By Geoffrey Garrett and Sean Gallagher
The Asia Century white paper is based on two fundamental propositions. First, by 2025 Asia will have transformed itself from the world's low-cost manufacturer into its biggest middle-class consumer. Second, Australia's future prosperity depends on being able to give increasingly sophisticated Asian consumers what they want.
Higher education is the one sector of our economy that is furthest advanced along this path. Although you just wouldn't know it from all the laudable educational objectives in the white paper for more Asian language instruction, more Asian studies programs, and more Australian students in Asian universities.
Indeed the white paper barely pays lip service to perhaps the greatest asset of all when it comes to understanding Asia: the Asian citizens and recent Asian migrants already in our universities. About a quarter of all university students come from Asia, a much higher proportion than for any other English speaking country.
But Asian students are not commodities. They are young, ambitious people whose experiences and perspectives are an underappreciated but potentially invaluable resource when it comes to helping Australians understand Asia and to integrating Australia more fully into Asia.
Asian students come to Australia because they want the quality Western education our universities deliver. But it's time we did more for them. It is a cliche that Asian students are technically excellent but relatively passive. Yet they are fully aware they need to develop the kind of personal skills needed in all globally engaged professions these days, such as critical thinking, communication, teamwork and leadership.
We can do a better job of helping Asian students develop these skills, and not by yet more rote learning from leadership textbooks. Instead, we should position them to practise and enhance their personal skills in the classroom and on campus. The best way to give them this opportunity is by suffusing Asian content throughout our curriculums, and then inviting Asian students to help us better understand them, their home countries and their continent.
In so doing, Australian students will benefit in two ways. First, they will get the unique opportunity to learn about and respect the cultures, lives and perspectives of their Asian peers, from their Asian peers. Second, they will learn to function in an environment that will be a microcosm of the one they will inhabit for the rest of their lives: an Asia in which native English speakers will be a small minority and in which communication must be mastered across languages and across cultures.
Working with the Asian students to increase our Asian capabilities is thus a win-win-win. Asian students will balance their technical expertise with needed leadership skills. The Asian literacy of Australian students will increase dramatically. And the bonds among all our students forged on campus will stay with them for all their lives.
And what's equally important, leveraging the asset that is our Asian students will also improve the bottom line of the higher education sector, under intensifying global competitive pressure.
In the past decade, Australia won the global race for Asian students by being first into the market and then by beating other Western countries on price. Those days are over. Competition from other English speaking countries is mushrooming. So too is the quality of Asian universities. And Australian higher education has probably been harder hit by the high dollar than has any other sector of the economy.
The Asia white paper contains lots of good ideas and worthwhile aspirations. But we don't have to invent the key to Australia's Asian future because it is embodied in the lives of the Asian students who are already with us.
This article was originally published by The Australian