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Thinking and Educating Like Asia to Compete With Asia

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.

Question Time Ahead of Time

Everyone grab your HAZMAT suits, batten down the hatches, go out an purchase earplugs or earmuffs. Yes, after a month and a half break that institution we call Question Time returns to our television screens and radios on Tuesday. The winter break has flown by and as promised by our politicians, there has been little let-up in the political to-and-fro with the carbon tax and asylum seeker issues dominating the debate during the winter recess.

That seems the way that things will play out in Canberra this week during Question Time with carbon tax and asylum seeker politics set t0 be responsible for most of the noise during Questions Without Notice.

Power prices have been the debate over the last week with both the federal government picking a fight with the states over power bills which also brought in the federal Opposition with varying contributions from different MP’s to the debate, but the main ones being tied back to the carbon price.

It’s hard to see that electricity prices as they relate to the carbon tax will not be the major political battleground this week from the Coalition. The Abbott-led Opposition have dug in on this issue and will likely continue to prosecute the case of electricity related to the carbon price.

It’s also just as likely that, failing an electricity price specific attack on the Gillard Government related to the carbon tax, that other price rises associated with the price on carbon will form the basis of Coalition questions to the government.

The Labor Party too, through the use of the Dorothy Dixer will likely continue to try and hammer home the message of compensation for the price on carbon which commenced just weeks ago.

The Opposition, fresh from a fairly wide victory over immediate asylum seeker policy recommendations will likely turn up the heat on the Prime Minister and her government over the issue with the recommendations arguing the need to establish processing on Nauru and in Papua New Guinea as soon as possible.

The government will likely be fairly silent on the issue having been told by the expert panel on asylum seekers that their deal with Malaysia requires further work, so questions from the government benches on policy in this area will probably be scarce, perhaps non-existent.

The only major opportunity the government would have taken to get on the offensive over this policy area would be if the Opposition were going to oppose the legislation to be introduced into the parliament during the Tuesday sitting.

It will be interesting to see just how fired up both sides of parliament are after such a long break and whether or not this leads to the Speaker sending out one or two MP’s for an early coffee and cake.

Rest assured it won’t be such a quiet affair.

The Will They Or Won’t They NDIS Game Rears Its Head

After a short period of time where discussion of the National Disability Insurance Scheme was almost completely non existent in the political discussion engaged in by the federal government we’ve seen in recent weeks a return to the discourse of the very important initiative. This is because the Council of Australian Governments, that’s COAG for the politically inclined, commences tomorrow.

Funding has been a key area of dispute between the states and the commonwealth and this has been telegraphed in the media ever since negotiations over the funding and implementation of the scheme began. This is set to continue in earnest at COAG as is competition over which states or territories have the privilege of hosting one of the four launch sites announced by the Gillard Government as part of the May budget. This announcement came with $1 billion over four years in federal funding for the scheme.

The states of course are crying poor, particularly Queensland, where the new Premier has inherited a budget deficit from the former Bligh Government of $2.8 billion and a debt of $64 billion for 2011/12.

The South Australian Premier, Jay Weatherill, whose state has agreed to put $20 million toward the policy but has said today “we don’t have the budget capacity to go further at this time”.

In Queensland’s case, the Premier will go to COAG asking for a launch site to be held in Gympie, north of Brisbane, but without a commitment from his state to put any money toward the launch site.

Premier Campbell Newman supports the scheme in principle but wants the commonwealth government to fund it and he is right with the latter part of the following comment where Mr Newman today said “we’re prepared to support the program, we’re prepared to support a trial site in Gympie, but they (federal government) must fund it and that’s what the Productivity Commission said”.

It is indeed true that the Productivity Commission in its advice to the government on the implementation of the important NDIS said that the commonwealth should fund the scheme.

But the commonwealth itself is limited to what it has available to allocate to the implementation of the policy. They’ve allocated that $1 billion over 4 years, that’s $250 million a year for the first four years.

That’s not to say they couldn’t have done much more, they could have. Instead of plunging more money into areas of spending that have had or will likely not have highly positive outcomes they could have contributed more of the billions of dollars they did allocate during the budget on a policy initiative that will help people with a disability engage in community activities.

Policy to help people with a disability has been chronically overlooked by successive governments of both political colours at the local state and federal level since de-institutionalisation. So the government must be praised for at least bringing this onto the agenda and trying to get outcomes in the area even though they’ve not exactly followed the policy prescription from the experts.

But back to the state governments and their response. They all want it, but some are much more willing than others, for differing reasons, to stump up funds for the Medicare-like project.

Regardless of what the Productivity Commission said about which level of government should fund the scheme and despite the wrong policy response from the ALP Government, all states do have the capacity to at least contribute some existing funds used for disability support were their respective states to win the right to host a launch site. The money would be going into providing the same services to the people in the areas chosen for crying out loud. Surely even Queensland could spare $20 million or at least something, a few million dollars perhaps.

It does appear increasingly like the federal government, aware that this time next year they may well be close to or have already lost government, are trying to look like they’re doing something on the issue while actually achieving much less than they’re capable of.

It’s also less and less likely a future Coalition government, who’ve announced strong support for the NDIS, but then had MPs unleash rhetoric which makes you question the sincerity of the bipartisanship will be willing to take up the political challenge and implement the National Disability Insurance Scheme. If not that, it is reasonable to at least question the cohesion and level of agreement within the party over such a big funding initiative. This would have the ability to collapse further once in government.

The important thing to note is that all levels of government do have the capacity to deal with the implementation of such a scheme. If governments didn’t waste so many millions and billions it could be done in a heartbeat. But the political games are now on and the political will of both the Labor Government and the Opposition are being and will be tested. So to the collective will of the states must be put under the spotlight. That first test has started and will accelerate tomorrow.

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