Can Indonesia’s Literacy Decline Australia Survive Covid-19 Cuts?

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Student volunteers at the Rifka Annisa women’s organization in Yogyakarta. Photo by ACICIS.

Before the Covid-19 pandemic, Australian studies abroad in Indonesia were booming. In 2019 alone, 2,061 Australian university students traveled to Indonesia for study programs, internships and mentorships, the highest number of Australian students to ever 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 Colombo New Plan scholarships 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. The main organizations involved in facilitating study abroad programs in Indonesia, such as The Australian Consortium for ‘In-Country’ Indonesian Studies (ACICIS), a group of 18 Australian universities (where I worked previously) , 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 overseas learning programs to continue in an online format, including those in Indonesia.

Covid-19 has put online learning in the international spotlight, but it’s not a new phenomenon. E-learning platforms have complemented traditional mobility for many years, as part of universities’ “home internationalization” efforts. In fact, online learning can be a more inclusive model, opening avenues for students who might otherwise not be able to participate in study abroad programs: those with family responsibilities, from socio-social backgrounds. – economically disadvantaged or students living with a disability.

In the larger context of Indonesian studies in Australia right now, virtual programs and interagency enrollment offer a lifeline for many students whose campuses have cut Indonesian language programs or significantly reduce their language teaching staff.

In fact, as of next year, only 12 universities will still teach the Indonesian language in Australia, up from 22 in 1992. Since the start of the pandemic, Western Sydney University has closed its Indonesian language program, La Trobe University will eliminate gradually Indonesian by the end of 2021, and the future of Indonesian is uncertain at Murdoch University. Deakin University and the University of Western Australia also recently cut funding for the humanities, which could affect Indonesian studies in 2022.

Yes, the federal government has invested heavily in sending students to Indonesia as part of the new Colombo plan and in its efforts to pivot learning abroad towards virtual delivery. But prominent higher education experts have observed that it remains a piecemeal strategy if students are unable to continue developing their Indonesian language and expertise when they return to Australia, or once they have finished. elective courses or internship units.

The problems plaguing Indonesian studies nationwide are further compounded by the recent ‘graduate-ready’ reforms of 2020, and the larger problem that Australia’s literacy strategy in Asia is framed in terms of ” Employability ‘. While the Ready-to-Work Graduate Reforms offer reduced fees for language subjects with the aim of attracting students to key areas of employability (alongside health, nursing and education). , for example), the same fee reductions are not provided for Indonesian history subjects. , cultural or political. Divorced from their socio-political contexts, language courses are effectively reduced to functional and instrumental skill sets.

For linguists and language teachers across the country, this is beyond comprehension. What language works in a vacuum, outside of its socio-cultural context? It is not difficult 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 modern Indonesian political discourse, for example.

Framing the learning of the Indonesian language and culture in terms of ’employability’ alone is problematic and highlights Australia’s broader historical tendency to position literacy strategies in Asia through an economic lens. In the 1980s and 1990s, students were encouraged to learn languages ​​that would “strengthen Australia’s economic interests in East Asia,” with an emphasis on Indonesian, Japanese, Korean and Chinese (Mandarin). As of 2012, Mandarin, Hindi, Indonesian and Japanese have been favored, so that students can thrive 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 are quickly emerging for students returning from their studies in Indonesia, with improved language skills and a new understanding of this complex country. They soon discover that not only are their options for continuing to learn the Indonesian language limited, due to the decreasing number of Indonesian language programs across the country, but their literacy in Indonesian may not be as popular. that he had been led to believe.

The New Colombo Plan engages extensively with the private sector through its network of business champions and its “Internship and Mentorship Network”. But students often anecdotally notice upon their return that graduate jobs do not require Indonesian or Asian literacy, and that once employed they are often not required to use those skills they thought were 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 skills are missing or listed as “desirable”, we again send the message to graduates that these are simply “nice to have” skills. Or worse yet, the (entirely incorrect) message is that “everyone in Asia speaks English, so why bother learning an Asian language?”

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

Australia recently named such a 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, graduated with an Honors BA in Indonesia and is very proficient in the language – in fact more than any of his predecessors. The importance of this should not be underestimated.

The respect, nuance and connection that Williams’ Indonesian literacy conveys, has the potential to chart new territory for diplomacy and discussion between Australia and Indonesia. These are the specialized literacy skills in Indonesia that Australia must continue to prioritize among students to engage deeply and meaningfully with its nearest neighbor.

This is an urgent time 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 education. Indonesian language learning and Indonesian studies. As students now engage with Indonesia through online learning, once the pandemic is over, it is important that they have meaningful opportunities to develop specialized language and cultural skills both in Indonesia through to study abroad and, in particular, return to Australia, through further study and employment of graduates. Penny Williams may be Australia’s first competent Indonesian-speaking Australian Ambassador, but she doesn’t have to be the last.



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