Release type: Speech


Opening address to the National Conference 2014 Asia Education Foundation


The Hon Senator Scott Ryan
Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Education

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It’s a pleasure to join you and deliver the opening address at this National Conference of the Asia Education Foundation on behalf of the Australian Government.

The Asia Education Foundation’s record of working for over twenty years to educate young Australians about our neighbours in our region is an impressive one.

In that time, the region has changed immensely as has Australia, as have the challenges we face and the opportunities offered.

According to the Asialink index, our engagement with Asia has multiplied 4.5 times since 1990, compared with just 2.5 times with the rest of the world.

While Asia is already the most populous region in the world, we must always keep at that top of mind that, in the future, Asia will also be home to the majority of the world’s middle class.

The work of the foundation is more relevant and necessary than ever so that all Australians, and particularly young Australians, can make the most of the opportunities in the region.

One of the most radical changes over the past two decades has been growth in the ease of communication. While people can communicate across countries and continents with ease, they still need the necessary skills and intercultural understanding if they are to take full advantage of the opportunities on offer.

Australian schools and other educational institutions play a critical role in terms of deepening and strengthening our knowledge and understanding of our region and in developing a broad cultural literacy.

By developing these skills, we pave the way for young people to create meaningful international partnerships.

We must equip students to take part in the economic and social opportunities both within the region and globally.

As long ago as 1980, Stephen Fitzgerald emphasised the importance of education for international understanding.

He called for “the study of other civilizations and peoples” in Australian schools recognising the greater understanding that this brings of the nature of human beings.

More recently, a teacher interviewed for the 2013 Deakin University Asia Literacy and the Australian Teaching Workforce study commented that language learning “opens your eyes to cultural differences” and that “it also challenges you to better understand your own culture”.

This latter, reflective, element includes understanding what historian David Walker calls “the Asia within Australia now and in the past”.

The “Asia within Australia now” includes the impact of Asian migration.

Indeed, more people from Asian countries live, study and work in Australia now than ever before.

Close to 1 in 10 Australians identifies with Asian ancestry.

And just a few years ago, in 2010-11, for the first time in Australian history, Britain lost its crown, no pun intended, as our main source of new permanent residents—more people moved to Australia from China than from any other country.
In 2011–12, India was the principal source country of permanent migrants to Australia.

The “Asia within Australia in the past” includes interactions between Indonesian fishermen from Makassar and Indigenous communities in northern Australia before 1788. It includes Chinese miners in the goldfields, and those who came here from the 1950s under the original Colombo Plan.

As well as the support the Asia Education Foundation provides for the delivery of studies of Asia in Australian schools, funded by the Australian Government, there are a number of initiatives underway.
Our signature measure is the New Colombo Plan, providing a strong basis for future people-to-people and institutional linkages within the Asia-Pacific region.

Back in 1950, the architect of the original Colombo Plan, Sir Percy Spender, Minister for External Affairs in the Menzies Government, recognised that Australia’s future depended “upon the political stability of our Asian neighbours, upon the economic wellbeing of Asian people, and upon the development of understanding and friendly relations between Australia and Asia”.

The original Colombo Plan brought thousands of Asian students to Australia.

Many of these students are now in leadership positions in politics, business and academia in their respective countries, and know Australia better for having studied here, both through their own experience, but likely more importantly, the links, relationships and networks established.

The New Colombo Plan will provide many future Australian leaders with a deeper and more nuanced understanding of contemporary Asia, one that is partially only developed by spending time there.

Under the Plan, scholarships and mobility grants offered to undergraduate students for study and internships in the Asia-Pacific region will make them work ready.

They will underpin the development of professional connections in the region and their study experience will link directly to career opportunities.

The pilot phase of the New Colombo Plan has already commenced supporting Australian undergraduates going to four destinations: Indonesia, Japan, Singapore and Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.

In Indonesia, for example, the Foreign Minister Dr Marty Natalegawa, who studied in Australia himself, has offered to host New Colombo Plan interns at Indonesia's foreign ministry.

If Australians are to make their way in the world, we cannot simply rely on other people speaking our language.

But, and I realise this is not news to this audience, we are at a very low point in our engagement with languages other than English in our schools and tertiary institutions.

We are one of the most successful culturally diverse societies in the world, yet the take-up of languages in our schools and tertiary institutions has been in decline for a long time.

In 2010, only 11 per cent of students at Year 12 were enrolled to study a language other than English.

The Government is determined to revive languages education and we recognise our leadership role in achieving the ambitious target of 40 per cent of Year 12 studying a language other than English in a decade.

One of the problems with language learning in Australia has been the piece-meal approach in the way language education is offered.

So we are aiming to develop continuous access or a ‘cradle to grave’ approach to language education from early childhood through to senior secondary school years and beyond.
The ability to learn a language is greatest in a child’s early years, and early exposure to language learning provides a platform for encouraging learning in the later years of education.

Introducing foreign language exposure in preschool provides a longer period for which a child’s language learning can take place.

The recent Budget delivered a commitment for a one year pilot of online foreign language learning for children in preschool programmes, known as ‘Early Learning Languages Australia’ or ELLA.

It is envisaged that up to 40 providers of pre-school programmes across Australia will participate in the trial in 2015, with children studying one language for the calendar year through the online programme.

We will also continue to prioritise the development of the national languages curriculum for study in mainstream schools.

New funding has been provided to develop the curricula for Hindi and Turkish, as well as for the historically significant languages of Classical Greek and Latin, and for AUSLAN.

The addition of these languages not only enables a greater choice and diversity for students but also signals the importance of language education itself across a broad range of languages.

Confirming our election commitment, we have also engaged the Asia Education Foundation to undertake comprehensive research with stakeholders into ways to encourage more secondary students to continue language study in senior secondary years.

The research will inform all Australian governments on practical, implementable ways they could work with stakeholders so high school students can continue foreign language study in senior secondary years.

The Foundation has also done great work providing support to schools to foster connections within the region through successful models like the Building Relationships through Intercultural Dialogue and Growing Engagement, known as the BRIDGE project.

BRIDGE provides an important tool for teachers to positively engage students in learning about Asia and building intercultural understanding.

As part of the BRIDGE programme we’ve funded additional Asia literacy projects in Australian schools:

  • The Leading 21st Century Schools: Engage with Asia project supports principals and school leaders to develop strategies and resources to support the implementation of the Australian Curriculum and encourage students to engage with Asia.

Since 2008, the programme has supported 1100 principals to build Asian Literacy in their schools and promote within school principal networks.

  • The School to School Partnerships with Business project is helping to link businesses, students, teachers and school communities within Australia and internationally, building upon the success of the Asia Literacy Ambassadors project.

This project has provided exposure to 324 schools, had 372 Ambassadors registered and reached over 18,000 school children.

It should also be noted that the Teacher Education Ministerial Advisory Group led by Professor Greg Craven has been asked by Minister Pyne to look at foreign languages education, so teachers of these subjects have sufficient depth of content knowledge and relevant pedagogical expertise.

And our Teach for Australia programme which fast tracks high calibre non-teaching graduates into disadvantaged secondary schools, will shortly include the aim of 40 per cent of participants recruited into the programme specialising in foreign languages.

The higher education reforms announced in the Budget will also have a positive impact in this area.

In the Budget, we announced that from 2016 the demand driven funding system will be expanded to include subsidised student places in all diploma, advanced diploma and associate degree courses offered by accredited higher education institutions.

This means universities will be able to expand their diploma of language programmes on the basis of student demand.

Now the way will be open for universities to encourage more students to pursue a diploma of languages alongside their degree.

We estimate that freeing up places in sub-bachelor courses will create around 35,000 additional student places per year by 2018, a substantial boost to choice and opportunity for students across Australia.

Professor John Hajek of the University of Melbourne who is also President of the Languages and Cultures Network for Australian Universities, has recently said that “stand-alone subsidised diplomas could attract fresh recruits to language courses and give universities an incentive to open new programs.”

He also said “the ability to supply student demand with uncapped diplomas might encourage some institutions to bring in new language programs, or expand existing ones”.

So this is a very positive development for our future development in languages education.

I believe we are at an important moment in continuing our deepening engagement with Asia as the Government begins to roll out the New Colombo Plan, rebuild the international education sector and revive languages education in this country.

The Asia Education Foundation has played an important role for more than two decades in this area, and I thank you for the invaluable contribution you will make through this conference and in the years ahead.

I am sure your discussions over the next few days will do much to contribute to greater understanding and progress in promoting Asian language education and engagement in the future.