Language policy in Australian schools isn't likely to become an election issue but perhaps it should be. A recent article in the Sydney Morning Herald detailing the expansion of the Confucius Classrooms program at primary schools in Sydney and Melbourne quoted parents who were unhappy with this development and said the classrooms 'were viewed uneasily by some China watchers'.

Of course, any program run by a foreign government in Australian schools should be scrutinised. However, fears that the teaching of Chinese language has been politicised should be put in the context of the broader education debate around foreign language acquisition.

The Office of Chinese Language Council International (Hanban) is part of the Chinese Ministry of Education. It has set up Confucius institutes and Confucius Classrooms around the world to promote Chinese language and culture. There are now more than 554 Confucius Institutes and Classrooms in 88 countries, giving foreigners the opportunity to learn Chinese and learn about China virtually for free. As the SMH article says, schools are given $10,000 in the first year for teaching, and are provided with resources including teaching assistants hired and paid for by Hanban.

There are concerns that Confucius Institutes are a propaganda tool of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), limiting freedom of expression and promoting censorship within independent schools and universities. Such concerns have prompted a number of universities, including the University of Chicago and Penn State University, to end their relationship with Hanban. Penn cited a 'lack of transparency and academic freedom'.

It is right to question the objectives and operations of the Confucius Classrooms program, and the SMH article rightly challenges the appropriateness of a Chinese government body to run programs in Australian schools. But it misses another important point, which is that Australia has a shortage of Chinese teachers.

In 2013, the Australia in the Asian Century White Paper suggested all Australian children should have access to one Asian priority language (Japanese, Mandarin, Hindi and Indonesian). Children would also be encouraged to undertake a 'continuous course in an Asian language'. When Tony Abbott came to power he pledged $2 billion to help lift the number of year 12 students studying a language other than English by 40%.

Despite such lofty objectives, the number of students studying any language continues to decline. In 2014, there were only 798 high school students studying an Asian language in NSW high schools, down from 1500 students in 2000.

If Malcolm Turnbull is re-elected there is unlikely to be a substantial change in policy. On his blog in 2012 Turnbull wrote 'linguistic fluency does not...entail a knowledge of (or) empathy for the culture and history of the country concerned'. Labor has yet to release its policy on language learning but, given all the talk of budget black holes, substantial support for language learning appears improbable from either of the major parties.

Which brings us back to the Confucius Classrooms controversy. Given the shortage of language teachers in schools across Australia, the Confucius Classrooms program is, as the SMH noted, 'an attractive package for cash-strapped public school principals eager to offer their students Asian languages.' While there are some examples of successful English-Chinese bilingual schools, these are the minority. As there is very little other funding for schools to carry out a comprehensive language teaching program, the offer of a Confucius Classroom is an easy way for schools to outsource their language teaching requirements at minimum cost.

While successive Australian governments have vowed to increase the number of students learning Chinese, none have offered a funded, targeted and realistic plan. If governments increased funding for Asian languages, principals and schools would not need to rely on a Communist Party-influenced Chinese language curriculum.

Even if there are election vows to increase funding for Asian languages, history suggests these are likely to be empty promises. This is a shame as teaching Chinese in primary and secondary schools would ensure students are interested in, and equipped for, engagement with China in their future careers and academic pursuits. Better language skills would assist the policy-makers of the future to think critically when it comes to China, and to move beyond knee jerk reactions of fear and alarm.

Photo by Flickr user Steve Webel.