Dr Michael Barr said Australians needed the chance to develop language skills and a routine familiarity with the region.
“Universities aren’t doing enough in Asian studies. In some places it’s treated as a cash cow,” he said.
“The education sector should be leading and it’s not. Universities need to restructure degrees so studying languages and bits of Asian culture becomes routine.
“Until we get to the stage where we have a familiarity with Asian culture and language approaching that of footy we will continue to have engagement that is managed from the top down.”
Dr Barr said Australia could not afford to only consider this in the short term because Asia would always be next door.
“Asian studies and languages were booming across the country until the Asian financial crisis (in the 1990s), then everyone said `what’s the point in doing it?’
“Asia is just as important to Australia in the bad times as it is in good and we need to ensure the commitment to making the relationship work is bipartisan and enduring.”
University of Adelaide Confucius Institute director Professor Mobo Gao said it was worrying that the number of students learning Chinese as a second language in schools and at university was declining.
“There must be a change of mentality and mindset of people here,” he said.
“Australia is not a European outpost; we are part of Asia. They are not the other, they are us.
“We need to get to a point where we don’t think we are a superior people, race or religion. Only then can we have genuine engagement.”
UniSA Australian Centre for Asian Business director Professor Ying Zhu said SA universities and schools were doing well teaching Asian studies and languages, while industry and the government were making progress engaging with the region.
“(But) at the moment it’s all in a silo. We have to find out how can we pull them together,” he said.
“The SA government and education sector must work together and work out the strategic plan.” (Herald Sun)