So Much for the Asian Century: Loss of Language Programs at Australian Universities

The University of Canberra and Curtin University both recently announced that they would be cutting their language programs. At Canberra, Japanese, Mandarin and Spanish will disappear while at Curtin, Japanese, Mandarin and a major in Asian Studies may be abandoned. These cuts are very unfortunate since it leaves these universities with no language classes or majors at all. It is also surprising considering the government’s push for a focus on Asian cultures and languages. Indonesian programs have also been closing in Australia, though luckily the programs at La Trobe and University of New South Wales have been saved (for now). The University of Western Sydney is keeping their Chinese and Japanese programs, but doing away with Arabic, Italian and Spanish.

Low enrollment is always the excuse for cutting programs, and universities claim that students can just take the classes at neighboring institutions and that it will actually strengthen those programs. Brisbane Universities Languages Alliance exists for this purpose and students enrolled at any of the three universities in Brisbane can take language classes at another and have the credits count toward their degree. The University of Canberra suggests that students simply take classes cross-institutionally at ANU, while students of Curtin can take language classes at the University of Western Australia. However, this rarely actually happens as David Hill points out and “it is a myth the closure of a language department at one university strengthens those of rivals.” It is much more likely that students will just stop taking language classes altogether. Trying to attend language classes at a different university (which most likely aren’t even required since no Australian university requires a foreign language for a BA) is too much of a hassle when factoring in the time for the commute and conflicting timetables among universities. Even students at my university who are based at the city campuses are less likely to travel 20-30 minutes to the humanities campus to take a foreign language.Open-Universities-Australia-OUA_large

Even though online class enrollments have been increasing, very few Australian universities offer language classes online. The University of New England is “the only [university] in Australia to offer a full programme of French by distance education.” My university offers first year Italian as an online course through Open Universities Australia, but you cannot obtain a Bachelor of Arts in Italian or any other language from OU. Perhaps if Australian universities invested in online education, enrollments would increase in certain subjects? With so many rural students and working students, I’m always surprised that distance education is not more of a priority in Australia.

Australian universities will be hit hard with a $2.8 billion cut next year in the most ridiculous decision ever made on education funding as the money will be used to pay for K-12 school reforms instead. Australian universities could save a lot of money by decreasing the astronomical pay of vice chancellors and putting their money towards academics instead of rugby. VCs should really be paid the same amount as casual staff so they know what it’s like to be overworked and underpaid rather than the opposite. Luckily most Australian universities do not have any involvement in sports teams so academics tends to be the focus, yet most of the money still goes to a few at the top rather than the teaching and research staff who do the most work for the university. Cutting language programs should be a last resort since universities are supposed to provide students with an “international and intercultural educational experience” but I suppose we can do that in English since all seven billion humans speak English natively and belong to the same Anglophone culture, right?

  • “Australian universities could save a lot of money by decreasing the astronomical pay of vice chancellors and putting their money towards academics instead of rugby.”

    Hey, sounds a lot like American universities, if you replace “rugby” with “football”. I’m sorry to hear language programs are being cut – it’s always sad when that happens. At my alma mater, the Russian program was cut in 1992 or so, once the Soviet Union fell. I was lucky because the administration didn’t fire the Russian professors, so we still had classes, just no major.

    I really can’t conceive of cutting language programs, especially in major, important languages like Chinese, Spanish, Arabic, or Russian. Not that less commonly taught languages aren’t important, but those four I listed are all official UN languages AND two are languages of members of the Security Council, for goodness sakes. I know you didn’t mention Russian being cut, but the other three are being cut in Australia, I personally know of Russian programs that were cut in the US… Ugh, it’s so frustrating when this happens! 🙁

    • In some ways, yes they are like American universities. I am really glad that Australia doesn’t have “college football” though. It’s only a few unis that sponsor sports teams, but still, that money should be spent on academics since that’s what universities are for!

      Only a handful of Aussie unis still teach Russian. Japanese, French, and Italian still seem to be the most common, with Mandarin increasing over the past few years. Interest in Spanish has also been increasing thanks to Latin America. Mandarin and Spanish have both been dropped at some unis though, so it’s difficult to really say what’s most popular and why.

      It is extremely frustrating. I still prefer Australian universities but the bureaucracy and administration are the same everywhere since money is always the number one priority.

  • Samantha

    “Low enrollment is always the excuse for cutting programs”, I actually was one of those students who quit French classes at my university very quickly. If the foreign language programs are taught like mine was, then I can completely see why there’s low enrollments. Nowadays I’m quite fluent in French, but it definitely wasn’t thanks to my university class – I felt inspired to write about the topic and thought you might be interested