Universities need to embrace the Asian Century

The catchphrase ‘Asian Century’ was put forward by the Australian government in a white paper last year in which it promoted economic growth, sustainability and social prosperity.

The same sentiment applied to the trans-Tasman talks last month between New Zealand Prime Minister John Key and Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who agreed that the Asian Century holds great opportunities for New Zealand and Australia.

The Asia region consists of 48 countries that account for a quarter of the world's nations and 60% of its population; its economic power and growth are by world standards huge and this trend will assuredly continue in the future.

There are tremendous benefits to be gained by countries that trade and interact with this culturally diverse and economically dynamic region.

Although Australia's initiatives and commitment were made clear in its white paper, New Zealand's commitment does not appear to be so promising. The Australians, led by Gillard, undertook several initiatives including improving Asian literacy in schools to increase the opportunity for students to acquire Asian language skills and cultural awareness.

Australian academics would like to see more studies and programmes about Asia; the awareness and commitment by government heads, educators and business leaders for engagement in the Asian Century is encouraging.

The question is: are New Zealanders ready and equipped to participate in the Asian Century opportunity and to reap the benefits of engaging with this rapidly growing economic powerhouse?

Commitment needed

The Asia region provides a gateway for Kiwis to share in the prosperity opportunities the developing region presents to countries that actively engage with it. However, to realise the advantages from such engagement, there needs to be a strong commitment by the government.

Although there may be some unease that ‘Asian engagement’ may have an adverse effect on Kiwi culture and values, connecting with the region's countries is a necessary part of ‘being a good neighbour’.

With an increased knowledge of Asian people and their ways, New Zealanders would have the option to choose new practices that they feel comfortable with and that are in harmony with their way of life.

In order to stem the flow of the tens of thousands of Kiwis who move to Australia annually seeking better lifestyle opportunities, the government could give New Zealand youth the chance to tap into the Asian economic bloc by committing a greater emphasis in its education programme to the study of Asian languages and cultures.

In 2007 the government, led by Helen Clark, pre-empted the Australian initiative with “Our future with Asia” – a programme built on the 2003 “Seriously Asia” project that sought to revitalise the focus on Asia. The initiative cited significant economic benefits and also urged Kiwis to be more Asia-literate.

On the subject of English speakers learning an Asian language, former Australian foreign minister Alexander Downer commented that in the time it would take for Australians to generally master one, Asians would be fluent in English.

Be that as it may, either result is not going to happen in the short term. But in the interim an increase in the appreciation of the cultures of 4.3 billion Asians by native English speakers can only have positive effects.

A basic knowledge of Asian cultures paves the way for the more challenging skill of language acquisition, which requires patience, practice and commitment.

A 2007 survey of Asian businesses reported that New Zealand businesspeople were well regarded and seen as trustworthy by Asian counterparts, but their Asia-related skills in language and culture were perceived to be low.

A role for higher education

It is in the higher education sector that a concerted effort needs to be made to give New Zealand’s young people the opportunity through Asian studies to participate in what will become the world's most dynamic and diverse region.

The chance for students to gain abilities that will serve them well in the future is quite within New Zealand's resources. Universities are ideal environments to nurture a youthful, inquisitive and acquisitive mind and they have a responsibility to fully carry out their mandates.

There are concerns about the New Zealand economy, with 6.9% unemployment and 14.2% of youth aged between 15 and 24 years not engaged in study, work or training. With more than 50,000 people last year seeking opportunities in Australia, a stronger engagement in Asia might mitigate the crisis.

It may be that New Zealand's political leadership needs to give a spur to universities to instigate courses that can effect some changes to a worrying social pattern.

* Midori Kagawa-Fox is a senior lecturer at the University of Waikato who recently joined the Japanese programme. She was previously teaching at the Centre for Asian Studies at the University of Adelaide, to which she is still affiliated as a visiting research fellow. This article was first published in the New Zealand Herald.