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Are Australian university students learning enough about China?

Ciara Morris

image credit: Ciara Morris

Young Australians interested in international affairs need universities that are well equipped to inform us about China, from language to culture to business and politics, and not just one in isolation.

A new report, funded by the National Foundation for Australia-China Relations and co-written by myself and colleagues at the Australian Academy of the Humanities, surveys the state of Australia’s China knowledge capability in the tertiary sector. The report uncovers areas of unacknowledged strength in Australia's research on China, including in the humanities, social sciences, and health and medicine. However, it also finds critical gaps in the teaching of China studies.

To evidence these findings, we analysed existing publicly available data on research and teaching maintained by the Commonwealth Department of Education. However, there were limitations. It is not possible to disaggregate these data to identify China-focused study areas. To supplement the data, we conducted surveys and interviews with over 100 experts across academia, industry, and government.

Our report shows the number of Australian universities providing comprehensive training and degree pathways in China studies is decreasing.

We need home grown Australian knowledge of China. When people think about the connection between Australian universities and China, they often think about international students. Dr. Yu Tao from the University of Western Australia says, “I teach mainly international students: I thank them for my job. But the ultimate justification for China studies in Australia is multiculturalism... One essential dimension of our job is building Chinese and Asian literacy here at home”.

China will most likely remain Australia’s largest trading partner and a key player in our regional security for decades to come. Australia is also home to over 1.3 million people of Chinese heritage. A decrease in China-focused studies is alarming.

In the past, China studies programs at Australian universities have been an important training ground for Australian experts on China. Honours in China studies, which once nurtured this expertise, is offered by fewer and fewer universities. We consulted 14 strong providers in China studies. Only seven of them offer Honours. Six graduated 17 Australians with Honours (Chinese studies with language) over the years 2017 to 2021, no more than five in any one year.

The report was also unable to identify any Australian Masters program in generalist China studies (as opposed to those with a specific language focus, like translation and interpretation) that require Chinese language. Australians entering our universities with advanced Chinese language are increasingly choosing to study courses that cater mainly to international students and focus on their language skills specifically, rather than a more comprehensive study of China with an Australian perspective.

While the study of China for its own sake has never attracted large student numbers, our research for this project shows that it has struggled to survive since universities’ turn to the market. Today, student numbers lead and courses follow. Smaller class sizes in advanced China studies for domestic students puts those courses under threat.

Experts are concerned that a trend away from China-focused subjects to more general subjects like international relations means that our universities aren’t graduating students with a sufficient understanding of China. A Senior Commonwealth official is quoted in the report saying “people come to work on a project on China and they are missing some foundational knowledge about China’s political system – who are the actors, what shapes their worldview”. The Australian Public Service also needs to hire more Australians of Chinese heritage who may bring with them valuable informal heritage-derived knowledge of China.

Australian universities need to increase the availability of public data on China-focused courses so that future researchers can better track strengths and gaps, and we need ongoing, coordinated action between universities and governments to ensure the survival of comprehensive China studies.

Now that borders are open, I encourage Australian students of any discipline to sign up for exchange programs in Greater China. I encourage students with a free elective to take a China studies course and equip themselves with a foundational understanding of our important neighbour. And I encourage students and young professionals to get involved with their local Australia-China Youth Association chapter, or online with the Australia-China Young Professionals Initiative. Networks are crucial to maintaining and utilising the knowledge gained in university and skills developed in the workforce.

We need Australians with China knowledge. So if you’re considering enrolling in China studies, go for it! Ciara Morris is a young professional with both Chinese and Australian experience and qualifications in Chinese language, policy and international relations.


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