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Academic says Australian university courses in Asia are in danger of sacrificing their long-term reputation.

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Thursday, 19 May 2005



FRAN KELLY:   Australian universities are in danger of sacrificing their long-term reputation in Asia. That’s the view of an Australian expert on education who now works in Singapore. Allan Luke is Dean of Singapore’s National Institute of Education, one of Asia’s peak education centres, and he says some universities are providing such low quality courses in Asia that Australia’s reputation for solid education is at risk. He is about to arrive in Australia to talk about maintaining quality in our education. Di Martin reports.


DI MARTIN:   Allan Luke says unless Australia pays a lot more attention to the standard of its university courses offered in Asia it will lose its reputation for quality education.


ALLAN LUKE:   If you begin taking in the fish that John West doesn’t want, that is, you take in O Level or Year 10 students with two passes or in fact you are giving Polytechnic students three years of credit for what was basically Year 12, what happens is the word gets out on the streets throughout Taiwan, throughout Hong Kong and Japan here, that basically that university is dumbing down its standards in pursuit of market share.


DI MARTIN:   Allan Luke is in a unique position to know. He is a former Dean at Queensland University when it investigated providing courses in Asia and he’s now working at Nanyang Technical University in Singapore watching how Australian institutions and graduates are faring in the region. What he’s seeing isn’t pretty.


ALLAN LUKE:   You can’t take masses of low-entry students on the one hand and then turn around to a high-end government ministry and say, ‘We’re credible biotechnological researchers,’ or ‘We’re credible in the engineering field,’ when you look like a glorified high school.


DI MARTIN:   Professor Luke doesn’t want to name names and says the worst offenders are in the minority, about 20 per cent of Australian universities offering courses in the region. He says many Australian institutions are still highly regarded but he’s worried whether that good reputation can be maintained. Professor Luke says the threat comes partly from Australian government funding cuts to the tertiary sector, especially under the coalition government but the threat also come from Australia’s competitors. While Canberra has been cutting back, Asian governments have been pouring money into their universities.  Alan Luke.


ALLAN LUKE:   Let me tell you a story that a ranking minister from an East Asian country told me at one juncture: they said to me, ‘Look, you in Australia, with all of your wool and your bauxite and your aluminium and your silica and your gold and your uranium, et cetera, you can afford to have an education system that’s 10 to 15 years behind the times partly because of the nature of your economy, or you may think that you can afford that.’ Then they turned to me and they said, ‘Countries like ours, if we don’t have world-class, top notch, state-of-the-art educational systems, we actually risk our very survival.’


DI MARTIN:    Professor Luke emphasises that Australia’s future survival in a globalising world will depend on a high-quality and competitive education sector and not only in its exports to Asia. There’s no doubt Australian universities are struggling to accommodate large numbers of overseas students needed to plug the ever-widening funding gap. Complaints are coming from both sides with overseas students saying Australian education standards and support services fall far below expectations and Australian students saying teaching standards are falling and class sizes increasing to accommodate the visitors.


But Allan Luke says the issue goes beyond the tertiary sector. He argues that if we want Australia to have a future in the burgeoning economies of Asia, Australia needs to rethink its attitude to Asian studies and the study of Asian languages at all levels of education.


ALLAN LUKE:   Every Singaporean kid learns English as a medium instruction but is required to study their mother tongue for language maintenance for 10 to 12 years. That’s mandatory. A second language acquisition, second language mastery, is mandatory for university entry in a lot of places throughout Asia.


DI MARTIN:   How critical is this question of knowing about Asia and knowing a second language?


ALLAN LUKE:   I don’t think it’s negotiable. If you want to do high-level or top-end negotiations, business negotiations but also just in terms of even the small business person trying to set up shop here or trying to do import/export work or trying to work—even the middle level civil servant—trying to work government to government, all it would take is any Australian businessperson, if they haven’t, standing in the Bund in Shanghai or visiting Beijing, to know that these are where the capital flows of the next 50 to 75 years are going to be flowing. So business is going to be relying upon business diplomacy, mass media, culture industries are going to be relying upon an engagement with this part of the world. That requires outward looking, cosmopolitan and multilingual and multicultural Australians. That generation is there. Now if that gets nipped in the bud or put back in the box through cutbacks in support of Asian languages, a failure to study Asian history and Asian culture and so forth, Australia ultimately could have trouble in the long run.


FRAN KELLY:   Professor Allan Luke, the Dean of National Institute of Education at Nanyang Technical University in Singapore. And that report from Di Martin.