Repeated efforts by policy makers have sought turn Australia into an ‘Asia literate’ nation. These efforts have yet to prove successful. Moreover, discussion on Asia literacy failure in Australia has gone stale; for some it must seem comparable to ‘flogging a dead horse’.

But I feel the discussion needs to be had. It needs to keep being had until we are much better.

For half a century Australian scholars and teachers have argued that ‘Asia literacy’ is in Australia’s national interest. Only for eighteen or so of those years, however, has interest in Asia literacy genuinely emanated from Australian governments.

The interest coincided with Australia’s economic gravitation towards Asia. Former Prime Minister Paul Keating was at the focal point of pursuing greater Australian engagement in Asia. Former Prime Minister (and now former Foreign Minister), but then Queensland government staffer, Kevin Rudd, wrote an influential report in 1994 titled ‘Asian Languages and Australia’s Economic Future’ which articulated the agenda for Asia engagement, and observed Australia’s widely perceived incapacity to engage.

The embers behind our need for Asia literacy produced, in 1995, a national policy for ‘Asia education’ in schools (the National Asian Languages and Studies in Australian Schools Strategy) that received widespread bipartisan support at all levels of Australia’s government. However, those embers did not result in a fire. The big decisions about Asia literacy were left to be addressed ‘in the future’, by future generations.

Eventually the Asia literacy policy was cancelled by the Liberal Party Minister for Education, Brendan Nelson in May 2002. Six years later, a Kevin Rudd-led government introduced essentially the same policy, with the stated goal to have 12 per cent of Australian students graduating high school with fluency in one of the target Asian languages (Chinese, Japanese, Indonesian and Korean) ‘for engaging in trade and commerce in Asia and/or university study’ by 2020. This policy was discontinued by Rudd’s successors, who have reasoned that it is ineffective.

There has been much commentary on ‘Asia literacy’ policy failure. The commentary is largely focused on budgetary issues, the quality of instruction, the objectives being totally unrealistic, and declining enrolment and graduation numbers at a time of Asia’s economic rise.

All of these issues are very important, but they miss others which are equally, if not more so. I identify some here:

  1. Asian countries have little relevance to many Australian children. There is little significant, sustained Asia-related light news (sport, technology etc), and more crucially, entertainment in Australia’s media for children (perhaps Japanese pop culture is an exception, and why studying Japanese remains the most popular option). If ‘future generations’ demand more Asia-related information, the market will surely see that they get it. But, why should they demand it? Most 10-year-olds surely do not care for China’s economic rise and how it relates to their future mortgage.
  2. Many Australian students have little example to follow when it comes to being interested in Asia. That the demand for ‘Asia literacy’ is wholly placed on ‘future generations’ is wrong. The economic future for Australia that Paul Keating and others was referring to in the early 1990s is here now. All strata of society could be incorporated in any future Asia literacy policy, and it should not be down to younger generations to be wholly responsible for their future incapacity.
  3. Despite ‘widespread bipartisan support’, Asia literacy is hampered by a ‘best if you do it’, pass-the-buck attitude that saturates leadership. Few leaders advocating Asia literacy are bothered to become Asia literate themselves. The leader that had done the most in this regard, Kevin Rudd, no longer enjoys a positive reputation in national political life. A future policy needs to be launched with leadership taking active part in becoming Asia literate.
  4. Learning an Asian language is widely perceived as ‘too hard’. And especially so when ‘everyone over there’ learns English. Those Australians who can speak an Asian language are often perceived as ‘tall poppies’. This view needs to be countered by normalising social interests in Asia (through the first three points) and publically campaigning to reject the belief of ‘too hard’.
  5. There is little incentive for Australian university students to go to Asia beyond tourism, thus perpetuating a lack of relevance. Future policies could provide incentives by providing stipends to support students who wish to pursue study in Asia but are otherwise financially unable. Such stipends do not have to be prohibitively expensive for the government. For instance, study in China or Southeast Asia would cost far less than paying for that same student’s welfare support in Australia.
  6. Future policies of Asia literacy should not specifically target the languages of our largest trading partners as languages of priority. This neglects other important countries such as those in Southeast Asia that are not economically as powerful. Instead of being interested in Asia, this says we are more interest in trade. The implied priority is therefore for trade literacy, rather than Asia literacy. This attitude and subsequent miscommunication does not bode well for positive cultural exchange and educational momentum.

Perhaps you feel these suggestions have already been debated, or are obvious. I feel addressing these issues would go a long way to sparking and sustaining Australian interests in Asia along with the often referenced desire for continued economic engagement.

Colum Graham is an Australian student currently living in Southeast Asia.