Australia’s federal government has released a bold policy on the nation’s relations with Asia over the next 13 years. It is an ambitious and highly expensive set of goals with no indication of how the country will achieve them – or afford them.
The goals include having 10 Australian universities in the world’s top 100 and a school system that is “among the top five in the world”. The white paper says Asian studies will be a core part of the school curriculum and all students will have continual access to a priority Asian language: Mandarin, Hindi, Indonesian and Japanese.
Releasing Australia in the Asian Century White Paper, Prime Minister Julia Gillard said that during this century the Asian region would become home to most of the world’s middle-class and would be the world’s largest producer of goods and services, and the largest consumer of them.
“The scale and pace of Asia’s rise is staggering, and there are significant opportunities and challenges for all Australians,” Gillard said.
“It is not enough to rely on luck – our future will be determined by the choices we make and how we engage with the region we live in. We must build on our strengths and take active steps to shape our future.”
The paper sets out a number of targets over the years to 2025 “to ensure Australia can fulfil its ambitions and compete effectively within Asia”. As well as having 10 universities in the top 100 and a top five school system, the targets include:
- Public service and business leaders will be “more Asia literate with one-third of board members of Australia’s top 200 publicly listed companies and Commonwealth bodies having deep experience in and knowledge of Asia”.
- The nation’s economy will be deeply integrated and its trade links with Asia will be at least one-third of GDP, up from one-quarter today.
- Australia’s diplomatic network will have a larger footprint across Asia supporting stronger, deeper and broader links with Asian nations.
Although conservative commentators dismissed the goals as a sham and impossible to accomplish, many influential higher education observers rated the paper highly.
The national lobby group, Universities Australia (UA), commended the paper “for its long-term plan outlining the national objectives and pathways needed to forge closer economic and cultural bonds with our Asian neighbours”.
“This white paper reinforces the central role that Australian universities will play in driving Australia's future productivity and economic resilience as we pursue the opportunities and grapple with the challenges presented by this exciting century,” said UA Chief Executive Belinda Robinson.
She said the nation’s universities had long been leading the way in increasing Australia’s engagement with Asia. China, India, South Korea, Malaysia and Vietnam accounted for almost 65% of commencements by international students at Australian universities last year, Robinson said.
"In preparing for the Asian Century, 22 Australian universities have established campuses and courses in Asia. Many thousands of agreements have been struck between Australian and Asian universities on student and teacher exchange programmes, staff shadowing programmes, and research collaboration.
“Deepening our two-way engagement with Asian universities helps advance Australia’s diplomatic and trade influence in the region.”
Federal Tertiary Education Minister Senator Chris Evans gave strong support to the paper’s goal of increasing the number of students pursuing at least part of their degree at Asian universities.
Evans said the importance of encouraging Australian study in Asian countries could not be underestimated, as an increasingly Asian-focused business community sought employees familiar with Asian markets, practices and networks.
Simon Marginson, a professor of higher education at the University of Melbourne, said the global university ranking system cited in the white paper rightly referred to the Shanghai Jiaotong University Academic Ranking of World Universities, ARWU. This was an objective ranking that excluded reputation surveys and could not 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...”
Marginson said that aiming to have 10 universities in the top 100 when Australia currently had only five could be “a stretch” and it would be better to aim for six or eight in the top 100 and some in the top 40. Australia’s current rankings were encouraging but there was a need to build top-flight research capacity if the nation was to hold its own in Asia.
Writing on the academic website, The Conversation, Marginson said the paper worked as a strategy because it was “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 3,000 years of Sinic, Indian and South East Asian cultures.
“Instead it positions itself squarely in the Anglo-Australian mind. 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 South East Asia with a union jack on its flag, will be trapped in its history, in denial of its geography. It will become obsolete,” Marginson wrote.
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