Echoing many previous Australian reports on the issue (one of which won a recent journalism prize), today’s Australian carries an article headlined Students turn away from Asia.

In today’s report, a number of distinguished Australian scholars of Asia are quoted responding to former World Bank president James Wolfensohn’s assertion that “our young people are really not putting the effort in to understand, learn and provide bridges to India and China”.

The Australian continues:

Robin Jeffrey, director of the research school of Pacific and Asian studies at the Australian National University, said Mr Wolfensohn was “absolutely right”.

“In 1989, 15 of Australia’s 19 universities taught some subjects about India,” Professor Jeffrey said. “Today, only about five of 37 do. Hindi-Urdu, the second-largest spoken language in the world (after Mandarin), hangs on by its fingernails at ANU and through a distance-education program at La Trobe.”

Another senior contributor to this debate, Professor Robert Elson, from the University of Queensland, said, “Whereas 10 years ago Asian studies was quite a rigorous activity, now it is in decline everywhere, with the possible exception of the Australian National University.”

Reports of the decline of Asian Studies seem to have been a staple in the Australia press for as long as I have been reading newspapers. Current university funding models do make it difficult to sustain programs in Asian languages and related social sciences. Mainland Southeast Asia, New Mandala‘s field of direct interest, is peripheral, at best, in almost all social science programs across the country. The ANU is an exception to this rule.

A rigorous and lengthy analysis of the state of Asian Studies in Australia, and proposals for reform, was published years ago. That report is still worth reading closely. That Australia’s cadre of University educated Asian Studies scholars and practitioners has been so seriously depleted is certainly worrying. But this is not the only issue of concern.

What is often overlooked is that many young Australians do not see the current style of Asian Studies offerings as serious vocational options. They also grow up in a system where political and social leaders rarely send the message to young people that Australia’s interests and future prospects are intimately tied to effectively understanding Asia. And even when, say, Alexander Downer stands up and talks about Asia – does anybody get inspired? Or feel the urge to follow his lead? What lead? And why is it that at a time when young Australians are increasingly internationalist in outlook – Asian Studies (at school and university) remains largely off the popular radar?

This is paradoxical because engagement with Asia, across the length and breadth of Australian life, has galloped along at the same time as Universities have been encouraged to cordon off their Asia offerings making them a niche – for specialists only.

I remember a time when the message going out to young Australians was that Asia, and Southeast Asia, in particular, should really matter to everybody and was deserving of inclusion in the Australian school curriculum. This message came from the top. The message has been muted by years of indifference and neglect. Good ideas for better engaging with Asia will flounder without developing new generations of Australians to take up the challenges.

Any of the young Australians reading New Mandala who have recently taken courses in Asian Studies could certainly add to this debate. It would be great to get your ideas and perspectives up on New Mandala. Why did you choose to study Asia? Do you sense “the decline” in the subject? Are you optimistic about the future? Does Asian Studies need to be revived? What messages need to be sent to young people and their schools?

This is just a start.

Many other questions and issues need to be canvassed. Hopefully, getting serious about studying Asia will be a national priority again sometime soon. In the meantime, putting good policy proposals in place is a big job for Australia’s Asia scholars and anybody else with an interest in Australia’s Asia education.

Special thanks to emerging part-time Southeast Asia specialist David Knezevic for drawing my attention to The Australian‘s article.