South Asian Studies in Australia

South Asian Studies in Australia

South Asian studies has had a sustained presence in Australia, but the growth of the field has largely been driven by the collective and individual efforts of scholars of South Asia working in the Humanities and Social Sciences across various universities. Government and university support for South Asian studies has waxed and waned and has always been limited and inconsistent.

Trends that have the potential to lead to the expansion of South Asian studies in the future  include growing acknowledgement within government of the importance of particularly, ‘India literacy’, as India becomes an increasingly important strategic and economic partner; greater efforts by universities to attract international students from South Asia, in a bid to lessen reliance on China; and  the rapid growth of the South Asian diaspora. For now, however, university and government support remain limited and this is likely to continue in the constrained fiscal environment Australia faces in the near term.

The History of South Asian Studies in Australia (abridged from the South Asian Studies website)

The study of India and South Asia in Australia began in the 1950s and continued to expand until the early 1980s. Two scholars with an interest in India, Marjorie Jacobs at the University of Sydney, and George Wilson from the University of Tasmania were crucial in initiating and developing an interest in South Asian studies in Australia, mentoring a new generation of scholars like Jim Masselos and Peter Reeves.  The appointment of Anthony Low and A. L. Basham at the Australian National University (ANU) consolidated Australia’s India expertise in the 1960s. Political developments such as decolonisation, the communist revolution and wars in Korea and Vietnam led nervous Australian policy makers to search for like-minded friends, such as India. Teaching and research on India commenced in a systematic way at the University of Melbourne, which in 1961 established a Department of Indian Studies.

The South Asian Studies Association (later renamed South Asian Studies Association of Australia)  was formed in 1969 by a network of scholars in Australia and New Zealand to serve as the peak professional association for scholars, practitioners and students teaching and researching in the humanities and the social sciences with a focus or interest in South Asia – the first such Association in the world.  The Association’s internationally renowned journal, South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies, was founded in 1971. By the mid-1970s, more than a dozen of Australia’s 18 or 19 universities offered undergraduate subjects focused on South Asia. In 1981, the ANU provided funding for key activities that established the path-breaking “subaltern studies” collective under the leadership of Ranajit Guha.

From the late 1980s, South Asian studies in Australia began to contract. Though the university system rapidly expanded in the 1990s, this often came at the expense of the Humanities and Social Sciences and was driven by market imperatives. Asian studies was promoted as a means of improving Australia’s capacity to do business with countries of Asia, including South Asia, but government funding was sporadic. For example, in 1993, the Australia-India Council was established as a body within the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.  At the end of 1993, the National Centre for South Asian Studies was established at Monash University with support from the Commonwealth government for three years and seven universities. Following the withdrawal of other universities from the consortium, the Centre was absorbed into the Monash Asia Institute at the end of 1997.

The decline of South Asian studies in Australia is reflected in the contraction of teaching. In 1989, 15 of Australia’s 19 universities taught subjects devoted to India. In 2002, only six universities out of 38 still did (this includes Curtin, UNSW, La Trobe, Monash, New England and ANU).

The remainder of this article summarises the findings of consultations with members of the South Asian Studies Association of Australia (SASAA), which currently has 135 members. The aim was to map the current state of teaching, research and institutional engagement with South Asian studies and to identify potential strengths, challenges and barriers. 

Stagnation in Undergraduate and Postgraduate Studies

In the last two decades, undergraduate teaching on South Asia has stagnated. In 2019, only seven of Australia’s more than 40 universities offer, plan to offer, or ‘have on the books’ semester-length subjects on India or South Asia in Humanities and Social Sciences disciplines – this includes UNSW, ANU, Adelaide, New England, Melbourne, University of Western Australia and La Trobe.

Among the major barriers to expanding teaching on South Asia are the lack of South Asia expertise and the perception that there is insufficient demand for specialist courses on South Asia. Where expertise and student demand have been shown to exist, the emphasis in many universities on rationalising undergraduate course offerings has made it difficult to defend existing course offerings or launch new South Asia-specific undergraduate courses.

In some instances, ‘culls’ of academic staff, through retirement and retrenchment in departments housing significant South Asian studies expertise has led to a fall in student numbers due to a loss of confidence in the commitment of university management to particular areas of study. In other instances, the competitive restructuring of Humanities and Social Science degrees has reduced collegiality at universities as colleagues vie for students with negative outcomes for South Asian-focused subjects. Moreover, the bias toward India in the teaching of South Asian studies in Australia has deepened in the last two decades with the retirement of specialists on smaller South Asian countries and the failure to replenish this expertise.

Nonetheless, SASAA members continue to expose their students to South Asia content by what many describe as ‘smuggling in’ South Asia-focused case studies and topics into discipline-focused subjects and programs.

While the Australian Government’s 2012 Australia in the Asian Century White Paper named Hindi as a priority Asian language, there has in fact been further decline of face-to-face programs at the university level. In 1997, six Australian universities taught Hindi in some capacity. In 2020, only two universities (La Trobe and ANU) continue to offer Hindi. The scarcity of funding for these existing programs has limited their ability to expand.

On a more positive note, the hiring of an extra staff member for the Hindi program at the ANU and its development of an online Hindi program through Open Universities Australia are steps in the right direction. The growth of the Indian diaspora, particularly in Victoria, has produced the gradual expansion of Hindi learning at the primary and secondary level and may spur interest in Hindi at a university level in the future.

Another positive development for South Asian studies is that the desire on the part of universities to diversify their sources of international students has led to more emphasis on undergraduate and postgraduate recruitment from South Asia and has increased the availability of scholarships. As one SASAA member noted, ‘Although this doesn’t necessarily translate into a demand for courses in South Asian studies, it may bring postgraduate expertise, and heightened institutional interest and support in South Asian studies’. On the downside, postgraduate scholarships remain very competitive at most institutions and since the international rankings of applicant’s undergraduate institutions are taken into account, scholarship winners usually come from elite institutions in the region.

Limited Institutional Engagement

Australian universities’ desire for diversification, pressures to internationalise and new demands for public engagement and impact have also led to greater efforts to engage with South Asian institutions and academics, mainly with a focus on India, to form research links and networks and student exchange programs. Recent initiatives include the establishment of visiting chairs in contemporary India studies, visiting fellowships (particularly in law schools), workshops involving South Asian scholars, undergraduate and postgraduate student exchange programs and articulation schemes. Most of these programs, however, have been targeted at India and have not led to long-term or major investments in South Asia-related teaching or research.

The establishment of the Australia-India Institute at the University of Melbourne, with ‘nodes’ at the University of New South Wales, La Trobe University, University of Western Australia and in New Delhi has been the most substantial effort by state and federal governments and universities to stimulate engagement with India. The AII has run workshops bringing together scholars from various disciplines from around the country, carried out various policy-focused research projects and created the New Generation Network of post-doctoral fellows. The network, which has so far involved more than ten post-doctoral fellows, began a second generation at the end of 2019. The contribution of this program to long-term capacity-building in South Asian Studies is uncertain, however, given the paucity of permanent academic jobs for fellows to transition into. Moreover, the future of the Australia-India Institute is uncertain, with the current Director’s term due to end in 2020 and no long-term funding commitments in place.

Research Constraints

There are several challenges preventing the expansion of research on South Asia. SASAA members fear that the valuation of research in terms of the quantity of research dollars and the prioritization of Australia-focused, policy-centred research by the Australia Research Council will disadvantage the Humanities and Social Sciences, including research on South Asia. Members also expect research on South Asia to become more policy-oriented in response to the emphasis now being placed on ‘impact’ which, as one interlocutor pointed out, ‘comes as both a blessing and a curse – it may increase the impact of research outputs but may limit the scope for critique’.

The paucity of research funding sources is also a major constraint. While India-focused grants programs exist, their scope is narrow. The Australia-India Council Board no longer includes academics, for example, and now appears to be focused on funding cultural and business-orientated projects. The Australia-India Strategic Research Fund offers funding only for scientific research and has restrictive funding rules.

As political conditions in South Asian countries have deteriorated, with an erosion of academic freedom and an increase in violence, obtaining research visas and ethics approval has become more difficult. A SASAA member notes that ‘The situation is complex and not fully understood or appreciated by universities in Australia who confuse ethics with international agreement compliance and university risk management’.

One concerning trend is that submissions from Australia to SASAA’s flagship, highly-ranked journal, South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies have been falling while submissions from other parts of the world, in particular, the United States has been increasing. This perhaps reflects the weakness of South Asian studies research in Australia compared with the United States, the United Kingdom and Europe, where there been concerted efforts to systematise teaching and research on India/South Asia with the development of Masters degrees and research institutes.

The Future of South Asian Studies in Australia

The growth of South Asian studies in Australia has relied heavily on the initiatives and enthusiasm of scholars with South Asia expertise working in discipline-based university departments. Government and university support for the field has been short-term and limited. There are several trends that could and should lead to greater institutional support for the field, including greater student recruitment from South Asia, increased migration from the region and heightened focus on India as an economic and strategic partner for Australia.

With governments and universities facing greater financial constraints, however, sustaining the field will likely continue to depend on the individual and collective efforts of the growing number of South Asian studies scholars in Australia, without extensive institutional support. These efforts can include strengthening and growing the South Asian Studies Association of Australia to establish a platform for collaboration, research development and postgraduate training, the continued ‘smuggling in’ of South Asia-related content in discipline-based courses and programs and increasing links with science and technology-based disciplines to take advantage of government funding for these areas.

Picture source: Photo by Brian Kyed on Unsplash

Priya Chacko is Senior Lecturer in International Politics in the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Adelaide, Non-Resident Fellow at the Perth USAsia Centre and Visiting Academic Fellow at the Australia-India Institute. She serves co-editor of the journal Contemporary Politics and is President of the South Asian Studies Association of Australia. Her current research projects focus on the intersection of populism, neoliberalism and ethnoreligious nationalism in India and the political economy of foreign policy with a focus on India and Asian region.

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