Education was seen as a very important element of the Australia in the Asian Century White Paper launched on Sunday by Prime Minister Julia Gillard at the Lowy Institute. Education standards are set to be pegged to a very challenging and likely impossible goal. This target, already outlined prior to the release of the discussion paper aims to have Australia’s education system in the world’s top five by 2025. This aspiration forms the underlying basis for tackling the “Asian Century” with the most intelligence and vigour Australia can possibly muster.
It is the specifics that matter in this, the Asian Century. A goal to improve our education outcomes dramatically, though near impossible to achieve in under 15 years is a worthy goal to strive for over the mid to long-term.
In a time when Asia already is beginning to dominate the world economically, it is important that the curriculum which guides and drives our places of education adequately responds to the realities of our place in the world. Language is an integral part of competing in an Asian dominated world as is a cultural and educational immersion in different countries in the Asia-Pacific region.
A somewhat dramatic rethink of how we “do” education and mould our young people is a necessary ingredient. This rethink must include early childhood education as well as what are recognised as the more traditional levels of education, primary, secondary and tertiary schooling.
First and foremost we must, if we want to compete in Asia, think like many Asian countries do. We must “Asianise” our education system. Young minds are incredibly malleable and our education system must make early progress in shaping the lives of Australian children.
Even in the early years, when children are traditionally learning things such as sharing, they also need to be learning in a more extensive way how to read and write and begin to perform tasks usually part of the early primary school years. The shift in how we educate the very young should even extend to teaching languages.
When children reach primary school age they should be well and truly prepared for a complete and focused formal education in the traditional subjects to begin. The ALP Government have announced that the states will be required to implement a policy where at least one Asian language is taught in every school. This is an eminently reasonable request but only if the commonwealth provide substantial support to implement this.
When it comes to secondary school, the language question is more complex. It would beneficial if Asian language lessons were a compulsory part of all schools throughout the whole senior school experience. Failing that, language should be compulsory in the early years of high school, but a readily available option in senior years.
Tertiary education provides a further opportunity to get Australia’s students “Asia ready”. But tertiary education again presents a complex equation. It is more difficult to begin learning a language later in life than it is to take it up at early age. Policy-makers also need to be wary of impacting too much on the personal choices of our young adults and a one-size fits all approach is far from ideal.
Hopefully, over time, with students beginning to learn second languages at an earlier age there will be an increase among those undertaking tertiary studies who continue with language lessons as a matter of course. If people wish to take up a language at this later stage that should also be supported as not everyone knows exactly what trajectory they want their career to be guided along before they hit universities and colleges.
Particularly for courses like international business and international relations, basic introductory or business-related language lessons must form a part of the university and college experience. Ideally, these should be uniform prerequisites but should not automatically be limited to Asian languages. We still need to continue to pursue expertise in European languages regardless of whether our focus is in Asia or not.
Ideally, courses like education should have a similar focus toward Asian language training as degrees with an international focus. All universities should at least offer as part of their education courses, some of the key Asian languages including Mandarin, Indonesian, Japanese, Hindi and Korean. Again, this must not be to the detriment of important and widely used European languages.
Temporarily, because of the shortfall in Asian literacy, there will have to be some assistance for business but this should not be applied carte blanche.
That’s the language factor, but what of the educational and cultural exchange involving our university students?
The government has announced an intention to adopt, or more accurately steal the Coalition’s idea for a “Reverse Colombo Plan”. The new iteration of the Colombo Plan and more recently, Kevin Rudd’s Australia Awards will not just see Asian students coming to Australia for a period of study, but also lead to Australian students being able to travel to Asian institutions to further their opportunities.
This idea has the potential not just to enhance the language skills of budding young professionals, but also to imbibe greater cr0ss-cultural understanding in the young people of our region.
A big challenge we will face in at least attempting to shift towards a wider interest in Asian languages is attracting enough teachers. This model makes the task incredibly difficult not just because of the funds required to finance it, but because of the scale of the recruitment task needed to make Asian language training pervasive. Importing teachers with language knowledge is an important short to medium-term goal.
We are already lagging behind in our Asian capabilities and readiness. We must at least try to catch up with the realities of our position. We almost certainly will not achieve all of our objectives.
This way of changing education is replete with grand aims that are unlikely to ever be realised fully. The logistical task and financial requirements are immense. However, even if we fell short, which is certain, we would still be better equipped to take advantage of the opportunities and deal with the challenges of living in a booming region of the world.