Student volunteers at women’s organisation Rifka Annisa, in Yogyakarta. Photo by ACICIS.


Before the Covid-19 pandemic, Australian study abroad to Indonesia was booming. In 2019 alone, 2,061 Australian university students travelled to Indonesia to complete study programs, internships and mentorships, the highest number of Australian students ever to study in Indonesia.


Most of these students were supported by grants from the Australian government’s New Colombo Plan. Since 2014, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) has awarded more than 70,000 New Colombo Plan grants to Australian students to study in the Indo-Pacific region, including 10,000 to Indonesia.


But with the onset of the pandemic, the future of study abroad looked bleak. Key organisations involved in facilitating study abroad programs to Indonesia, such as The Australian Consortium for ‘In-Country’ Indonesian Studies (ACICIS), a group of 18 Australian universities (where I previously worked), faced an uncertain future as international borders closed and students returned home. But after significant lobbying, in August 2020, DFAT finally gave the green light for learning abroad programs to continue in an online format, including those to Indonesia.


Covid-19 has placed online learning in an international spotlight but it is not a new phenomenon. Online learning platforms have complemented traditional mobility for many years, as part of universities’ “internationalisation at home” efforts. In fact, online learning can be a more inclusive model, opening up avenues for students who might otherwise not be able to participate in study abroad programs: those with caring responsibilities, from low socio-economic backgrounds, or students living with a disability.


In the broader context of Indonesian studies in Australia right now, virtual programs and cross-institutional enrolments are delivering a lifeline for many students whose campuses have cut Indonesian language programs or are significantly downsizing their language teaching staff.


In fact, from next year, just 12 universities will still teach Indonesian language in Australia, down from 22 in 1992. Since the pandemic began, Western Sydney University has closed its Indonesian language program, La Trobe University will phase out Indonesian by the end of 2021, and the future of Indonesian is uncertain at Murdoch University. Deakin University and the University of Western Australia have also cut funds to humanities recently which could affect Indonesian studies in 2022.


Yes, the federal government has made a strong investment in sending students to Indonesia through the New Colombo Plan, and efforts to pivot learning abroad to virtual delivery. But leading higher education experts have observed that this remains a piecemeal strategy if students are unable to continue building on their language and Indonesian expertise upon their return to Australia, or once they have completed electives or internship units.


The issues plaguing Indonesian studies nationally are further compounded by the recent “Job Ready Graduates” reforms of 2020, and the broader problem that the Australian Asia literacy strategy is framed in ‘employability’ terms. While the Job Ready Graduates reforms offer discounted fees for language subjects in an effort to entice students into key focus areas of employability (alongside allied health, nursing, and education, for example), the same fee discounts are not provided for subjects in Indonesian history, culture or politics. Divorced from their socio-political contexts, language courses are effectively reduced to functional and instrumental skill sets.


For linguists and language teachers around the country, this beggars belief. What language operates in a vacuum, outside its socio-cultural context? It is not hard to imagine a situation in which a student might understand the word “Merdeka” (“Freedom”), but not understand its deep political, cultural and historical significance in Indonesia’s modern political discourse, for example.


Framing Indonesian language and cultural learning in “employability” terms alone is problematic, and highlights Australia’s broader historical trend of positioning Asia literacy strategies through an economic lens. In the 1980s and 1990s, students were encouraged to learn languages that would “enhance Australia’s economic interests in East Asia”, with a focus on Indonesian, Japanese, Korean and Chinese (Mandarin). From 2012, Mandarin, Hindi, Indonesian and Japanese were prioritised, so students could prosper in “The Asian Century”. Since the launch of the New Colombo Plan in 2014, the government has spoken of “future prosperity” in our region, economic stability, and employability.


But problems quickly emerge for students who return from study in Indonesia, with enhanced language skills and new understandings of that complex country. They soon discover that not only are their options for continuing Indonesian language learning limited, because of the dwindling number of Indonesian language programs across the country, but their Indonesian literacy may not be as highly valued as they had been led to believe.


The New Colombo Plan engages extensively with the private sector through its business champions network and its “Internships and Mentorships Network”. But students often remark anecdotally upon their return that graduate jobs do not require Indonesian or Asian literacy, and that, once employed, they often are not required to use these skills they thought would be so coveted.


Why do Indonesian literacy skills almost never appear among the “essential” selection criteria in contemporary Australian private sector or government positions? When these skillsets are absent, or listed as “desirable”, we once again send graduates the message that these are merely “nice to have” skills. Or even worse, the (entirely incorrect) message is that “everyone in Asia speaks English, so why bother learning an Asian language?”


Employers need to do more to incentivise Indonesian literacy and to show young Australian graduates that these skills are deeply valued and crucial for Australia’s future. Employing these highly skilled, Indonesia-literate graduates would be a start. Promoting them and highlighting them as role models is the next step.


Australia has recently appointed one such role model in its new Ambassador to Indonesia, Penny Williams. She has a long history with the country, having spent time there on exchange as a student, completed a BA Honours degree focusing on Indonesia, and is highly capable in the language – indeed more so than any of her predecessors. The significance of this should not be underestimated.


The respect, the nuance and connection that Williams’s Indonesia literacy conveys, has the potential to chart new territory for diplomacy and discussion between Australia and Indonesia. These are the specialised Indonesia literacy skills Australia must continue to prioritise among students to deeply and meaningfully engage with our nearest neighbour.


This is an urgent moment for Australian higher education institutions, government and business to reflect on the kind of Indonesian literacy skills they are developing in students, and to reset a national strategy on Indonesian language learning and Indonesian studies. While students are engaging with Indonesia through online learning now, once the pandemic is over, it is important that they have meaningful opportunities to develop specialised language and cultural skills both in Indonesia through study abroad and, especially, back in Australia, through further study and graduate employment. Penny Williams might be the first proficient Indonesian-speaking Australian ambassador, but she doesn’t need to be the last.



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