An Indonesia strategy in search of a commitment

10 July 2013

While in Jakarta last week, Kevin Rudd launched the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade's new Indonesia Country Strategy, intended as a blueprint for the Australia-Indonesia relationship to 2025.

According to this slim document, by 2025 Australia will have "the capabilities necessary to support a comprehensive strategic partnership with Indonesia". This will not be achieved unless universities are resourced to develop the Indonesia literacy that is the cornerstone of a closer relationship between our two nations.

The Australian government recognises the importance of developing "new skills relevant to Indonesia", including language but also "greater appreciation of Indonesia's culture, society, businesses and economy". This aim is entirely sensible. Already a major player in the geopolitics of the region, our nearest neighbour is set to become the world's 10th largest economy by 2025.

However, the development of new skills and knowledge is only achievable if universities have the resources to develop and maintain the Indonesia expertise needed to make the strategy work.

The document emphasises the importance of "experts in both countries who can explain and interpret developments in the other country". The bulk of those experts reside in universities. A privileged few have the luxury of devoting their full attention to maintaining their Indonesia expertise, but the lack of support for country specialisation means that most are forced to squeeze their study of Indonesia into a much broader program of research.

The government also wants to "maintain a cross-agency group of 'Indonesia-literate' officials". Real Indonesia literacy requires degree programs that go beyond language to in-depth study of Indonesia's rapidly changing social, political and economic context. In a situation where departmental resources depend on bums on seats, a return to the glory days of this level of specialisation is only possible with targeted funding.

Broad-based Indonesia literacy, meanwhile, depends on exposure to all things Indonesia through public discourse and the education system. The capacity (and willingness) of journalists, politicians, teachers and business leaders to foster such Indonesia literacy needs to start somewhere. A logical place is during their time at university.

Universities also provide strategic ballast to the Australia-Indonesia relationship in their own right. By 2025, the government wants Australia to be "a natural first choice" for Indonesian students going overseas. In order to achieve this, universities "must look to establish presences in Indonesia", developing partnerships with local counterparts.

Scholarships are an important part of this equation. So is Australian student mobility. Time spent in-country as a student is a strong predictor of ongoing engagement with Indonesia, whether graduates go on to work in government, business or the community sector.

But it's collaborative research that provides the long-term edge to the educational relationship. Australian universities can and should connect more productively with Indonesian institutions. The problem is that real collaboration is hard to establish, let alone maintain, in the face of different academic standards and expectations.

Collaborative research is even harder to fund. Schemes like those run by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research provide strong support for some kinds of collaborative research. Other interesting models of research funding have been trialled, like the Australia-Indonesia Governance Research Partnership. But they, too, have funded a narrow range of research topics on a short-term basis.

Meanwhile, few Indonesian researchers have the kind of track records needed to add to the competitiveness of an Australian Research Council grant application. Those who do are over-committed, and therefore are unlikely to make an equal contribution to a research project. Despite Indonesian government pressure for academics to collaborate with researchers overseas, there are currently no incentives for Australian researchers to mentor their Indonesian colleagues.

What is needed is a large-scale, purpose-specific scheme to fund long-term collaborations. These grants would need to be both substantial and long-term enough to be worthwhile for both sides. They would also need to go beyond traditional areas of collaboration to foster broad research engagement.

It is only with this kind of long-term investment in research and in teaching about Indonesia that the aims of the Indonesia Country Strategy can be achieved. The question is, then, whether there is enough political will to bite the bullet and make the decision to fund it.

Michele Ford is an Australian Research Council Future Fellow in the Sydney Southeast Asia Centre.

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