Never mind the width, feel the quality

May 28, 2021

They’re standouts in any language, often tall, blond, and looking as though they’ve just been hit by a runaway road train top-heavy with cultural and communication overburden.

They’re nothing like our standard exports, braggarts trashing Bali bars in loud shirts and louder voices.  These youth are soberly dressed and polite, though floundering to make themselves understood.  They’re also the lucky ones who found the courses they wanted.

Even those who shone in their Indonesian studies back home struggle with the chaos and contradictions.  Like discovering the national language is not most citizens’ first tongue and that slang and acronyms confuse even the locals. 

Yet these young Aussies are the best ambassadors we’ll ever produce.  Most will battle through, engage and charm.  The dedicated will convert months of intense experience into years of understanding.  In the decades ahead as parents, teachers, bureaucrats, business people or whatever, they’ll help leaven our insularity and racism.

On the other side becak (pedicab) pedal-pushers, street sellers and buskers who know nothing about Australia other than it’s a kangaroo-plagued British colony (the Union Jack on the flag is proof enough), might remember Miss Jane from Sydney and Mr Jack from Melbourne for their friendliness, and smile on us all.

Many Oz students have made it to our neighbour nations through a praiseworthy Federal Government scheme paying our brightest to try an Asian adventure – the New Colombo Plan.  Then came this year’s budget and a little-noticed $7 million cut to the expected $50 million allocation.

The slashers claim the 14 per cent loss is due to Covid-19, and – of course – only temporary.  Students can’t go overseas so monies allocated for the NCP will be spent on desk drivers in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, mainly in Canberra.

Before coronavirus crippled travel, the NCP was wholly or partly funding about 10,000 students a year heading to 40 countries.  The majority got short-term ‘mobility grants’ worth between $3,000 and $7,000.  There were also around 100 meaty scholarships – up to $69,000 – for heavy-duty applicants.  Curiously there’s nothing between the two extremes.

DFAT says the NCP ‘aims to lift knowledge of the Indo-Pacific in Australia by supporting Australian undergraduates to study and undertake internships in the region … (ensuring the students) have the skills and work-based experiences to contribute to our domestic and the regional economy.

‘The NCP is intended to be transformational, deepening Australia’s relationships in the region, both at the individual level and through expanding university, business and other links.’

To get a NCP cheque students must first show they’re serious about knowing their neighbours – and that’s not easy.  Hamish Curry, Executive Director of Melbourne University’s Asia Education Foundation, has written that  ‘the student cohort (for Indonesian) is now half what it was just over a decade ago, with classes potentially in danger of disappearing completely in many schools.’  The Asian Studies Association estimates only 12 unis still offer the language.

Despite the teaching slump, interest in Indonesia has been edging upwards though numbers are minuscule.  In 2012 just 442 students crossed the Arafura Sea.  In 2019 it was above 2,000.

Lest this growth lure readers into thinking we’re getting as close to Indonesia as we are to the USA, consider this: Around 75 per cent stayed only a month or less in the Republic. Before the plague, more than a million Australians flew to Kuta every year spending similar time to surf, tan and booze.

The NCP isn’t the first project urging school-leavers to try Asia rather than Europe or North America for the rite of passage Kiwis call OE (Overseas Experience). Last century a small group of academics started the non-profit Australian Consortium for ‘In-Country’ Indonesian Studies (ACICIS), most for a semester or more.

The consortium also organises six-week professional practicum programs during the summer vacation.  These cover business, the creative arts, law, agriculture and sustainable tourism.

We now have stats coming from outside government. The Australian Universities International Directors’ Forum collects info on students chasing an ‘international study experience’. The 37 reporting universities claim more than 50,000 went on ‘learning abroad’ programmes.  Indonesia ranks behind China, the USA, UK, Italy and Japan as the favoured destination.

Is this a reason for cheering?  Every pre-Covid year more than one million domestic students were enrolled on our campuses.  (Indonesia’s population is around 11 times greater than Australia’s with more than six million in tertiary education.)

Writes Curry: ‘Asia-literacy matters. It’s not simply a nice-to-have skill or a matter of knowing our geography, it’s about having the intercultural understanding and the intercultural capability to connect, share, and cooperate for a shared future with our sphere of the world.’

Liam Prince, the Perth-based director of ACICIS, told Pearls & Irritations: ‘It’s not just about the numbers. It’s about the quality of the engagement. There are roughly 3,500 ACICIS alumni now, working at various stages of their professional careers all across government, media, the public service, business and not-for-profit sectors.

‘Arguably, this alumni body with direct experience of living and studying in Indonesia stands to have a greater impact on the re-alignment of Indonesia within the Australian public imagination than the one million Australians who regularly holiday in Bali.

‘Much of what Australian governments, universities, and the public know about what happens in Indonesia in any given year, they now know courtesy of the work of talented and committed ACICIS alumni.’

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