At the end of the year, my term as president of the Asian Studies Association of Australia expires. During the last two years while I have held the office, our field has faced many challenges.
These challenges became acute in late 2019, with the announcement by the National Library of Australia that it was changing its collecting strategy by greatly reducing its focus on Asia. The challenges accelerated through 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic caused the cancellation of our biennial conference and sparked a financial crisis in the Australian university sector that has placed pressure on Asian studies and languages programs. Recently we have learned that La Trobe and Murdoch universities have deferred decisions to cancel Hindi (La Trobe) and Indonesian (both universities), in part as a result of public pressure. Meanwhile, however, Swinburne has decided to close its Japanese and Chinese programs, and Southern Queensland and Western Sydney are closing Indonesian. The teaching of Indonesian is endangered at several other universities.
These closures have attracted particular attention, and there may be more coming, but we should also note that the crisis has also disrupted the research plans of numerous research students, closed off employment opportunities for recent graduates, increased teaching burdens and other stresses, and led to job losses and lost opportunities among colleagues with casual or other insecure positions. It has become a cliché to say this, but 2020 has certainly been a very tough year for Asian Studies in Australia.
In times such as these, it is my belief that having an Association that promotes our field is more important than ever. Over the last two years, and especially in the last few months, the ASAA has worked hard to represent the interests of members and to promote the study of Asia, including Asian languages. ASAA officeholders and members have responded to the pressures on our field by meeting representatives of government and relevant institutions, writing both private letters and public statements, and drawing attention to the importance of Asia literacy through our own publications and the media. While we have lost some battles – the National Library of Australia, for example, did not rescind its policy change – we feel that the deferrals of program cancellations at La Trobe and Murdoch at least show that there remains a significant constituency for Asia literacy in Australia.
As well as engaging in public advocacy, the Association also continues its work to promote our field and to support Asia research through our book series, the Asian Studies Review, and the various grant schemes and prizes we offer. It was a particular pleasure to witness the introduction of two new book prizes this year. The outcome of a review of our field was delayed by the pandemic, but we hope to see this published next year and to become an occasion for reflection on the future of Asian Studies in Australia.
As my term of office comes to a close, I would like to thank all members of the Association for their support, and to urge you all to promote the benefits and importance of membership to our colleagues. Given the likelihood that Asian Studies will face continued pressures – and, hopefully, new opportunities – in the coming years, it is more important than ever to have a large, active and engaged membership.
Finally, I would like to thank all outgoing members of the ASAA executive and council for their service over the last two years. It has been a pleasure and an honour to work with you. I wish all the best to the incoming members, especially the new president, Associate Professor Kate McGregor and vice-president, Professor Melissa Crouch. Please offer them your active support.
Professor Edward Aspinall