How Well Does Australia Know China?

By Anne McLaren, Professor in Chinese Studies, Asia Institute, University of Melbourne

In the first of three articles on the state of Asian studies and language teaching in Australia, Anne McLaren highlights the decline of university Chinese Honours programs, cutting of a vital pipeline of China talent.

China is a major trading partner for Australia and an increasingly dominant power in the Indo-Pacific. Australia and China engage broadly in trade, education, science, technology, and many other fields. Chinese language and related studies are widely taught in Australian higher education.  Australia has a small group of China specialists in the public service, universities, and think tanks. In addition, the nation has a substantial number of speakers of Mandarin and Cantonese, due to the migration of Chinese people to Australia in recent decades.

Nonetheless, the question remains, how well does Australia know China?

A recent report, Australia’s China Knowledge Capability, from the Australian Academy of Humanities, points to notable deficiencies in China knowledge capability across Australia. One critical gap identified is a sharp decline in the provision of advanced and specialist programs that combine Chinese language training together with cultural, social, and political analysis relating to China.

The traditional Chinese Honours program offered a one-year course dedicated entirely to the study of China. However, there are signs that the generational pipeline that has provided Australia with its China specialists is now in sharp decline.

The report argues that the traditional Chinese Honours program has almost ceased to exist in practical terms. While Chinese Honours may be retained in University Handbooks, in reality there are very few or even no enrolments. The investigators found that from 2017 to 2021 a total of 17 Australian students graduated with Chinese Honours across the nation from six universities, an average of just under three students per university for the five-year period.

A major issue is the pipeline of continuing students from Chinese at Year 12 level through to completion of a major in Chinese at university. A declining number of high school students are graduating with Chinese at Year 12 and then going on to an undergraduate Chinese studies program. Fewer students complete the major with a skill level that allows for entrance to the Honours program.

Another factor affecting students’ learning is the loss of in-country programs due to COVID-19 pandemic national border restrictions since 2020, but this situation is likely to improve in the era of pandemic recovery.

In some universities, the Chinese language program is run by one or two full-time academic staff. In these cases, the program is simply not resourced to offer an Honours program.  Only six Australian universities out of 14 strong providers of Chinese studies graduated students with Honours in Chinese studies with language from 2017 to 2021.

In an emerging trend, University Honours programs face competition from other courses that are seen as more lucrative. Over the past decade, many universities have set up full fee-paying Masters by Coursework programs that can enrol university graduates of any discipline. The typical Masters by Coursework charges high upfront fees and is more lucrative for the university than Honours language programs with their small enrolments. Top students are now encouraged to perceive the Masters by Coursework as the routine way to round off their university experience. A common example would be an MA in International Relations. These broad courses do not generally include language training. This means that if a student enrolled in a Master of International Relations wishes to use Chinese-language sources in their thesis then they must already have the requisite Chinese language skills.

There are no specialist Masters by Coursework focusing on China Studies in Australia, surely a critical gap at a time when Australia needs to retain and boost its China knowledge. In fact, the typical Masters by Coursework in the Arts and Social Sciences in Australia allows entrance to students with no previous disciplinary knowledge. This allows for maximum student enrolments but little disciplinary specialisation within the Masters degree.

I argue that the Honours program is still the best way for Australian students (whether they are of Chinese-background or non-Chinese background) to gain reasonable literacy in Chinese and the ability to use Chinese sources to pursue a topic of interest. The traditional Honours year offered an entire year dedicated to exploring the Chinese world, with close attention from a supervisor, and, one would hope, in the company of enthusiastic classmates. At its best, it provided a basis for a life-long interest in China and a strong foundation for occupations that require writing and analytical ability, multicultural skills, and Asia-related knowledge. There is no other course in Australia that can provide this specialist combination of Chinese language and China knowledge.

The cost to Australia in the falling away of Chinese Honours programs is that we are cutting off the generational pipeline that has enabled this country to provide a core of China-ready graduates. Australia has always imported a significant number of China specialists to fill appointments in universities and think tanks.

Current trends suggest that in the future we will have even fewer home-grown China specialists than in the past. This is an extraordinary gap at a time when we need Australian perspectives to help navigate our future.

A concerted effort is needed to either bring back Chinese Honours programs or to establish one or two specialist China-focus Masters programs for Australians who have completed majors in Chinese language and related disciplinary studies. Universities will need incentives in the form of salary support for the program and students will need encouragement in the form of scholarships and fee waivers. The market incentives driving the decision-making of University administrations need to be balanced by government incentives to provide outcomes in the national interest.

Anne McLaren is Professor in Chinese Studies, Asia Institute, University of Melbourne.

A longer version of this article was originally published by Melbourne Asia Review, Asia Institute, University of Melbourne.