Lessons in change for ANU amid need for Asia-Pacific College

Lessons in change for ANU amid need for Asia-Pacific College

Reports that the Australian National University is considering cutbacks in education and research on the culture, history and language of Asia and the Pacific reflect a profound failure of vision and a retreat from the university’s national mission, writes ANDREW WALKER.

The Australian National University has long been proud of its Asia-Pacific expertise. It has been part of its unique identity since the university’s foundation in 1946.

The postwar government which set up ANU recognised the nation-building importance of a deep intellectual engagement with our neighbourhood. It was a smart investment: Asia-Pacific studies is one of relatively few areas where ANU can claim world leadership.

So, why are cuts being considered? The answer, of course, is money. The School of Culture, History and Language, which sits inside the College of Asia and the Pacific, has been struggling to pay its way for several years. There are many reasons for this, but the underlying problems are structural.

ANU is trying to do too much in the social sciences and humanities and is not focusing on areas, such as Asia and the Pacific, where it leads the world. Limited resources are being spread too thin.

ANU is a great university, but it has its quirks. Some quirks are the stuff of creativity and greatness; others are dysfunctional historical legacies. The fact that ANU has two separate colleges working on overlapping areas of the humanities and social science is one of its more prominent structural quirks. Whether it’s a creative or dysfunctional quirk has been a long-running debate, but the funding crisis in Asia-Pacific studies has tipped the balance strongly towards dysfunction.

The College of Asia and the Pacific and the College of Arts and Social Sciences are competitors for resources and students at ANU. They have a great deal in common in their disciplinary profiles. Both have scholars working on history, cultural studies, politics, international relations, linguistics, anthropology and archaeology. And both offer degrees which train undergraduate, masters and PhD students in the humanities and social science.

The difference between the two colleges is, of course, that CAP focuses on Asia and the Pacific. CASS is concerned, by and large, with the rest of the world.

From the outside, it must look like a rather strange arrangement: ANU boasts pairs of social science and humanities departments that seem to do much the same thing. Many universities would struggle to sustain a single department in some of these disciplinary areas; ANU has twins, separated at birth.

From the inside, it is a bewildering experience for students who find that their study options artificially separate the Asia-Pacific region from the rest of the world. Students in the largest degree at ANU, the bachelor of arts (taught by CASS), have restricted access to courses on Asia and the Pacific (taught by CAP). These students gain limited benefit from their university’s remarkable expertise in Asia-Pacific studies. At the same time, students of the Asia-Pacific with an interest in politics or anthropology mostly sit in different classes to their disciplinary fellows on the other side of campus.

Now is the time to address this dysfunctional historical fragmentation.

An Asia-Pacific College of Social Science and Humanities would be a powerful symbol of Australia’s recognition of its shared destiny with its regional neighbours.

ANU has the opportunity to make a bold statement to Australia and the world that its humanities and social science scholarship will focus on Australia, Asia and the Pacific. And it should create a single college to pursue this mission. The internationally recognised comparative advantage ANU has in Asia-Pacific scholarship needs to be liberated from the constraints of an outdated structural legacy.

An Asia-Pacific College of Social Science and Humanities would be extraordinarily rich in disciplinary knowledge, regional expertise and linguistic diversity. It would be a powerful symbol of Australia’s recognition of its shared destiny with its regional neighbours. And it could take up the government’s challenge to make a period of study in Asia a rite of passage for all students, rather than just those taking specialist Asian studies degrees or lucky enough to shoe-horn an Asian experience into increasingly scarce free electives.

Of course, understanding Australia, Asia and the Pacific requires an understanding of the historical, political and intellectual influences from America, Europe and Africa. We should engage with knowledge of these regions in a deeply comparative manner, but we should avoid losing focus as we set our research agenda and develop our teaching programs. With limited resources, there is no compelling reason for a world-leading university to invest in fields of scholarship where it will never lead the world.

Interesting debates

Establishing such a college would certainly involve some interesting debates. Should French language teaching be part of an Asia-Pacific portfolio? How does a world-class philosophy program engage with Asia? What does it mean to be an Asia-Pacific school of art or music?

There will be some tough decisions, an inevitable result of placing innovation ahead of historical legacy. However, hard questions will be easier to resolve when artificial scholarly barriers are removed and when students can choose courses on the basis of academic merit rather than administrative division.

ANU needs to address hard, big picture questions, rather than just responding to localised budget crises. The key to success will be articulating a clear vision for world-class scholarship on Australia, Asia and the Pacific.

ANU is a national resource of extraordinary value. An Asia-Pacific College of Social Science and Humanities would enhance this, turning a dysfunctional historical quirk into an internationally unique scholarly engagement with the social, political and cultural dynamism of Australia and our region.

This article was first published in The Canberra Times.

Andrew Walker is professor, Southeast Asian Studies at ANU. He was an executive of the College of Asia and the Pacific from 2009–14.

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