements, many of them in English-language environments. Fifteen lucky students from Wollongong University get a week in Hong Kong, and 12 even luckier ANU students get a semester of predominantly English-medium study in Japan.

It is possible to a limited degree to study and do business in Asia by relying only on English. But, like someone who learns his times table but refuses to do algebra, the mono-lingual English speaker can only go so far. And increasingly it is not as far as the ideal of deep engagement with Asia requires.

As prosperity spreads across the tiger economies of Asia a new linguistic reality is fast emerging. Except in small enclaves (Singapore, for example), growing prosperity is by-passing command of English. When an economy is booming ordinary people no longer need English to get rich. Prosperity acquires its own largely home-grown momentum. In big linguistic communities like Japan, Korea, China and Indonesia, local languages start to outstrip English in high-end trade and investment.

This doesn’t mean that fewer people in Asia are using English. Far from it. But it does mean that English speakers no longer dominate the growing ranks of prosperous entrepreneurs and consumers. To maximise engagement – indeed simply to reach first base – we need to communicate with this fast-growing cohort in their own terms.

Australia hasn’t really twigged to this yet. Certainly Senator Mason hasn’t. Like a dinosaur trapped by climate change he seems content to nibble at the margins of the new linguistic forests of Asia.

But let’s not carp too much. The New Colombo Plan is a very welcome initiative, though one beautifully suited to having its funding suddenly slashed at some moment of budget stress in the future. It is diverse, flexible and incremental, so it wouldn’t be fair to ridicule it for its initial small size, its partial capitulation to the juggernaut of English, and its all-too-brief pilot placements.

Hopefully one day (on current indications, a very distant day) it will be an antidote to the outrageous imbalance we currently see between foreign students coming to Australia and Australian students studying in Asia. Take Indonesia, for example. At any one moment only around 50 Australians - a ratio of one in every 400,000 Australians - are studying in Indonesia in accredited courses in an Indonesian-language environment. In comparison, between 15,000 - 20,000 Indonesians study annually in Australia, a ratio of around one to every 15,000 Indonesian citizens.

The New Colombo Plan may change this, but so far it has set the bar low. There are big challenges beyond the language issue, such as accreditation, managing work placements, selection processes, in-country support services and funding a steady increase in student numbers. Senator Mason and his staff seem to be well aware of them, and there is hope they can be solved.

But there is one issue that doesn’t appear to have been addressed. It is important to place a significant tranche of top students in “non-prestigious” institutions. New Colombo Plan students must not be isolated from the reality of Asian societies by seeing only the most prestigious institutions of Asia.

Indonesia is of critical importance to Australia (especially northern Australia) economically and strategically. But its university system is very poorly developed. Given the importance of this near neighbour, it would be short-sighted if the poor quality of its universities meant our students were not encouraged to go there, or study there was devalued. In regions like this, and in many others (Myanmar, East Timor, Mongolia and regional China) work placements and mentoring could also be especially difficult.

Australian universities must be explicitly encouraged to devise programs of high-quality study in university environments that may be far from high-quality. Some of our more myopic, prestige-focused university administrators may find this a hard ask.

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