Go south, young scholar
When Kristiarto Legowo stood to open an academic conference in the South Australian capital of Adelaide he must have wondered: Have I really moved out of my homeland to take this posting?
For most of the hundred faces that the Republic’s new Ambassador to Australia could see were clearly Indonesian and young. The few Caucasians in the lecture theater were mainly middle aged and beyond, white shocks among dark mops.
Why had so many of his compatriots flown 4,600 kilometers south to the Indonesia Council’s Open Conference at Flinders University when the small cluster of Westerners could have travelled north to a similar event? With access to higher wages, paid leave, travel allowances, study grants and stipends their journey would have involved little hardship.
In his first official engagement in the Great South Land Legowo told attendees that Indonesia should reverse the outflow and run similar conferences in the Republic. His suggestion found wide acceptance, though wish and action don’t always cohabit well.
Getting them to come to us was also an attractive idea for those who’d funded their travel, like Bintar Mupiza and his three colleagues from the Indonesian Islamic University (IIU) in Yogyakarta. Although there was no registration fee the students paid Rp 15 million (US $1,120) each just to attend the two-day forum.
Many presenters were seasoned scholars keyboarding final references for their doctorates or post-docs and keen to defend findings before critics. However the two women and two men from IIU were undergraduates courageous enough to open up about venturing into research.
Their topics were equally challenging: Australia-Indonesia Relations, the Role of the Media on Foreign Policy Decision Making, and Measuring West Papua Independence Activists’ Rights in Indonesia’s Democracy.
Although still works in progress, the Gen Z youngsters’ contributions and their seriousness by finding the funds to fly drew compliments from senior scholars like Indonesian specialist Associate Professor Anton Lucas who used to run the Asian Studies Course at Flinders.
Since his retirement leadership has passed to Indonesian political scientist Dr Priyambudi Sulistiyanto. Overseas academics are commonly found in Australian campus classrooms because the infusion of foreign talent is believed to enrich learning.
That’s seldom the situation in Indonesia where outsiders in the staff room are often feared as threats. Overseas academics visit to conduct research, meet colleagues and learn the language, but apart from volunteer work few teach; visa restrictions and low pay also deter. (Indonesian academic salaries are about one tenth of those in Australia.)
Foreigners are also faced with the reality that the Republic’s education system has a poor international reputation. Although government funding has risen and the numbers of Indonesian tertiary institutions rocketed, quality has remained earthbound.
In 1950 Indonesia had ten institutions of higher education, including IIU; now there are more than 3,000 – though not all support the principles of intellectual exploration and critical thinking.
A couple have squeezed into the Times Higher Education Index of the world’s top 800 - the University of Indonesia (UI) and the Bandung Institute of Technology (ITB).
In Australia six of the nation’s 35 universities feature in the world’s top 100. Australia has 11 Nobel prizewinners in science, medicine and the arts while Indonesia, with a population ten times greater has none.
According to a University of Geneva study released this year links between Indonesian and foreign universities are ‘noticeably underdeveloped’ when compared to Malaysia and Singapore.
Disincentives include poverty and language barriers because courses are taught in Indonesian. This is slowly changing as major universities start using English in some seminars. At Yogyakarta’s Universitas Gadjah Mada (UGM) the Center for Security and Peace Studies is run by Indonesians teaching in English.
Collaboration could help lift standards; Flinders has formal partnerships with eight Indonesian colleges, and other campuses have developed ties. However the Swiss report noted ‘quite stringent regulations that foreign universities must adhere to should they wish to establish a presence in Indonesia’.
So young Indonesians have to leave their homeland to set the right coordinates for future careers; the best places to showcase their talents are conferences.
Though not just any talkfest; a gathering of sharp minds in a McDonald’s café may yield splendid results just as ideas for independence were conceived last century by the nationalist Budi Utomo (noble endeavour) students in medical school classrooms, but attitudes have changed.
Professor Michele Ford from Sydney University warned participants in a postgraduate publishing workshop at the conference that to build a good CV they need to be careful about the journals they approach and seminars they attend.
The host and event must have a record of scholarship and preferably star speakers. To get into that firmament usually means travelling overseas.
More than a thousand Indonesians have graduated from Flinders. Top names include Dr Pratikno, the former rector of Yogyakarta’s UGM and now Minister of the State Secretariat, and Dr Daniel Sparringa, former Senior Adviser in Public and Political Communication to the last Indonesian President, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.
Flinders is not the only university attracting Indonesians. According to the Australian Embassy in Jakarta more than 8,500 – a quarter of all Indonesian tertiary students abroad -head south. More Indonesians are squirreling away in Australian libraries than in Europe.
While nascent scholars are turning to the west, their Australian counterparts are shying away from the neighbors’ language and culture. Government statistics show that fewer Australian students are studying Indonesian language and culture in their final high school terms than 40 years ago.
Professor Tim Lindsey of Melbourne University has said that if the enrolment slump continues Germany may have more universities teaching Indonesian than Australia.
So even if Indonesian universities learn how to play in the big league, follow Ambassador Legowo’s advice and start inviting their neighbors to fly north, few lunchboxes will be needed for visitors from Down Under.
The Indonesia Council is a professional association promoting study of Indonesian in tertiary education in Australia. The author presented a paper at the Flinders conference.
First published in The Jakarta Post 2 August 2017