Throw another stereotype on the barbie: students sign up to study Australian culture

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The Independent Online

Backpacking around Australia is no longer just a fun way of spending a gap year for thousands of British teenagers once they have completed their A-levels - it has triggered a growing interest in Australian studies.

Backpacking around Australia is no longer just a fun way of spending a gap year for thousands of British teenagers once they have completed their A-levels - it has triggered a growing interest in Australian studies.

Rather than whiling away their time downing tinnies while gazing at the awesome scenery, young people are returning to the UK with a thirst to find out as much as they can about the country and its culture.

As a result, Australian cultural studies are now becoming a major growth area for higher education study in the UK.

According to the Menzies Centre for Australian Studies - based at King's College London - there are now more than 300 British-based academics either teaching or researching Australia - studying anything from the continent's geology to its history, politics, sociology or immigration history - and seeing if the UK can learn something from the Australian way of doing things.

The centre was established in 1982 and up until five years ago catered for 25 students a year. The numbers have quadrupled in the past five years and now it is establishing three new masters' degree courses from September 2005 in Australian film, art and Aboriginal history and politics.

The icons that impressed them are writers such as Marcus Clark, a chronicler of early settler times who labelled his native Australia "a nation of drunkards", and the filmmaker Phillip Noyce, who directed Rabbit-Proof Fence - a true story of the treatment of half-caste Aborigines in the 1930s. Another film to merit study is Lantana, a universally praised mystery-driven drama produced in 2001. Professor Carl Bridge, the head of the Menzies Centre, said the new courses could double or triple the number of students opting for masters' courses at the centre.

"We are providing an intellectual context for people who have an interest in Australia, are going there or want to go there," he said.

Two Australian literature courses will be offered - one focusing on 19th- and early 20th-century writing such as Clark's My Natural Life and Joseph Furphy's Such is Life. The second course will feature contemporary writers such as Peter Carey, Tim Winton and Germaine Greer. The latter's feminist classic, The Female Eunuch, is on the syllabus.

Figures from the Australian Tourist Commission show that a total of 459,000 backpackers visited Australia in 2003 - 124,000 or 27 per cent of them from the UK. Of the 89,000 working holiday visas granted in the same year, 40,000 of them went to British youngsters.

"It is now becoming the practice for a large number of A-level leavers or graduates to go to Australia," said Professor Bridge. "While there is a certain cultural familiarity, what really hits them is the richness of the landscape, the quality of the light, the different-ness of the environment and the ways of life this gives rise to."

One theory is that students want to retain the sense of awe they felt in touring Australia and can rekindle it by learning about it, their feelings being perhaps akin to those of Mark Twain, writing in More Tramps Abroad: "It is full of surprises and adventures, but they are all true, they all happened."

A BRIEF GUIDE TO LIFE DOWN UNDER

Literature

Australian literature has its origins in outback life as chronicled by poets such as Banjo Patterson (Waltzing Matilda, The Man from Snowy River). In 1973, Patrick White, whose novels include The Tree of Man (1956) and Voss (1957) won the Nobel prize for literature .Peter Carey won the Booker prize in 1988 for Oscar and Lucinda and again in 2001 with the True History of the Kelly Gang.

Film

Australia made the world's first feature film, The Story of the Kelly Gang, in 1906 and still has a thriving industry. Examples include Gillian Armstrong's film of the Miles Franklin novel, My Brilliant Career, which launched Judy Davis and Sam Neill on international careers, comedies such as Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and Crocodile Dundee and cult classics such as Mad Max. The leading Australian director, Phillip Noyce, recently adapted Graham Greene's The Quiet American and directed Rabbit Proof Fence.

Music

Dames Nellie Melba and Joan Sutherland are among the 20th century's leading divas, while John Williams is recognised as one of the world's most accomplished classical guitarists. The conductor Simone Young is music Director of Opera Australia, but will be heading to Germany next year as Music Director of the Hamburg's Philharmonic State Orchestra. And then there's Kylie Minogue ...

Art

In Robert Hughes (Shock of the New), Australia has produced one of the world's pre-eminent art critics. Prominent compatriots include Sydney Nolan, whose characteristic series of images depicting Ned Kelly, the bushranger, have become iconic; while the Aboriginal artists Albert Namatjira and Emily Kame Kngwarreye have won international recognition for the richness of their work.

Genevieve Roberts

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