Sunday, June 22, 2014

Indonesian universities and the New Columbo Plan

By Bernard Lane
Eve Warburton, an Australian PhD student, is casting her mind back a few years to Aceh, in Indonesia’s far west, where she went to help train a new generation of ­lecturers.
Senior academics were among the dead in the tsunami of 2004 and violent insurgency of the kind that Aceh endured for decades had left its mark on civil institutions. Even so, it seems to Warburton that the challenges facing universities elsewhere in Indonesia’s far-flung provinces are not so different: isolation, run-down buildings, meagre resources and lecturers lured away to more promising places.
Such as Jakarta, where Warburton and I are sitting high in a modern mall called ­Pacific Place, which boasts a Lamborghini giveaway and a “curated” department store anointed by Monocle magazine, the London-based bible of cool. I had walked the last couple of kilometres to get there, abandoning the embassy car and driver in the gridlock ­traffic.
Big problems, great strides of progress, stark contrasts and opportunity — Indonesia has it all, and so do its universities. It’s a world that more young Australians will experience, however briefly, as the first groups arrive under the New Colombo Plan.
In the corridors of the Atma Jaya Catholic University of Indonesia there are informal photos of familiar faces from Australian politics (remember Kevin Rudd?), journalism and diplomacy.
Our students have been coming to this central Jakarta campus for years, in small numbers, to learn Bahasa Indonesia. But the language that preoccupies Atma Jaya’s leaders is English.
Lina Salim, vice-rector for collaboration, is a dynamo of good humour and curiosity. She is also acutely conscious of how much competition she faces in a crowded university market. So, she wants to know, how do we get some of these New Colombo students? It depends partly on how international a university is perceived to be, and what can be expected of incoming students.
Atma Jaya has some faculties — psychology and biotechnology, for example — where the vast majority of academics have studied abroad. And Bu Lina says local students understand English well enough. But so far, her university has few courses taught in English and non-academic staff in particular may need to lift their proficiency if they’re to deal with monoglot students from overseas who often come with a consumer rights mentality. The promise of an open economic market in Southeast Asia is enough to bring to Atma Jaya a growing number of company-sponsored students who are willing to learn the Indonesian language. For Australian business, by and large, Indonesia is not yet an imperative. That’s what the locals conclude.
THE latest chapter in Colin Brown’s long history with Indonesia has been a four-year stint teaching international relations at Parahyangan Catholic University in the hill city of Bandung. He sees room for a sharper, more practical approach to internationalisation. “A couple of years ago every second university was holding seminars on how to become a world-class university,” he says.
“(Such a vague goal) often takes energy and resources away from more realistic thinking about what you could do.”
For all their non-profit piety, Australia’s universities have been devilishly successful in selling inbound education. The commercial and logistical instincts of the Indonesian sector are muted.
“The international offices here traditionally are run by an academic, not by a commercially-oriented person or even a university bureaucrat,” says Brown, a historian who came to the University of Indonesia as a PhD student more than four decades ago.
“You have to have academic support for an international office — it won’t work otherwise — but an international office has got to be more than just an academic kind of a job. It’s an unusual academic who’s got … managerial, marketing and whatever other skills that are necessary.”
Ask about internationalisation and you’ll hear about the need to chase international journal publications, although academic incentives are such that Indonesia-only journals should not worry too much. More students from abroad is another answer, of course. Indonesia lacks a specific student visa, and this is a hint of other bureaucratic obstacles, but some universities find a way.
GADJAH Mada University, in the student city of Yogyakarta, is part of the higher education elite and has 900-odd foreigners among its 60,000-strong student body. It’s a big number by Indonesian standards, and the number of non-degree students, chiefly from Europe, is on the rise. Rio Rinni Diah Moehkardi, who heads the international office, says Gadjah Mada has had English-language courses for some time in fields such as law and medicine. She is keen to spread English electives across other faculties, and give them their own mini-international offices, not just for overseas recruitment but to give her own staff and students an international edge. Without scholarships, it is just too pricey for a typical Indonesian student to contemplate Australia’s tuition fees, let alone its big city cost of living. This, together with the active presence of institutions such as the British Council, makes many talented local students look to Europe, not to their Australian neighbour.
Bu Rio is not the only one to notice, as she puts it, that once “sleepy” universities in Australia are waking up to Indonesia, thanks to the call of the New ­Colombo Plan.
The vast majority of students in the 2014-15 New Colombo trial will go to a handful of elite institutions: Gadjah Mada, the University of Indonesia in Jakarta, Bogor Agricultural University, and the Bandung Institute of Technology. The elite is more likely to have courses available in English, and is a safe bet for Australian administrators.
Regional universities present a Catch 22: sending them New ­Colombo students could be a terrific stimulus for development but many would be judged still too underdeveloped to receive a group. Australia’s government insists that New Colombo study be strictly for credit and, anyway, few of our students would be up to taking courses taught in Indonesian.
ONE departure in the New ­Colombo trial, and it’s not really a radical choice, is Binus University in Jakarta, a fast-rising private ­institution which presents a very polished image. “I guess we’re one of the pioneers of internationalisation,” says Lily Manoharan, director of Binus Global.
The deals that Binus has struck with Australian institutions are stories with a moral for success in the Indonesian market. Individuals such as Deakin finance lecturer Jack McNaught, with his internships, and Queensland University of Technology’s Ray Kelly, recently retired as international director, have shown initiative and a willingness to build a relationship that goes beyond mere transactions. It’s noticed, and appreciated.
“It engenders goodwill and friendship, so when QUT requests things from us, we’re very open and direct, we want to say yes,” says Bu Lily.
In May Binus received its first visit from Brett Mason, the Queensland Liberal senator who’s doing the leg work for the New Colombo trial. He was impressed: “Vocational opportunities are well catered for, (they’re) linking completions with work opportunities”. That’s important because the New Colombo rationale is to make study abroad more bankable for student careers by throwing in work placements. Arranging internships through a state university may be possible but the demeanour of officials, when asked about this, suggests it can be hedged around with ­bureaucratic difficulty, as is much academic life in Indonesia.
IN their franker moments, those who know the system say there are still lecturers who just don’t turn up, and some institutions that report inflated academic ­results. Moonlighting is common because academic salaries are low; a clutch of supplementary payments — available for duties that elsewhere would be just part of university life — distort activity and militate against the idea of a coherent academic role.
But efforts are being made to lift quality, improve accreditation, boost research and nudge teaching in a modern, student-centred direction, says Illah Sailah, from Indonesia’s directorate-general of higher education. Like much of the country’s elite, Bu Illah has an Australian degree among her qualifications. Her wish is that when a graduate of an Indonesian university goes to, say, Spain, the academy and industry there give full weight to those Indonesian credentials, and recognise their quality. And that is another indicator of internationalisation.
Bernard Lane travelled to Indonesia as the 2014 recipient of the Elizabeth O’Neill Journalism Award.

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