Asian politics in Australian universities

Asian politics in Australian universities

In a world in which political developments in Asia are of central importance to Australia’s national interest, it is a sad truth that the teaching of Asian politics in Australian universities has suffered badly over the last decade or so. This is particularly the case in political science departments[1] and in Asian language departments, including in some of our major universities that used to be powerhouses of Asian politics. If it was not for a handful of universities where Asian politics is still strong, plus an invisible army of Asia-focused scholars in a variety of Social Science departments across Australia (particularly History departments), Asian politics as a field of teaching and research in Australian universities would have long since been in a critical state. As it stands, Asian politics is showing remarkable resilience in the face of worrying overall trends.

The simplest way to judge the state of teaching Asian politics is to look at the raw numbers of undergraduate topics dedicated explicitly to the teaching of the national politics of an Asia country. In 2020 these numbers are as follows:

China:                8
Japan:                2
Korea:                2
Indonesia:          2
Taiwan:             1
India:                 1

These figures suggest that the state of teaching about Chinese politics is in reasonable shape, at least for the moment. Yet if we look beyond the China topics, the state of the remaining field is worryingly poor. This is especially so once we consider that most of these topics are offered in just a handful of universities (with ANU disproportionately represented).

The silver lining in this list is that it excludes a great many topics that teach about Asian politics to a greater or lesser degree but are not explicitly dedicated to studying the politics of a specific country, reducing the analytical value of this simplistic list.

A more nuanced analysis of the state of the field is therefore required: one that puts these disturbing headline figures in the context of decades-long trends and a more diverse range of data.

Political Science

Political science departments have mostly retreated of their own volition to the familiarity of the Anglo world of Western politics and conventional International Relations.

In today’s universities, political science departments tend to look down on Area Studies of all flavours, including Asian Studies. This dismissal is partly due to Anglo-centric complacency at departmental level, but also because of changes in funding and peer recognition principles since the early 1990s when the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) began systematically categorising and tracking research – and research funding agencies began following the lead of the ABS.

Hence, the problem that Area Studies faces today is that political science departments seek to appoint, fund and promote academic staff who can publish refereed articles in high ranking, high impact journals that are recognised by funding agencies as Political Science i.e. having an ABS Field of Research (FOR) code of 1606.

The more highly ranked of those journals are American and British, and they value theoretical and statistical analysis more than mastering a foreign language or the nuances of a foreign society. This disciplinary bias is compounded by the reality that political scientists are among the least generous and most jealous peer reviewers in the social sciences. Unsurprisingly, most of them are not much interested in Asia or any other ‘Area’.

Perversely, studies of American and British politics are considered mainstream political science, but studies of Asian, African and perhaps even Australian politics are dismissed as ‘Area Studies’.

A tenuous level of interest in Asia is usually sustained in the International Relations wings of political science departments, but IR scholars tend to view Asia and other ‘areas’ through lenses crafted and housed in the Anglosphere (US, UK, Australia). In any case, International Relations as a discipline has never placed much emphasis on in-country knowledge or language acquisition.

In institutions where staffing and promotions decisions have been driven exclusively by considerations of FOR codes, political science departments have often become dead zones for Asian Studies, along with Area Studies more generally. The cumulative effect of decades of staffing decisions based on these principles has been the creation of increasingly insular environments, relatively remote from the real world.


Whereas political science departments have retreated from Asian Studies mostly of their own volition, the segregation of language teaching from the study of the societies in which the languages are spoken has been imposed by university managements rather than chosen by the language teachers themselves.

The teaching of languages has long since been treated as a problem child by university administrations. Depending on the language under consideration, language teaching can either be a cash cow (e.g. teaching Chinese to students from the PRC) or a low-enrolment, high-attrition, high-cost burden. Regardless of which is the case, languages’ need for intensive levels of staff input have driven universities to both cut corners and to treat language teaching as ‘different’. Herding language teaching into the Humanities and separating it from Social Science programs has been a common strategy that in my experience has sometimes been welcomed by the leadership of Social Science departments and faculties because they fear that linking language study with the Social Sciences might deter enrolments because it is ‘hard’.

The ubiquity of language-focused Confucius Institutes contributes to the environment in which the isolation of language teaching has been normalised, but the presence of a CI in a university is not in itself enough to either cause or explain this phenomenon. 

Whatever the cause, the isolation of language teaching has had a wholly negative impact on Asian Studies and the teaching of Asian politics, depriving them of both student numbers and essential disciplinary tools.

Seven disappointments

Among the Group of Eight Universities, the teaching of Asian politics is weak at the University of Queensland, Monash University and UNSW Sydney (i.e. on the main Kensington campus; not so much at Australian Defence Force Academy [ADFA] in Canberra). At the University of Adelaide, Asian politics is taught both in Asian Studies and in the Department of Politics and International Relations, but resignations and retirements over recent years have weakened the overall position and there seems to be no institutional will to reverse this trend.

Among the Innovative Research Universities that have historically been strong in Asian politics, Flinders University has abandoned the field completely (seemingly without a backward glance) and at both Griffith University and Murdoch University, ongoing neglect by university management has all-but guaranteed that all Asia-related teaching faces medium-term extinction as student and staff numbers fall.

All seven of these universities used to be strong in Asian politics, but none offer the study of Asian politics in a systemic fashion any longer, and all of them have seen their staffing capacity in the field fall away, thanks to a routine failure to replace staff who retire or resign. On top of this, Asia research centres have been closed or defunded, including some that focused explicitly on Asian politics.

Pathway to success

By contrast, Asian politics remains strong and healthy at the other four GO8 universities (ANU, Melbourne, Sydney and UWA) and holding steady, at least for the time being, at La Trobe. In all these institutions, Asian politics is taught as part of a broad suite of Asia-centric modules offered across departments, including the political science departments.

In none of these cases is this positive outcome an accident. Most of these universities have clearly demonstrated their institutional commitment to Asian politics, to languages or to Asian Studies more generally in distinct ways. UWA has structured its undergraduate degree so that students are routinely exposed to language study and to study of Asia. Melbourne has done something similar and provides serious funding for the Asia Institute, which is both a teaching and research unit. Meanwhile the University of Sydney has demonstrated its commitment to Asian politics via its funding of the Sydney Southeast Asia Centre. ANU demonstrates its commitment in too many ways to list here.

By contrast the University of Adelaide, Monash University, the University of Queensland, Murdoch University and Flinders University have all closed or defunded Asia research centres over the last decade or more. Griffith University is the exception to the rule in that the university seems to be committed to researching Asian politics through the Griffith Asia Institute, even as it allows the teaching of Asian politics to slip away.

The variety found in this institutional snapshot points to the importance of university- or faculty-level agency in determining the success or failure of Asian politics and Asian Studies more generally. If a university decides to invest in Asian Studies and/or Asian politics, success is a likely outcome. If it decides not to invest, failure becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The record also points to the importance of the institutional mapping of teaching about Asia. On the one hand, successful Asian Studies and Asian politics programmes are unfailingly associated with a holistic approach to the study of Asia. On the other hand, the compartmentalisation of Asian Studies into silos based on academic discipline hollows out both pedagogy and student numbers, not just in Asian politics but in Asian Studies more generally.

Griffith University is perhaps the best example of the destructive power of poor institutional mapping. Not only has the remnants of Asian politics at Griffith been isolated in a heavily Anglo-centric political science department, but the remaining Asian Studies stream is housed in a Business School. Tellingly, the Business School is abolishing the Bachelor of Asian Studies and will probably replace it with a major in Asian Business – not even Asian Studies.

Best practice in teaching Asian Studies and Asian politics remains what it has always been – a broad-based, integrated curriculum that builds connections and pedagogical pathways across the social science and humanities disciplines, including language teaching.

Research goes on

Interestingly, the narrowness of the pathways to being published in a top-ranked political science journal or employed in a political science department does not seem to have diminished the volume or the quality of scholarly publications on Asian politics through other publishing outlets. There are still plenty of high-quality journals and publishers keen to accept articles on Asian politics and lots of scholars and students who want to both write and read them. It is just that they are not the sort of journals or books that cut much ice with Anglocentric political science departments.

[1] Teaching units that teach politics and international relations in universities go by many names. For the sake of simplicity, I am referring to them generically as ‘political science departments’.

This article draws upon data and observations contributed by colleagues who teach Asian politics in universities across Australia. The author wishes to thank all these colleagues for their input, while taking full personal responsibility for the analysis and any errors.

Image credit: “និស្សិត​ពី​សាកលវិទ្យាល័យ​ Lehigh University ជួប​ជា​មួយ​មន្ត្រី​នយោបាយ របស់​ស្ថានទូត​អាមេរិក។” by USEmbassyPhnomPenh is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

Michael Barr is Associate Professor in International Relations (Academic Status), Flinders University. He gained his PhD in History at the University of Queensland in 1998 and then held research fellowships in History for several years. He shifted to Flinders University in 2007 where he taught International Relations until his retirement in December 2018.

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