The UNSW agreement provides reciprocal exchange places for a combined total of 40 students every year from each institution over a period of five years. It’s a very welcome initiative.
Languages in secondary schools
If the tertiary sector, through the New Columbo Plan, is alive to the need to educate young Australians about Asia how then is the secondary school system addressing this challenge? From my own experience as a parent of two children under 13 and observing that of our friends who have children across a number of different Melbourne schools (private and public sector), the answer would seem to be mixed.
For our own part, both our kids have been learning Mandarin since Prep. Granted this has been more about a cultural education than really learning the language but it has sparked their interest and they may pick it up more seriously in the future (at least I’m encouraging them to).
Contrast this with one of my friends whose children have been learning Greek at their local primary school (located in an area that historically had a large Greek population). The school council has recently decided to switch to Mandarin, which has caused a bit of controversy. But the school community is strong in its resolve that Mandarin is the future. Now their challenge is to find a great teacher!
And herein lies one of the big challenges: the education system has to now keep pace with the growing demand in schools for Asian languages. I spoke at a Modern Language Teachers’ Association of Victoria event in 2012 about the importance of foreign language capability to ANZ. At the beginning of my speech I asked the room of around 50 secondary school language teachers in the audience how many of them taught an Asian language and one person raised her hand. This is just one data point but if it is indicative then the supply of qualified Asian language teachers will be a challenge to be overcome.
In his 2012 budget reply speech, the then leader of the opposition (now Prime Minister) Tony Abbott, announced an intention to have every pre-school child study a foreign language to help prepare Australia for the Asian boom. “If Australians want to make their way in the world, they cannot rely on other people speaking their language” he said.
Abbott promised 40 per cent of Year 12 students would be studying a second language but that this shift would be generational as foreign language teachers would need to be mobilised and teachers trained.
I applaud this vision but as my first boss used to say “I’ll give you a cent for the idea and a dollar for the execution”.
Jonathan Harvey is group general manager, executive development at ANZ.