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Building China’s Expertise: How to Fix the Generational Pipeline

Published 29 Apr 2024

Recently, Australia has seen a sharp decline in university students’ involvement in advanced language programs. Among these, Mandarin is suffering significantly, with a 2023 report on Australia-China capabilities finding that only 17 Australian students graduated from a Chinese honours program from 2017 to 2021. On Tuesday, April 23rd, Professor Anne McLaren addressed AIIA NSW to ask “how Australia is faring in the next generation of learning and how we can ensure the next generation can engage with Asia and the broader world.”

Professor McLaren has over 30 years of engagement with Chinese Studies. Before becoming an Honorary Professorial Fellow at the Asia Institute for the University of Melbourne, she worked there as the Professor of Chinese Studies for twenty years. Her China expertise has fostered a robust portfolio of publications, and during her career she has contributed to 106 scholarly works.

Her central point was that, as China becomes ever more important globally, it is pivotal that Australia re-engage with the nation’s language and culture. She began by investigating past initiatives led by the government and the private sector. These had encouraged students to undertake advanced language programs. She had herself received the benefits from past government initiatives when, in the 1970s, “visionaries in the Australian government and at major universities were becoming more prepared to engage with multiculturalism.” When she completed her degree in Asian Studies at ANU, it came with a requirement to study an Asian language. Upon graduation, Professor McLaren visited China for the first time in 1978 with the help of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, when her interest in exploring the country was encouraged and nurtured. Her anecdotes illuminated the remarkable attention and funding directed towards accelerating students’ knowledge and understanding of Asian language and culture. Since then, domestic politics and businesses have strayed from employing initiatives to boost cultural engagement. Those past initiatives offered possible solutions for the current problem.

Professor McLaren then focused on investigating the present enrollment situation in advanced language programs. With the drastic increase at major Australian universities in international students, predominantly of Asian origin, Asian studies and language courses are seeing fewer true beginners joining. Instead, the classes are becoming dominated by students with background experience with these languages and cultures. Combined with a general drop off in honours program enrollments, this is creating a severe lack of Australian engagement in advanced language programs. Professor McLaren cites the “marketisation of education” as a core influence on decreasing honours-level participation in language programs. Instead, universities focus on the more lucrative masters programs, which focus less on language skills.

The presentation concluded with discussing what we can do now to enhance advanced language learning. Professor McLaren offered solutions designed to promote funding and resources for these programs. Scholarships alongside immersion programs in China and Taiwan could motivate students to undertake courses to develop their understanding of Asian cultures. In addition, increased funding to schools with high numbers of Chinese students could further strengthen their language skills and connection to their culture. Professor McLaren emphasised the importance of businesses and the government in promoting the value of language skills. Implementing a national approach would demonstrate Australia’s commitment to its “most important bilateral relationship”.

During the question and answer session, the audience was curious to hear about India’s growing role in the international community and whether Hindi and Urdu should be implemented into Asian language courses. Professor McLaren responded that, in general, few students are interested in studying any Asian language. Adding another option to the curriculum might further lower the level of engagement Mandarin is receiving. However, as the Indian population of Australia grows, McLaren agreed that enthusiasm for advanced language programs in Hindi and Urdu may develop.

When questioned about the future role of Confucius Institutes, Professor McLaren said she does not believe Australia needs them. She accepted that China was within its rights to set them up, but agreed with an audience member’s comment that it had been inappropriate for the Chinese government to want to appoint their teaching staff.

The event concluded with a final question on how employment opportunities in Hong Kong could serve as a driving force for language studies. Professor McLaren responded that, from her experience, students had previously enjoyed working in Hong Kong but fear of the Chinese government now makes this less appealing.  She therefore did not currently see career opportunities in Hong Kong as a promotional tool for Chinese language studies.


Report by Paris Fleury, AIIA NSW intern


Professor Anne McLaren and Paris Fleury