Australia’s crucial knowledge gaps in China expertise: Strategies for the future

May 15, 2024
Teen student smiling over Chinese flag. Concept of lessons and learning of foreign languages.

Australia’s most severe China knowledge gap is the virtual collapse of University-level advanced Chinese language study, together with the study of Chinese society, politics and culture. This is the major finding of a report, Australia’s China Knowledge Capability, published in 2023 by the Australian Academy of the Humanities.

The main program that provided this expertise in the past, Chinese Honours, has largely fallen away in the marketised context of Australian higher education. Australian universities are not incentivised to offer boutique Honours programs with single digit enrolments and a modest reimbursement from the Commonwealth. In the past, Honours programs in Chinese provided Australia with a small but sustainable cohort of graduates with China skills who could go on to complete research higher degrees in Chinese studies, or find employment in Foreign Affairs, the Commonwealth Public Service, the business sector, think tanks, policy areas, education, cultural exchange and the fine arts. The AAH report found that in the five-year period from 2017 to 2021, the nation graduated a total of 17 students in Chinese Honours. In 2021, only one student graduated in Chinese Honours in the entire country (Australia’s China Knowledge Capability, p.35).

One type of program that is burgeoning in Australian universities is the full-fee paying Masters by Coursework. The AAH report found that in the period examined not a single university offered a Masters by Coursework in China studies. In any case, the Masters by Coursework are not designed to provide truly advanced study. They are open to students with any bachelor degree and do not presume completion of a major in an area of relevance to the MA program.

It was not always thus. I was fortunate to have studied Chinese at the Australian National University in the 1970s. There I found excellent teachers such as Colin Mackerras, who is now celebrating sixty years of engagement with China. Colin brought to the classroom his vast enthusiasm and his experience of living and working in China. He was particularly noted for his ability to sing an aria from a Chinese opera and his willingness to teach us “communist bandit characters”, that is, the type of Chinese character script used in mainland China as opposed to beyond China. Over the decades I was to meet other Australians, such as Jocelyn Chey, who had benefited from specialised Chinese language and studies at the University of Sydney, and then gone on to senior positions in trade, diplomacy, and cultural exchange. Those Australians (few in number) who teach on China Studies in our higher education systems today owe a debt of gratitude to the visionary pioneers of the past. However, this legacy is now in danger of being eroded.

Australia’s crucial knowledge gap in China expertise is occurring just at the time when the international environment is becoming more tightly contested. A multipolar world is emerging with China as one of the key players. Security concerns are now an important consideration in trade, defence, research collaboration and educational exchange. At the same time, Australia is seeking to build national resilience and strengthen collaboration in critical areas such as climate change, pandemic control and defence. As Frances Adamson (former Australian Ambassador to China) declares in the Foreword to the AAH Report: “Put simply, Australia’s China Capacity is central to the national interest.” We need people with at least foundational knowledge of China in the widest possible range of areas: across the Houses of Parliament, within the Commonwealth and state public service, in business circles, and in our education systems. We also need a pipeline of graduates with more advanced and specialised China expertise to advise governments and business. The AAH Report argues the case that Australia should ensure it has “a sovereign Chinese knowledge capability”. In other words, the nation needs its own source of objective independent expertise on China.

Australia has long relied on the employment of foreign nationals to help bolster its China knowledge capability. Arguably, this strategy has worked well in the past and brought many fine China scholars to our shores. However, it may work less well in the future. One indicator is the 21% decline in enrolments in Chinese in US universities between 2016 and 2020. Another indicator is the number of US students studying in China. Numbers fell from 15,000 in 2011 to 11,639 in 2019. Only 211 US students studied in China in 2021. The Fulbright research fellowship scheme terminated its China exchanges in 2020. Some US colleges have slashed programs in Chinese in favour of Western or American Studies, as Jordyn Haime noted recently in China File. A recent report in The Economist noted the marked decline in the learning of Chinese in the UK, US and Europe. In future, it could become increasingly difficult to fill knowledge gaps from our traditional source countries. Bilingual Australian citizens can help meet linguistic needs, however, students from Mandarin-speaking families need formal education to gain high-level literacy in Chinese script and knowledge of Chinese culture and society. One can also argue that China knowledge is too important and the needs too diverse to remain the provenance of just one ethnic group within the community.

It is not difficult to set up initiatives that could improve the situation. Scholarships for students majoring in Chinese language to study in-country would be a good start. Tagging a number of New Colombo Plan Scholarships for students who have completed a major in Chinese to spend at least one semester in a Chinese-speaking community would provide encouragement to students to take up advanced China Studies. Offering fee help and a living allowance to students wishing to undertake Chinese Honours might encourage some universities to revive languishing Honours programs.

What governments tell the public is also important. If governments fund language programs at school level, then the entire educational sector takes note. Policy messages sent by governments influence what schools teach and what career advisors say to parents and students. Governments can choose to open up career paths for students with knowledge of China and this could have a ripple effect on business and private sectors. Above all, the government needs to send signals that our future does indeed lie in navigating our path within the Asian region and that knowledge of China, its languages, culture and society, remains of fundamental importance for the future of the nation.

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