The National Colloquium on the Future of Indonesian in Australian Universities, held at Murdoch University on February 9-11, 2011 attempted to identify those strategies that might strengthen the teaching of, and demand for, Indonesian.
Academics were invited from every Australian university that teaches Indonesian. They were joined by scholars from Germany, Japan and Indonesia, to provide international comparisons with Indonesian-teaching programs abroad.
Amongst the 70 participants were representatives from the Australian and Indonesian governments, and from community interest groups such as the Australia-Indonesia Business Council, and state Indonesian language teachers associations.
The colloquium attracted good media attention and was mentioned positively in the WA Parliament. After attending, the Member for Cannington, Mr Bill Johnston, who had himself spent a year as an exchange student in Indonesia in his youth, declared ‘investment in Indonesian language skills is in the national interest of all Australians’.
Opened by Murdoch’s Acting Vice Chancellor, Prof. Gary Martin, the colloquium was launched with up-beat introductory statement by the Indonesian Ambassador, Mr Primo Alui Joelianto.
The program also included plenary addresses by Melbourne University’s Professor Tim Lindsey, Australia-Indonesia Business Council National Vice-President Ross Taylor, Indonesian Embassy Educational Counsellor Dr Aris Junaidi, and Dr Sugiyono from the Language Development Agency of the Indonesian Ministry of National Education.
The Indonesian government, through both the Canberra Embassy and the Consulate-General in Perth, provided strong support.
By contrast, participants were disappointed Senator Chris Evans, the Minister for Tertiary Education, declined to attend or to send a spokesperson. Mysteriously, despite the meeting’s explicit focus on universities, no-one came from the Higher Education Group of the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations, with DEEWR represented by an officer from the National Asian Languages and Studies in Schools program. Both the department of Defence and Foreign Affairs and Trade were represented.
There were encouraging review sessions in which staff from each university reported on the highs and lows of Indonesian in their institution, and senior scholars in Japan, Germany and Indonesia reported on the state of the discipline there.
Most of the three-day program was devoted to small group discussions, facilitated by A/Prof. Michele Ford (Sydney), A/Prof. Pam Allen (Tasmania) and A/Prof. Anton Lucas (Flinders). These sessions focussed on specific strategies raised in a Discussion Paper, based on input from staff and students during earlier visits to every Australian university that teaches Indonesian.
Examples of inter-university language initiatives, and ‘best practice’ in teaching were shared. A lot of very productive collaboration is taking place, most obviously in various in-country programs such as the Regional Universities Indonesian Language Initiative (RUILI) and the Australian Consortium for ‘In-Country’ Indonesian Studies (ACICIS). Collaborations, such as that between Flinders and Adelaide to ensure Indonesian is available to students at both, have been fruitful for many years.
In the written feedback at the end of the event, respondents praised Indonesiansts’ ‘strong spirit of community of practice’, with another recommending ‘linking large well resourced unis with weaker smaller ones, or getting middle range unis to work together in pooling resources and helping each other to move away from competition to cooperation’.
Attendees were keen to hear about innovative teaching practices which might be transferrable to their own situation. At the University of Sydney, for example, in upper level units, guest lecturers come in from the community to address students in Indonesian on a variety of specialist topics, while providing carefully structured support materials to assist students follow complex and authentic spoken Indonesian. It was an appealing model.
Other sessions evaluated the concept of having a national provider for external Indonesian courses, a national core curriculum, a national proficiency rating scale, a national teaching resources bank and the value of developing a national textbook.
Participants suspected that particular strategies – such as a national provider for external Indonesian -- might have the undesirable effect of undermining smaller teaching programs, potentially attracting students away to stronger ones. Major reservations were raised about the concept of a national key centre for Indonesian studies or a single ‘think-tank’, with the predominant view that such a concentration of resources could weaken the sector overall, by ‘putting all eggs into one basket’.
The example of the Netherlands was ominous. More than a decade ago all Dutch universities teaching Indonesian agreed to centralise the language at Leiden University as the sole provider on the assumption it would then be stronger and more viable. Subsequently, however, Leiden reduced its Indonesian language offerings and staff drastically, in a major restructuring.
By contrast, across the border in Germany, Indonesian remains dispersed, being taught in universities scattered across the country, often in relatively small programs. Yet it remains viable and continues to grow steadily.
Other ideas raised at the colloquium, such as a national teaching resources bank, were seen as having widespread benefit for virtually all Australian teaching programs. An ad hoc working group was established to advance that particular idea. There was strong support too for the concept of a national body to promote Indonesian and for more targeted funding support for students to stimulate greater demand for Indonesian.
Most participants were surprised to learn that, since 2006, Indonesian (along with Arabic) had been categorised as a ‘Nationally Strategic Language’ in Commonwealth funding agreements with Australian universities, and DEEWR permission is required to close an Indonesian program. However, while universities are thereby discouraged from closing Indonesian programs, the government does not provide any specific funding to support a Nationally Strategic Language making the classification rather ineffective.
The colloquium discussions will feed into the development of a national strategy for Indonesian in Australian universities. Later this year this strategy will be presented for consideration to the Australian government, to individual universities, and to the Indonesian government.
We acknowledge the generous support of the ALTC and Murdoch University in convening this event.
A modified version of this summary of the proceedings of the National Colloquium appeared in the April 2011 edition of the Autralian Asian Studies Association's online publication Asian Currents.