Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Education About East Asia Under Threat in the UK

This is the text of an article in the October 27 edition of the Financial Times, written by Dr. Peter Cave of the University of Hong Kong. No copyright infringement is intended.

Tony Blair, the British prime minister, is fond of talking about the opportunities offered by the rise of Asian giants such as China and India. Yet is Britain itself preparing adequately for Asia's growing importance? Not in the field of education, at least.

Few readers of the FT will need to be convinced of the huge role that China will play in the 21st century. Even so, it can still be a shock to go there and encounter the evidence of change on the ground. Some parts of Beijing and Shanghai could be Tokyo. Brand name shops offer designer goods at London prices. Last year, amid the classical gardens of Suzhou, I enjoyed coffee at £1.80 a cup in a stylish cafe whose menu was only in Chinese. Wake up and smell, is the message.

Nor can the rest of Asia be neglected. Fifteen years of stagnation in the Japanese economy has led many outside Asia to transfer their interest from Japan to China. To assume that Japan is subsiding into insignificance would be foolish, however. In fact, the political changes over the past decade may well signal a more assertive Japan on the world stage. The painful choices that Japan faces are resulting in a new politics marked by real policy debate and party discipline, showcased by the recent general election with its portentous landslide victory for the decisive and flamboyant Junichiro Koizumi. The rise of the rest of east Asia will only increase Japan's importance as a major international player.

All this ignores the other superpower, India, not to mention the Koreas or south-east Asia. Yet how is the next generation being prepared to deal with this new reality by the British education system? It is not. In fact, British universities have beencutting back on their east Asia programmes. Last year, the closure of Durham University's Department of East Asian Studies went ahead despite a storm of protest, the latest in a series of cuts that has seen the disappearance of Japanese Studies centres at Stirling and Essex. Now comes the news that the School of Oriental and African Studies plans to replace its specialist librarians in Chinese and Japanese with more junior staff.

In the competitive environment created for universities by successive governments, these cuts and closures make a kind of perverted sense. Governments want efficient and concentrated use of resources and try to achieve this by rewarding excellent research and high student numbers. The system rewards individual universities for ignoring thenational interest and pursuing their own, by getting rid of what is expensive or outside the fields where their most outstanding research is being done. As a result, Asian Studies has been hit by a double whammy. First, it is a relatively expensive area to fund and its student numbers are not high, partly because of the difficulty of learning Chinese or Japanese. Second, it is a small area
that can easily be hit hard by a few closures of departments whose research is very good, but not at the exemplary level that alone attracts significant government funding.

The twist in the tail is that even as such cuts and closures are going ahead, some universities, such as Bristol, are setting up new east Asian programmes. The trouble is that such programmes need to put in place a fresh infrastructure that takes years or decades to build. This scrap-and-build approach to higher education is wasteful and inefficient, besides being terrible for morale among east Asian experts.

The situation at school level is possibly even worse. The crisis in modern language teaching overall has been laid bare, as enrolments plummet in the wake of the decision to make languages optional at GCSE. It remains to be seen whether the government's National Languages Strategy willenable enhanced abilities in Asian, as well as European languages. In particular, there is a strong argument for introducing Chinese on a much expanded scale at schools, perhaps even from primary school. Who can doubt that in 25 years time, Britain will need people who can use Chinese and are well educated in the nuances of Chinese culture? But if we want those people in 2030, then we cannot afford to wait before setting up the systems to educate them.

The government has declared that special help will be given to subjects of national importance in higher education, including Asian Studies. This must be delivered. Britain needs a national educational strategy to prepare us for the rise of Asia in the coming century. Otherwise, 2030 will find us asking why we weren't ready.