This year marks a quarter of a century since former prime minister Paul Keating declared the “destiny” of Australia lay in Asia and the Pacific. Keating’s successors have followed this advice and kept Asia and in some ways Asian languages, firmly in the public consciousness, perhaps most theatrically by Julia Gillard government’s commissioning of the 2012 white paper Australia in the Asian century.

Gillard’s paper marked the nation’s commitment to Asian language study as key to helping the Australia of the future flourish, in both trade and diplomacy. Uncommonly in recent Australian politics, the commitment has proven somewhat bipartisan: Tony Abbott also pledged to raise the standard of school students graduating with Asian language proficiency during his tenure. This is a reflection on both major parties’ foresight in recognising how Australians can benefit from the continent to our north. “Asia Rising,” after all, is no empty moniker.

Therefore, 25 years on from Keating’s vision, the question must be tentatively raised: what state is Asian language study in today?

The short answer is, a poor one. For all the funding spent by state and federal governments on increasing enrollment, just 11% of secondary students graduate with a language other than English. The most recent Asian language study statistics are now several years old, so it is difficult to glean similar nationwide figures. However, the situation is dire if we focus on languages individually.

For example, the Asia-China Relations Institute estimate that students without Chinese background who choose to study Chinese in their final year of schooling dropped 20% between 2007 and 2015.

Moreover, class numbers are so low in tertiary level Indonesian, it is feared the language will have “virtually disappeared” from Universities by 2022. Losing the study of our closest neighbour’s language is undoubtedly ringing alarm bells in Canberra. Yet there are signs that this was inevitable.

Adrian Vickers, professor of Southeast Asian Studies at the University of Sydney, has suggested that the benefits of the current governmental approach are limited. He told Crikey: “Government funding does not achieve its aim. This is largely because support for Asian languages depends on school and university systems.”

As this suggests, there is no unified system that regulates language study in Australia. State education bodies and individual universities design their own language curriculums. This non-standardised approach is then offered to students who are encouraged to participate through rewards, such as bonus marks at VCE/HSC level or through scholarship opportunities at university (like the New Colombo Plan).

Clearly, this incentive-driven approach is not achieving the hoped-for results.

Unlike Australia, most countries in the European Union mandate that children learn at least one foreign language during their schooling. Japan, China and the Republic of Korea also have policies that make foreign language study compulsory for junior and senior secondary students.

In contrast, Australia has some of the lowest rates of second language proficiency in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

Perhaps incentives alone will never achieve the language outcomes that other countries take for granted. Moreover, this decline in participation rates has led inevitably to lower expectations.

Yacinta Kurniasih, a lecturer in Indonesian language at Monash University, highlighted the lack of burden placed on language students. She told Crikey: “Australian educational bodies perceive (language) programs as tokenistic.” Consequentially, such bodies “only expect the minimum from students”.

Yet these minimum expectations Kurniasih refers to were not always standard in the Australian education system. Students were compelled to study languages other than English (LOTE) in the past; indeed, languages were once considered a prerequisite for some tertiary degrees. For example, in 1960, those students seeking to undertake a Bachelor of Arts at Melbourne University were required — regardless of their faculties’ extra prerequisites — to pass a matriculation exam in a language other than English. There is no coincidence that LOTE study also peaked in Australia in the 1960s, when some 40% of students undertook it at senior school level. This is a far cry from the 11% today.

If Australia wishes to achieve the same rates of language proficiency as that found in other OECD nations, it should consider adopting a mandatory approach. This seems to be the missing element in this discussion. Until that time, it is difficult to see how Asian language study can flourish in Australia.

There is hope. Over the last decade, Victoria has introduced language programs as a study requirement of all primary schools. Partly as a result, the number of students learning Chinese in the state increased from 10,000 to 40,000 between 2008 and 2015. If other states followed this initiative, then we may see the benefits reflected at secondary school and university levels. Moreover, the suggestions outlined in the “Australia in the Asian Century” white paper continue to be introduced into the national school curriculum.

Only time will tell if these policies lead to a greater numbers of students undertaking and persisting with the languages of Asia — the continent set to dominate the world stage — and which holds, as Keating opined, the “destiny” of our country in its hands.