Australian and Indonesian academics agree: More government and community support is needed for cultural and language studies in both countries to help improve relationships. Enrollments are dropping for Indonesian Studies and language in Australian schools and universities. In Indonesia only a few hundred undergraduates are actively studying their southern neighbor, though numbers are slowly increasing.
Fifteen Indonesian tertiary institutions, private and state, belong to the Australian Studies Circle, but not all offer full semester courses, said lecturer Aylanda Dwi Nugroho from Surabaya's Petra Christian University, and chair of the Circle. "Some English departments include Australian poems in their poetry units, or classes on Australian society in their history departments. About five offer Australian Studies as a major subject, but there aren't enough teachers who have first hand knowledge of the country or have undertaken specialized study."
Only the University of Indonesia has a full Australian Studies course for postgraduates, she said. The Circle was formed two years ago at a workshop in Bromo, East Java. It helps other campuses design courses, write curricula, build resources and open new centers. In October the Sam Ratulangi University in Manado will open the latest Australian Studies Center, and the first in North Sulawesi.
The others are in North Sumatra, West Sumatra, Java, Kalimantan and South Sulawesi. Petra has a well-developed center funded in part by the Australian government's Australia-Indonesian Institute. It includes a small library of books, topical magazines and DVDs, and Internet access. "We want our students to understand Australian life, culture, communities and institutions," said Aylanda. "We hope this will strengthen mutual understanding and relationships between the two neighboring countries.
"Most new students have a limited and simplistic view of Australia. They tend to think it's a poorer version of the US plus kangaroos and koalas." Aylanda studied for her master's degree in applied linguistics at Canberra University on an Australian government scholarship. Since graduating in 1994 she has returned about ten times and plans to do her doctorate at Melbourne University.
"Australia is my second home," she said. "I've visited most parts of the continent and I enjoy the country and its people. Good relationships between our nations are so important. "When I was an undergraduate at Malang University in East Java Australian Studies was unknown. At that time American Studies was enormously popular. That changed with the advent of international terrorism and restrictions on travel.
"British Studies was never taught before 2000. It became briefly popular in East Java but has also declined since the British Council in Surabaya stopped its support." Terrorism has also been a factor in tumbling interest in Indonesian Studies in Australia. Paradoxically this has come when the demand for Indonesian-speaking cultural experts in government departments and security agencies is increasing.
At the national conference of the Australian Society of Indonesian Language Educators in Perth last month, University of New South Wales professor David Reeve said periodic crises in Indonesia and attacks on Indonesia by sections of the Australian media had eroded student confidence. The focus on terrorism, government travel advisories warning against visiting Indonesia and a hostile reaction to the Corby drug case had aggravated the situation. (Last month Australian woman Schapelle Corby was sentenced to 20 years jail for importing marijuana into Bali.)
Professor David Hill from Perth's Murdoch University described the falling enrollments as "stark". "In Western Australia last year only one per cent of the Tertiary Entrance Examination candidates sat the Indonesian second language paper," he said. "That's a 24 per cent decline on the previous year. In New South Wales there's been a 16 per cent drop in the past decade. "Even committed teachers of Indonesian face resistance within their schools from parent groups and students influenced by negative public opinion.
"Positive information about Indonesia - its enormous strides towards democracy and the predominant peace and tranquility across the vast archipelago - has become rare. Yet Indonesia's rapid social and political transformation makes the nation more fascinating than ever." An Australian Parliamentary report on relationships between the neighbors, and published 14 months ago, called for more people-to-people contacts. It also recommended that Indonesian Studies be designated "a strategic national priority." So far the Australian government has failed to respond.
Apart from negative perceptions of Indonesia, Professor Hill blamed the Australian government for dropping the National Asian Languages and Studies program in 2002. He said this had turned students away from studying Asia. But he also criticized the Indonesian government for banning two Australian academics and for making research visas hard to obtain. He said Indonesia should provide scholarships for staff and students to visit Australia.
The high cost of education and living in Australia makes it difficult for many Indonesians without outside support to study abroad. Professor Hill helped pioneer an intercultural program called the Australian Consortium for In-Country Indonesian Studies and now in its eleventh year.
This places Australian undergraduates in selected Indonesian universities where they study alongside local students and live in boarding houses. Most find the costs easy to bear. Aylanda agreed more resources, training and government support were required. She said the Australian Embassy in Jakarta had been "enormously helpful" in supplying materials and encouraging Indonesian academics. "The number of Australian government scholarships has also increased to more than 600," she said. "But when is enough, enough?"