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Asian century white paper sets tricky targets for universities

The white paper sets high standards for Australian universities in the Asian Century. AAP/Paul Miller

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.

The last area on the above list — Australian study abroad — looks the most promising. Only about 4% of first-degree students study in Asia during their degrees. Even growth in two or three week stays will make a difference, starting the social and linguistic immersion which encourages longer stays and provides incentives for more protracted language learning at home.

The number of American students in China is trending sharply upwards, encouraging a behavioural change in Australia. The report goes in hard here. “We will provide more financial support and information for students who study in Asia,” it states. We have yet to see what this means but study abroad is receiving more attention in many universities. They should be talking to government as soon as possible.

Climbing the rankings

The white paper sets one new target: “By 2025, 10 of Australia’s universities will be in the world’s top 100”. The global ranking it cites, rightly, is the Shanghai Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU). This is an objective ranking that excludes reputation surveys and cannot be easily tricked up by universities.

It is also a research-only ranking. The target commits the federal government to a large increase in government research budgets over time. There is a close correlation between the position of universities in the ARWU and the level of public research funding.

Australia currently has five universities in the 2012 top 100: Melbourne (57), ANU (64), Queensland (90), Sydney (93) and Western Australia (98). The UK, which has the second strongest research system after the US, has nine. Canada, Australia’s closest comparator as a nation, has Toronto at 27. So the new target is a stretch. While Monash and UNSW are close to the top 100, the next in line, Adelaide and Macquarie, are in the 200-300 bracket.

It would be better to aim for six or eight in the top 100 and some in the top 40. Very strong research universities build local strength and draw global attention, especially in East Asia.

The National University of Singapore (NUS) has yet to crack the ARWU 100 — it lacks Nobels — but it is ahead of Australia on most research measures. In the Leiden ranking, which measures the scientific performance of universities, 13.9% of NUS research papers were in the top 10% of their field on citation rate between 2005-2009. The highest Australian university was ANU at 12.9%. Hong Kong University, Nankai, the University of Science and Technology in China and Postech in Korea were also ahead of ANU.

These rankings are encouraging, but we will need to build top-flight research capacity if we are to hold our own in Asia as the Asian Century White Paper suggests.

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