The world’s third and fourth biggest countries are cozying up on higher education. And Australia can only sit back and watch.
The US has a once-in-a-century opportunity to reinvigorate its higher education relationship with Indonesia and is going after it with zeal, according to the United States-Indonesia Society (USINDO).
The organisation is spearheading private initiatives to complement the $165 million higher education partnership with Indonesia that Barack Obama announced in June.
“This is the time for Indonesia, ” USINDO president David Merrill told Campus Review this week.
“When else are we going to have a US president who went to school in Indonesia?”
Last week, David Hill, professor of South-East Asian studies at Murdoch University and director of the Australian Consortium for “In-country” Indonesian Studies, said the Obama announcement signalled an end to Australia’s dominant relationship with its nearest neighbour.
“Australia is losing expertise in this [higher education] area and America is going to build it up,” Hill said.
“I think it’s a pity that we have allowed ourselves to lose this area of strong comparative advantage in international politics.”
The Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations declined to comment on Hill’s criticism, citing the current parliamentary uncertainty.
But Merrill commended Australian universities for attracting ever-increasing numbers of Indonesian students, while those on US campuses had halved to about 7500 over the past five years.
“We feel Australia’s doing a much better job at marketing,” he said.
“If you look around Jakarta, you see 10 times more billboards for education in Australia than you do for the US.”
Merrill agreed with Hill, however, about the dire need to entice more Australians – and Americans – to study in Indonesian universities. The fact that less than 50 Australians did so each year was “pitiful”, he said.
Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono first proposed the idea of strengthening “people-to-people” higher educational ties between his country and the US in 2008.
Obama’s $165 million response will focus on expanding exchange programs and supporting collaboration between select US and Indonesian institutions over the next five years.
To address an additional dozen or more areas, USINDO and four other non-governmental organisations formed a Joint US-Indonesia Council for Higher Education Partnership at the end of July.
“I think [Obama’s pledge] is laudable,” said Merrill.
“The amount of money from the government is very important.
“At the same time, it should be viewed as one part of what can be done. It needs to be complemented by help that can be mobilised from the non-government sector for the whole array of needs in educational cooperation.
“In terms of exchanges, his initiative would cover perhaps 1000 additional students a year, but 7500 new students a year in the US are needed just get us back to where we were 12 years ago.”
Co-chaired by the former Indonesian deputy minister of national education, Dr Fasli Jalal, and president of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, Peter McPherson, the joint council’s initiatives are expected to be funded by one of more US foundations.
Among the council’s goals are to help strengthen historically important US centres of study and research on Indonesia, such as Cornell University.
Another priority is the development of fresh courses that would attract many more Americans to study abroad at Indonesian universities.
“Why aren’t they coming for keen-interest subjects, such as climate change and forestry and tropical oceanography?” asked Merrill.
“And the answer is there are no programs for those.”
USINDO believes the importance of higher education ties with Indonesia cannot be over-estimated.
The country has emerged as one of the world’s largest and most economically robust democracies, with a predominantly Muslim population.
“When thinking of the Muslim world, you don’t usually picture a vibrant democracy that’s going along at a very fast clip economically,” explained Merrill.
“That changes people’s mindsets.”
Not all are convinced, however, that either the public or private initiatives will reverse the downward trends the US has been experiencing.
“I would be quite cautious,” said Ulrich Kozok, associate professor in the Department of Hawaiian and Indo-Pacific Languages and Literatures at the University of Hawaii.
“There have been talks but there has been very little action so far.”