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Q+A: Asian studies must start in primary school, says uni expert

Research collaborations between Australian and Asian students are crucial to build links, Prof Purcell said.

Australian universities will not be able to produce graduates fluent in complex Asian languages without a massive funding boost and a rethink of language and cultural literacy teaching in schools, a senior university executive has said.

The federal government’s white paper on Australia in the Asian Century, released on Sunday, said the nation’s future prosperity depended on a huge increase in Asia cultural literacy, people-to-people links and competency in languages such as Hindi, Mandarin and Indonesian.

In this Q+A, the University of Technology Sydney’s Deputy Vice Chancellor and chair of the Universities Australia DVC International Committee, Professor William Purcell – who is fluent in Japanese and Korean – outlines what the sector needs to deliver the government’s vision.

What is your general response to the white paper?

It is a very pleasing report which recognises the importance of Australia’s positioning in Asia. It recognises the absolutely critical role that Australian universities and educational institutions are going to play in this strategy.

Generally, Australian universities, especially over the last five years, have moved from their international focus being on recruitment of international students to their engagement abroad in terms of deepening and strengthening our relationships to develop enduring and meaningful partnerships.

We are more focused on research training links, by which I mean joint and dual PhD programs, which really are the measure of internationalisation. You have students moving between labs in Australia and Asia, they have two supervisors, they spend a year in-country and you develop a range of significant links and resulting joint publications.

At UTS, for example, we have four key technology partners in China and we have dual PhD programs with all of those universities.

At UTS, we have a lot of joint research centres with our overseas partners, [which] provide a really significant infrastructure for research and training. I think all of the Australian universities have moved toward what we call this third wave of internationalisation.

About 25 Australian universities have campuses and courses in Asia already. RMIT has a significant campus in Vietnam with about 20,000 students.

I think about 65% or more of our international students come from the major Asian countries.

What more needs to be done to help universities deliver on the goals outlined in the paper?

We also have to increase the mobility level of our students going to Asia, building their global skills by experiences abroad. Traditionally, they have been six month or one-year exchange for credit. But we have more students working full time so we need to find new ways to send them abroad for short term programs of four to eight weeks.

We have worked hard to do this at UTS through our BUILD program. For example, last year we sent our film students to do a Bollywood director shadowing program, we sent our business students to study micro finance programs in India, we sent our design students to study textiles in India.

What about funding?

This is a very ambitious plan. The one thing that is missing from it is the funding to build the capabilities to deliver language teachers.

If we are going to grow Asian language education, it really has to begin in the schools. I am not just talking about high schools, I am talking about primary school education too. This is where languages are most easily acquired. We need to inspire [students’] curiosity and to embed the importance of Asian culture, as well as language, in our curriculum. This will require significant funding.

We simply do not have the language teaching capabilities currently in Australia to deliver the ambitious program.

I mean both language teachers and across the disciplines of the humanities, business and social sciences. This will require a massive investment in the school sector and the university sector if we are going to deliver on what the government aspires to.

It’s a wonderful plan but unless it’s funded, it wont be realised.

How do we arouse students’ curiosity in Asia?

I think we have to develop curriculum early, even at elementary level, which embeds Asian culture and the relevance of Asian culture. Even talking about food or sports, begins to arouse curiosity.

It’s really not possible, speaking as a linguist myself, for students generally to begin studying complex Asian languages at university and acquire a professional competence on exit from university. It’s a whole-of-education task.

If universities can get students who have learnt Asian languages in high school, then we have the means to graduate people with professional language competence.

Is Australia coming at this problem too late?

I think Australia has, compared to most Western developed countries, a high level of Asian literacy. It’s not the level we need to build the prosperous country we want but we have a historically good platform.

To get to that point where we have a critical mass, to really grow our prosperity and to grow incomes as suggested in the white paper, we need a massive uplift.

I think the challenge will be, quite apart from the funding issue, that Australian universities will need to step forward to meet the goals of this plan. To look at the positioning of languages in their universities, to make available the opportunities in a creative way for students to be able to study the languages in a flexible way. To be making sure they have strategies which are oriented toward Asia and not just to our traditional research collaborators in North America and the United Kingdom. There is a mission for Australian universities. We are making good progress and we are up to it.

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