Australian Studies Attract Growing Interest in Chinese Universities
Image Credit: Ian Lang
Australian Studies Attract Growing Interest in Chinese Universities
Prof. David Walker
Image Credit: Ian Lang

Australian Studies Attract Growing Interest in Chinese Universities


Halfway through his three-year term, David Walker of Peking University says the diplomatic and erudite things you’d expect from Australia’s unofficial education ambassador to China.

Student exchanges are up. Nuance is everything. Balancing Beijing’s internal administration with visits to 10 of China’s 30 Australian studies centers is a juggle, but worth it. More remarkable, is that his position – the BHP Billiton chair of Australian studies – exists at all.

Independent of any individual Australian university but linked to them all, unfunded by government but partnered to its key offshore agencies, Walker’s job exists solely because BHP considers $5 million fair value for social capital made good by the holders of the position.

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Such a good investment, that in mid-July Rio Tinto announced it would soon have its own chair of Australian studies – in Tokyo.

Japanese-Sino debate triggers some quill rattling among the 200 invited delegates and attentive Chinese media at the recent 14th Australian Studies Conference in China. Until lunch, when harmony and collegiality resume.

Largely funded by the Big Australian, the conference and endowed chair in China unifies Australia’s influence beyond commercial branding. It persuades at a scale beyond the resources of any individual Australian public agency, or partisanship of any individual Australian university.

Big business invests directly into key foreign universities to win door-opening goodwill in tough markets that revere education.

“When we set up the foundation – and remember this was just an offshoot of the Australia-China Council – we wanted to create a national project,” says Kevin Hobgood-Brown, managing director of the Foundation for Australian Studies in China that administers BHP Billiton’s funds. “It wasn’t going to be associated with (any) state (or) any particular university.”

Asked how Australian vice-chancellors may respond, he says: “Vice-chancellors recognize this as a national initiative. The whole educational sector benefits.”

Corporatization of education is not new, but not often advertised. Whether Australian universities are commercial or public institutions remains a moot point.

Although unquestionably “operating in the public interest,” as the private New York University openly advertises itself, Australian universities, as the Bradley report noted, are by OECD definitions private, not public, institutions.

Through a government lens, defining inputs is driving current deregulation arguments in Australia to level the field between university and non-university providers. For corporate partners, though, outputs are what matter. Big business likes winners.

Feverishly seeking big business support, domestic universities are caught in a bind where threatening government with lowered performance because of lowered public funding undermines critical excellence claims to market.

Their hope must be that increased sector exposure through corporately strengthened offshore representation will benefit all, or at least those best able to reconcile internal funding with external profiling. It would be wrong, though, to think the work of Australian studies scholars and students is driven simply by the business of education. From the conference hosted in the far-northern city of Mudanjiang, the breadth of Chinese scholarship on Australia is exhaustive. China’s main sports university has even made a thoughtful assessment of the professionalization of Australian Rules football. This is due to 28 years of diligence by the Australia China Council, and the cheerful persistence of individuals such as Colin Mackerras, who this year celebrates his 50th teaching year in China. There are 27 Australian studies centers in Chinese universities. They provide unmatched penetration in China compared with other nations’ missions.

Alliance Francaise has 13 centers throughout the mainland. The British Council operates from four diplomatic missions. Germany’s Goethe-Institut has two.

Beyond its extensive but more specialist Fulbright scholarship program, the U.S. has no direct organizational match to these centers. But perhaps it does not need to, as America remains China’s clear first choice for foreign education.

In 2013, just over half of China’s 413,900 offshore students went to the U.S., while Australia picked up almost a quarter of them.

Mackerras points out, though, that the traffic is unbalanced. About 50 Chinese students come to Australia for every Australian student who goes to China – just 3200 Australians in 2013.

He also notes another difference, saying that in Mudanjiang: “Those Australian students who come here will mostly want to study China; they want to study Chinese language. And that’s not a bad thing. But the Chinese students who go the other way already know English, and most of them want to study something else like business, or things like that, rather than Australia.”

But China’s attraction for Australian postgraduates is rising, according to Walker’s assistant at Peking, Neil Thomas. “I was originally interested in Europe … but I realized it’s not as relevant as where Australia’s going,” he says.

Asked if language is the greatest challenge after two and a half years in China, the proficient Mandarin speaker says: “It j takes a lot of work and immersion in Chinese society and having Chinese friends. An Australian studies conference in English is great, but you still have to go to the Chinese ones as well.”

If Walker has his way, the number of Australian studies centers could double over the next 20 years. The University of Queensland-based manager of the Australian studies network in China, David Carter, suggests the increase is inevitable but a doubling of centers might be optimistic.

The roadblocks may not be financial or even political. Chinese and Australian scholars alike quickly return to the commercial difficulties faced by academics everywhere: convincing publishers to print scholarly works.

“This has long been a difficult area — no book on Australia is going to make a publisher rich,” Carter says. “Many universities on the Chinese system do not have a strong research culture, though this is changing rapidly.”

The network plans to establish an Australian studies journal in China over the next year or two, although this may be a challenge.

It may well be that powerful ­opportunities exist for the corporate endowment of media in the traditional book forms required by academics – and the new digital forms devoured by students – defining a new social contract ­between nations.

Ian Lang is an honorary professor of digital media at the University of Melbourne. This article was first published in The Australian’s Higher Education section. It is reprinted with permission.

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