THE Prime Minister’s special adviser on Asia has blasted the quality of Australia’s education system, saying it has created Australians so ill-informed that many who visit Bali don’t realise they are in Indonesia.
Dr Ken Henry, the former Treasury secretary, told a Canberra forum that debate about education was substandard and going backwards.
”It may be that because of what’s happening in our region a sense of complacency has developed,” he said. ”The fact is the economy is going pretty well, very well by international standards, but that has probably encouraged that view that somehow or another this is all going to fall into our laps.
”There is also a view … that we don’t need to do much ourselves in language because everybody in the region is going to speak English. That’s just nonsense. It doesn’t go down well when you say it in Beijing, or even in Tokyo.”
Dr Henry said he found it ”quite extraordinary” that fewer high school students studied Indonesian today than in the 1970s. ”It is particularly extraordinary when so many more of us are travelling to Indonesia, although I sometimes wonder how many of those people who travel to Bali realise that they are in Indonesia,” he said.
Australia was doing well at the moment because it was selling a ”homogeneous minerals commodity to a minerals-hungry industrialist”, but it would soon need to design and market sophisticated personal services to what would become the biggest middle class in history: ”Thirty years from now the expectation is Asia will have 3 billion middle-class people.
”We will need the cultural understanding to negotiate and develop personal, business, government and institutional relationships in languages other than English. We will need an education system – right from the very earliest years of schooling – that acknowledges and recognises Asian culture and history, equipping the next generations with the ability to operate more effectively in an Asia-centred world.”
Universities were failing to properly prepare students for an Asian future in part because the funding formula encouraged them to ”get as many bums on seats as they can”.
”But in going around the country talking to vice-chancellors it is clear they, too, are concerned about the smaller number of students coming into the universities showing an interest in Asian studies.”
The part of Australia’s education system that should be cherished was the part that produced graduates who could think creatively, although Dr Henry said he wasn’t sure whether that happened because of the education system or in spite of it.
”In architecture firms, in other firms, our creativity is valued in Asia,” he said. ”There is a risk we will misdiagnose our education problem and force our children into a more siloed learning environment that produces something different.”