Kathleen Kirby, Executive Director of Asialink and Asia Education Foundation writes:

Geoff Miller asks if there is a jobs pay-off for Asia literacy? The Australian Industry Group and Asialink undertook a survey this year to better understand Australian business preparedness for doing business in Asia. 74 percent of businesses surveyed indicated interest in expanding their businesses in Asia within 12 months. 56 percent indicated that their Asian operations were already highly or extremely important to them.

However business acknowledged that the opportunities offered by the Asian Century will not materialise by themselves. Respondents told us in no uncertain terms, that their prospects in Asia are strong but there are large gaps in their experience and skills. For example, more than half of Australian businesses surveyed that currently operate in Asia have little Board and senior executive experience of Asia and or Asian languages.

Australian business with Asia is no longer limited to the mining boom. In fact the Asialink Index: ANZ Services Report 2010 shows that the Services sector is our most rapid area of growth in international trade — with trade between Australia and Asia greater than with the rest of the world combined. Hard to see how education, transport, finance and business services will flourish with no Asia literacy.

Readers may be shocked to know that currently fewer than 6 percent of Australian Year 12 students study an Asian language. And in Mandarin, 94 percent of Year 12 students are of Chinese background — leaving a scant 300 students nationally each year learning Chinese who are not of Chinese heritage. In Indonesian, we are shedding 10,000 students a year for the past five years. By 2020 we will have no students studying Indonesian at Year 12 if this pattern continues.

Then there is the issue that the push for Asian languages and Asia knowledge in schools is not driven solely by a push for more jobs. School education has a wider brief than that. It aims to build the social capital of our nation and equip our young people to be confident and successful local and global citizens in their increasingly interconnected world. Young Australians who possess a regional and global mindset and skill set will be better equipped to build a creative, prosperous and socially cohesive Australia and develop harmonious regional and global communities that can work together to resolves the issue that effect us all. In most comparable education systems around the world today most students exit schooling bi or even trilingual and intercultural understanding is a priority core capability.

Andrew Carr makes the good point that we might do better to focus on building demand for Asia literacy than continuing to focus on supply of teachers and programs in our schools. I agree that we do need demand to support supply. In fact 'Building Demand' is one of three key areas of action in the Federal Government's current National Asian Languages and Studies in Schools Program (NALSSP).

The trouble is that its not either/or. No point in building demand if there is not the supply of teachers and schools to service it. Building supply in school education cannot be achieved without long term planning and investment. So please, lets not say that 'the market will take care of itself' once demand for Asia skills is high — unless you are prepared to wait another two or three generations of school children before Asia literacy can be delivered in schools.

Five year-olds starting school in Australia today enter their adult lives in 2025 just at the time China and India are predicted to resume their positions as the world's leading economies. Will those young Australians be prepared to maximize the opportunities and minimize the risks of the Asian Century? At current efforts, with NALSSP funding set to cease in 2012, the future doesn't look too good.