Why Australia’s national university must bite the bullet when it comes to humanities and social science.

The Australian National University is one of the world’s finest universities. Recently it was rated 19th by the QS World University Rankings. This is cause for celebration and a strong endorsement of decades of fine achievement.

But like all universities, ANU has its quirks. Some quirks are the stuff of creativity and greatness; others are dysfunctional historical legacies. The fact that ANU has two separate colleges (from a total of seven) working on overlapping areas of the humanities and social science is one of its more prominent structural quirks. Whether it’s a creative or dysfunctional quirk has been a long-running debate.

The ANU College of Arts and Social Sciences (CASS) and the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific (CAP) have a great deal in common in their disciplinary profiles. Both have scholars working on history, cultural studies, politics, international relations, linguistics, anthropology, and archaeology. And both offer degrees which train undergraduate, master’s and PhD students in the humanities and social science.

The difference between the two colleges is, of course, that CAP focuses on Asia and the Pacific, whereas CASS is concerned, by and large, with the rest of the world.

From the outside it must look like a rather strange arrangement: ANU boasts pairs of social science and humanities departments that seem to do much the same thing. Many universities would struggle to sustain a single department in some of these disciplinary areas; ANU has twins, separated at birth.

From the inside, it is certainly a bewildering experience for students who find that their study options artificially separate the Asia-Pacific region from the rest of the world. Students in the largest degree at ANU, the Bachelor of Arts (taught by CASS), have restricted access to courses on Asia and the Pacific (taught by CAP).

These students gain limited benefit from their university’s remarkable expertise in Asia-Pacific studies. At the same time, students of the Asia-Pacific with an interest in politics or anthropology mostly sit in different classes to their disciplinary fellows on the other side of campus.

ANU is rightly proud of its Asia-Pacific expertise. It has been part of its unique identity since the university’s foundation in 1946. The post-war government which set up ANU recognised the nation-building importance of a deep intellectual engagement with our neighbourhood. It was a smart investment: Asia-Pacific studies is now one of relatively few areas where ANU can claim world leadership.

So why not embrace this achievement and, at the same time, address the dysfunctional fragmentation of the humanities and social science at Australia’s national university?

ANU should make a bold statement to Australia and the world that its humanities and social science scholarship will focus on Australia, Asia and the Pacific. And it should create a single college to pursue this mission.

Such a college could be extraordinarily rich in disciplinary knowledge, regional expertise and linguistic diversity. It would be a powerful symbol of Australia’s recognition of its shared destiny with its regional neighbours. And it could take up the government’s challenge to make a period of study in Asia a rite of passage for all students, rather than just those taking specialist Asian studies degrees or lucky enough to shoe-horn an Asian experience into increasingly scarce free electives.

Of course, understanding Australia, Asia and the Pacific requires an understanding of the historical, political and intellectual influences from America, Europe and Africa. ANU should engage with knowledge of these regions in a deeply comparative manner, but it should avoid losing focus as it sets a research agenda and develops teaching programs. With limited resources, there is no compelling reason for a world-leading university to invest in fields of scholarship where it will never lead the world.

Establishing such a college would certainly involve some interesting debates.

Should French language teaching be part of an Asia-Pacific portfolio? How does a world class philosophy program engage with Asia? What does it mean to be an Asia-Pacific school of art or music?

There will be some tough decisions, an inevitable result of placing innovation ahead of historical legacy. But hard questions will be easier to resolve when artificial scholarly barriers are removed and when students can choose courses on the basis of academic merit rather than administrative division.

Above all, the key to success will be articulating a clear vision for world-class scholarship on Australia, Asia and the Pacific.

The Australian National University is a national resource of extraordinary value.

An Asia-Pacific College of Social Science and Humanities would enhance this, turning a dysfunctional historical quirk into an internationally unique scholarly engagement with the social, political and cultural dynamism of Australia and our region.

Andrew Walker is Professor of Southeast Asian Studies at The Australian National University. He was a member of the executive of the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific from 2009 to 2014.