Learning to be mates, step-by-step
Numbers are still low and the hurdles remain high, but Dr David Reeve (right) is cautiously positive about building relationships between Indonesia and Australia through education.
The Australian academic’s optimism is not a cosy motherhood statement from a novice booster, but a hard-nosed observation from an old hand.
He believes the ceaseless predictions that Southeast Asia’s largest economy will continue to grow (the World Bank is forecasting 5.2 per cent this year against Australia’s 3 per cent) are pushing students who want to be part of the action.
Reeve expects the drumbeat of business will draw the doers and dealers of the future to the archipelago seeking the rhythm at its source. In the past 18 months Australian government ministers have led two big trade missions to the Archipelago.
“Interest has moved away from the arts and humanities,” Reeve said. “Learning batik painting or ethnic dance can be done in spare time, as a hobby; it’s not the principal attraction.
“Visiting Asia is no longer exotic – it has become routine for the young. Some of these kids are miles ahead of earlier generations in relating to difference.
“The demand is in areas like economics, law, politics, development, sociology and feminism. Students want the whole experience - often taking short in-country courses and following these with work or internships. Tertiary institutions need to identify the possibilities.
“A few are already aware. Yogyakarta’s Universitas Gadjah Mada (UGM) has courses in disaster management and conflict resolution attracting foreigners. In Manado (North Sulawesi) marine biology is an obvious area. Unfortunately market research is seldom done.
“There are difficulties. Visas to study in Singapore and Malaysia come through in two or three days. In Indonesia it can be two or three months. This has been the situation for too long.”
Reeve is well credentialed to comment. Apart from being a Visiting Fellow at the University of New South Wales he’s also Deputy Consortium Director and Study Tour Coordinator for the Australia Consortium for In-Country Indonesian Studies.
This is a non-profit organization helping students enrol at Indonesian universities for one or more semesters earning credits recognized by their home institutions. Around 2,000 have used the scheme in the past two decades.
The success of ACICIS has cleared the scrub for the Australian government’s New Colombo Plan (NCP). In the past four years this has supported about 17,500 to study in more than 30 Indo-Pacific countries through ‘mobility grants’ and scholarships. (The original Colombo Plan last century helped students from ‘developing countries’ study in Australia and other Commonwealth nations.)
This year 105 won NCP scholarships. Only 14 have chosen to study in Indonesia – most are at UGM.
Reeve says the scheme is attracting quality and another reason why he’s more plus than minus about Australians starting to better understand their northern neighbors.
The numbers are tiny when compared to Asians in lecture rooms Down Under. This January (the latest figures available) more than 382,000 overseas students were enrolled – most from China and India. Around three per cent are Indonesians according to Australian Government statistics.
Reeve argues that Australian undergraduates who go to education institutions abroad are “opening up a new constitution and building personal contacts that will serve them well in their future careers.”
The government promotes the NCP in similar terms: ‘Internships, mentorships and practicums … provide students with opportunities to enhance their skills in real life situations, build cross-cultural competencies and develop professional networks that can last a lifetime.’
That’s been the case for Reeve who first came to Indonesia as a diplomat. “I’d studied French so I was sent to Jakarta,” he commented wryly. His doctorate analysed Golkar, the government party which dominated politics under second president Soeharto’s authoritarian rule till this century – and remains a major force
He’s lived in Indonesia for eleven years, and worked at four Indonesian universities. He was a founding lecturer in the Australian Studies program at Universitas Indonesia in the 1980s.
His experience has proved the wisdom that in Indonesia personal relationships trump official positions. Even in university rector’s suites visitors can be asked about the offspring of their loins ahead of inquiries about intellectual output.
“Few campuses have built bilateral relationships that last,” said Reeve. “Australian universities have files of MOU (memorandum of understanding) that are going nowhere. It’s very hard for head offices to make these work and maintain the links.
“Inter-campus relationships that are a success tend to come about at the departmental level where the bureaucracy is not so obstructive and where dynamic individuals operate through friendships built over the years. There are signs this reality is being recognised.”
Because such deals are powered by committed individuals flying low they seldom get noticed and promoted by government publicity machines.
Vicki Richardson (left), Dean of Languages at the private co-educational Tranby College in Western Australia is an example. In 2010 she set up an exchange program with a school in Surabaya. The arrangement flourished.
Building on her contacts she is now English Coordinator in Senior State Schools in East Java. It’s a volunteer position she created herself with support from the local government which provides a car, a driver and an advisor.
Richardson visits schools across the province that are below the national standards in English. Sometimes backed by students from Australia she helps teachers with second language classroom strategies and encourages learners to build conversational confidence.
Few instructors in state schools have visited English-speaking countries so have limited understanding of daily language use. They rely on grammar-based pedagogy which tends to bore.
Richardson hopes her initiative will be recognised, supported and expanded by the Australian government now she has shown what’s possible.
Reeve agreed, but concedes that the “signs remain mixed” regarding relationships between the Republic and its southern neighbor.
An outrage like the 2002 Bali bombing or clashes of policy, like Australia’s involvement in Timor Leste’s independence could uproot the path that’s been laid. Nonetheless Reeve stays smiling. “Anxiety levels are dropping,” he said. “Green shoots are starting to appear.”
(First published in Strategic Review 14 April 2017)