Reflections on China Studies in Australia


In March, the Australian Academy of Humanities released a policy report assessing the state of China Studies in Australia. The report scrutinises the development of China Studies in three key areas: teaching, research, and knowledge dissemination. Undoubtedly, the report has sparked discussions within the field, and as a researcher, I would like to offer my thoughts after reading it.

Disclaimer: The following thoughts are my personal views and do not represent any organisation.

Teaching China Studies in Australia

As someone who has been studying teaching and learning in various Australian universities, I found this report particularly relevant to my research interests. According to the report, only eight universities in Australia offer China-related subjects. However, it also acknowledges the challenge of quantifying the number of courses based solely on their titles.

The report highlights both strengths and weaknesses within Australia’s China Studies programs. It commends the solid foundation of general knowledge about China present in most universities. Subjects such as public policymaking, political economy, history, and international business typically include one or two lectures dedicated to China. This demonstrates the importance of Australia-China relations and fosters interdisciplinary development within China Studies.

However, the report also raises concerns about the limited availability of honours and research courses. In fact, the decline in China Studies enrolment suggests that students may be growing hesitant to pursue research in this field. The report does not delve into the reasons behind this trend. However, factors such as future career prospects, challenges in data collection, and a lack of robust China Studies PhD research programs may contribute to this decline. It would be beneficial for China Studies Centres across Australia to conduct an in-depth investigation into this issue.

One notable aspect of studying China Studies in Australia is the wide range of Chinese language courses offered by tertiary education providers. As mentioned in the report, language and translation subjects dominate most China Studies majors in Australia. This finding aligns with my own research project from last year. Consequently, graduates of these programs often attain proficiency in the Chinese language, particularly Mandarin.

However, it is important to recognise that not everyone working on or with China necessarily needs to be fluent in Chinese. Australia’s China Studies programs would benefit from embracing cross-disciplinary approaches to cater to a broader range of career paths.

Research capability

Australia, being the fourth highest contributor to English language research on China, has a diverse range of top fields of publication. The report finds that China Studies research study in Australia has covered various important areas. This includes public health, public and foreign policy, business, and finance.

However, the report highlights some critical research capability gaps. In particular, the understanding PRC history, literature, national governance, policy processes, and elite politics needs to be improved. This issue is not unique to Australia but exists in other countries as well. The difficulty of accessing sources in China, especially in areas like PRC history and elite politics, contributes to these gaps.

The report specifically raises concerns about the limited funding provided by the Australian Research Council (ARC) for China-related research. It notes a decline in ARC grant funding for core China research since 2010, both in terms of the number of projects and the amount of funding. However, this is not solely an issue within the China Studies field. It is generally challenging to secure research funding in Area Studies due to its research significance for the country. Furthermore, the Australian government has been reducing funding for humanities and social sciences research and education. Nonetheless, it is crucial that the report highlights this problem.

Think tanks and public knowledge

In addition to academia, the report explores Australia’s China knowledge in think tanks and policy institutes, examining how they communicate their research findings on China Studies to the general public. While several top-tier research organisations focus on China, it is surprising to learn from the report that stakeholders within both the government and universities report limited uptake of China research by government and industry.

This issue may be related to another concern raised in the report: the size of the job market. Many of Australia’s most China-capable young individuals are not developing and updating their knowledge in China-relevant roles. It is challenging for Australian China experts to find opportunities for long-term research collaboration on or with China in the industry, which can be attributed, once again, to the lack of research funding.

Final remarks

This timely report evaluates China Studies in Australia, given the critical state of Australia-China relations. Although there are still several areas in the report that require future research, such as course structure, curriculum, research topics, and concerns regarding foreign interference. I, as a researcher, hope to witness the field being valued and making further progress. I eagerly anticipate the entry of more young China Studies experts into the field.

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