Reviewing the state of Asian Studies in Australia

Reviewing the state of Asian Studies in Australia

What is the state of teaching and research on Asia-related topics at Australian universities? Do students have more or less opportunity to learn about Asia than in the past? Is there much variation in Asia content across disciplines? Which Asian languages are in decline at our universities and which are on the rise? What are the trends in funding and support for Asia-related research? How is the growth of Asian diasporas in Australia transforming the study of Asia in our universities – if at all? Is Asia literacy – or, for that matter, the concept of Asian Studies itself – still a relevant concept in twenty-first century Australia?

Over coming weeks and months, the Asian Studies Association of Australia (ASAA) hopes to address these and similar questions through a series of think pieces published here on Asian Currents, in the lead up to discussion of a major review of Asian Studies in Australia at our conference in Melbourne in July. It has been almost twenty years since the ASAA conducted a systematic review of the state of Asian Studies in Australia. That report, Maximising Australia’s Asia Knowledge, painted a mixed picture, noting that Asia knowledge was a “national asset”, but one that was in desperate need of renewal.

Did the renewal occur? Since that time, Asia specialists have frequently complained of an accelerating slide in support for teaching and research on Asia. Several universities have cut back Asia-related programs, and enrolments in some Asian languages have plunged. Specialists sometimes allege a decline in the depth of Asia expertise at Australian universities and other national institutions (witness the National Library of Australia’s recent move to downgrade its long-standing emphasis on collecting from the region).

In fact, the picture is far from being unrelentingly gloomy. For example, the number of Australian students taking in-country courses in Asian countries has increased. The teaching of some languages is healthy and even expanding, and some areas of research have boomed. Several universities have opened new Asia-related research centres and launched dramatic new initiatives to expand their engagement with Asia. A growing number of scholars in disciplines outside of traditional Asian Studies fields engage with Asia through their teaching and research.

This complex picture takes shape against a backdrop of – at best – inconsistent support from governments and universities. While governments at all levels continue to promote the notion of Asian engagement, and recognise that Australia’s economic and security future is closely tied to our region, follow-through in terms of support for Asia literacy is often minimal. Important programs have been cut and major initiatives have languished. Even here, however, the picture is uneven: the federal government has provided significant support to promote in-country programs for Australian students, and in some places state governments have taken new initiatives. While many Australian universities see the region through a purely commercial lens, and as a source of fee-paying students, some promote broad-based Asian engagement.

To make sense of this complexity, and to arm Asia specialists with the updated knowledge we need when making the case for deep knowledge of Asia to university administrators, governments, and the wider community, we believe it’s time for a systematic review. We begin this week with a piece on the teaching of Asian Politics in Australian universities. In coming weeks we’ll be covering how Asia features in a range of disciplines studied at Australian universities, and looking at research and teaching on particular Asian languages, countries, and regions, as well as specialist topics such as the role of Asian diasporas, the place of postgraduate students, and research support. These pieces are authored by a range of Australia’s leading Asia experts, and the Association thanks them in advance for their contributions.

If you want to join the conversation and have thoughts to offer on any aspects of Asia-related research and teaching, please get in touch.

Professor Edward Aspinall is the president of the Asian Studies Association of Australia. He is a professor of politics who specialises in the study of Southeast Asia, especially Indonesia, at the ANU. He can be contacted at

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