Are schools focused enough on the future?

AEF Director Kathe Kirby explores the findings of a recent report on Australia's engagement with Asia which details how young Australians aren’t being prepared to do business with Asia.

By 2030 four of the five largest economies in the world will be in Asia. But a new report by global accounting firm, PwC, finds that Australia is poorly positioned to harness the Asian opportunity partly because our cultural understanding of Asia is lacking. In short, young Australians simply aren’t being properly prepared to do business with Asia.

The PwC report, ‘Our diaspora’s got talent’, found that Australia does have the talent to succeed in Asia, but we are not doing enough to foster, prepare and deploy this talent in the region. The report found that the schooling system has failed to keep pace with Australia’s growing integration with Asia. Teaching of Asia’s history, politics and economies is not adequately embedded in Australian curriculum and teaching of Asian languages has stalled.

Michelle Garnaut, CEO of M Restaurant Group who set up in China over 20 years ago, explained that ‘it was acceptable at the time I moved to China to open a restaurant to not be able to speak Chinese, but now it is less acceptable and much more important.’ Despite this trend, figures recently published in the Sydney Morning Herald showed the number of students taking Chinese at HSC level in NSW almost halved between 2005 and 2015, dropping from 1526 to 832. All but 153 of those students were native Chinese speakers.

Asia Education Foundation’s Executive Director, Kurt Mullane, was part of the expert panel that contributed to the report. He asserts that Australia is in a period of decline when it comes to Asian languages learning in schools. In fact, languages have the lowest enrolments of any senior secondary years subject in Australia with a scant 11 per cent of students at this level studying a language other than English. This is in stark contrast to our economic competitors where the majority of students exit their schooling with two or even three languages.

The report also found near unanimous agreement by the expert panel of Asia experienced business people, that the lack of languages learning was only part of problem. Young Australians also need to radically improve their knowledge of Asia and its history, its politics and economic development.

Despite this, Mullane points out it’s still possible for children to go through school and not encounter learning experiences that help them better understand Asia and Australia’s place in the world. As a former senior diplomat and now corporate director, Doug Chester says: ‘For too long our education system has drawn on Europe and North America. Most school kids can list half a dozen cities in the United States but they will struggle to name more than two or three in China.’

The report warns that more work needs to be done in our schools to train a generation that ‘has Asia literacy running through its veins’. That means enhancing student language and intercultural skills as well as cultural and historical knowledge of the region.

Our diaspora’s got talent. Australia’s advantage in Asia, PwC, August 2016.

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Renuka Rajadurai

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