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Chair for Asian Century


The Australian    14/11/2012 


Picture: Kym Smith, Source: The Australian

By Ian Lang

Prime Minister Julia Gillard greets BHP chief Marius Kloppers as the chair was unveiled last year.  

EIGHTEEN months after Julia Gillard announced the inaugural BHP Billiton Chair of Australian Studies at Peking University, an appointment may be imminent, according to Kevin Hobgood-Brown, managing director of the Foundation for Australian Studies in China which makes the appointment.

The Australian government will be hoping the foundation is able to leverage further industry participation. The Prime Minister needs success stories to match Asian Century rhetoric before the next federal election.

The chair is touted as Australia's "education ambassador" to China, although non-academics have been equally welcome to apply.

FASIC, a not-for-profit organisation, is funded by a consortium of private and public sources, including tertiary umbrella group Universities Australia. Its six directors are evenly balanced between education and natural resource expertise.

The chair will provide an industrial research focus for Australia's 20-year-old Australian Studies network of more than 30 centers hosted by Chinese universities. The centres vary in scale from department size to

one person operations.

Discussions with Chinese academic staff in the network's largest center at Beijing Foreign Studies University suggest renewed development of the Australian Studies network is a two-way street, due to China's

own support of the Australian network.

Each hosting Chinese university pays most of its own Australian Studies center's costs with accompanying levels of local Chinese academic direction. Studies favor the humanities. Centers and scholars are topped up by Australia China Council grants, and potentially by new strategic research funding from the 18-month-old


The manager of the Australian Studies network, Patrick White specialist professor David Carter, notes that there is no reporting relationship between the new chair and his own ongoing role with the University of Queensland, which is contracted to manage the network in China.

"(They're) separate operations but both helping to augment the Australian Studies network as best we can," he writes in a recent email.

"No ACC (Australia China Council) money will go towards the chair."

Jockeying for resources between camps seems likely though. Australia is adapting to reduced Chinese university enrollments domestically by competing for China's most talented researchers.

Competition is not just from ivy-league US providers but specialist corporate and government research centers around the world that meet China's strategic partner criteria in a range of fields, from cyber-security to weather control.

Expanding Australia's historically arts-led public diplomacy to address China's own technical research priorities will require a deft touch. China's declared priorities in high-tech/high-value manufacturing and cleaner food and environments, for example, are real-world issues for Australia too, and demand serious industry and academic co-operation.

However, China's stated intent to develop a more civil society should maintain demand for the network's humanities offer. The offer could become more attractive with a stronger presence in international law,

political science, and teacher training in particular.

Creative cultural industries are almost absent from the current Australian Studies mix, despite their foregrounding in China's current five-year plan. China's strategy is to encourage development of home-grown intellectual property using the Middle Kingdom's most abundant resource -- people. It's an area where Australia's visual

and performing arts and screen training has been independently rated above world standard, and is ready to grow beyond cultural subsistence, under the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, to meet Chinese commercial demand head on.

With China's smartphone usage among the highest in the world too, leveraging maximum impact from Australia's investment in the network will need an equally smart digital strategy. More than 400 million Chinese are online at any time, dwarfing Western countries, and directly influencing government policy in Beijing.

Appointing the chair will not be easy. With a legal background in China and mining consultancy, Hobgood-Brown suggests the appointee will also need to "manage stakeholder expectations" to ensure the position's powerful but diverse backers are prepared for the long haul.

The president of Universities Australia, University of Melbourne vice-chancellor Glyn Davis says: "The sector warmly welcomes the chair at Peking University but recognises finding the right combination of personal skills and appropriate disciplinary area will be challenging.

"This decision will be much watched by all who seek a deeper engagement between Australian academia and our Chinese counterparts."

Rigorously academic Peking University is historically likely to seek a top academician and sinologist for the role, with a strong Beijing focus.

Australia's public partners have a broader whole-of-China mandate. Like Universities Australia, the federal government is still keen to rekindle flagging export enrollments and restore education to the country's third-biggest earner. China's untilled western provinces are a tempting new market as they face their own transition to higher-value manufacturing and knowledge industries.

Influential industry partners will be angling for higher-yield research partnerships. Both BHP and Australia need solutions for post-mining survival. A candidate could be consumed meeting any one of these agendas, and at the very heart of China's capital, deemed successful if they do.

This public-private partnership style of appointment carries risk but also potentially high returns. It hinges on Australian industry being convinced to sustainably share national education export and research funding with government as well as its benefits.

In the meantime, Australia's current studies network faces compelling competition for soft-power influence in China from the US and European networks such as the well-resourced Goethe-Institute in a country that has more Volkswagens than Germany.

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