Indonesia, Asian languages, and what’s in it for me?

Over at the Lowy Interpreter, there’s been a series of posts also pointing to articles in the Fairfax press about “deepening our engagement with Asia”. One idea, mentioned by White and Joshua Frydenberg, is to fund more Australian university students to study in Asia.

Sam Rogeeveen asks a couple of pertinent questions about this, notably the following:

What’s wrong with the status quo? What harm would be caused if we did nothing?

That’s a reasonable question. And, let’s be honest, there’s not a lot wrong with the status quo. Australia is a rich, stable country whose continued economic growth and security is in no way impeded by the current state of the relationship with Indonesia. Furthermore, Australia and Australians have shown the capacity to forge closer relationships with developing countries when there’s money to be made – China most notably at the moment, but Japan and Korea before that. Let’s also note that in both the Japanese and Korean cases there are no significant diaspora resident in Australia who aided trade, as is the case with China. Why would Indonesia be so different?

But let’s take it as read that it would be a good thing if we “deepened our engagement with Indonesia”, and “sending students to study in Indonesia” would be the way to do so.

Here’s my question: what’s the benefit to the individual students in participating in this engagement? Why would a student who’s not studying something that’s not directly related to Indonesia choose to go to an Indonesian university for a couple of years?

Yes, you might learn Bahasa Indonesia. But what would it do to the rest of your course of study? Indonesia doesn’t have a single university in the world’s top 500, as ranked by the AWRU list (methodologically flawed as that list is, it’s a vaguely useful gross measure). Melbourne has four, Australia has 19. It’s my understanding that Indonesia’s elite don’t send their children to study in their own universities – so why would any sensible Australian student do so?

And then there’s the lifestyle issue. Let’s be honest for a minute – students on exchange want to spend a very substantial proportion of their time on extracurricular activities. While Jakarta is neither Port Moresby nor Riyadh, I don’t think a university in Jakarta (or elsewhere in Indonesia) would be an easy sell to students on that score compared to dozens of other places throughout the west (and indeed other parts of Asia).

As such, these kind of calls, well-intentioned though they are, seem more than a little like the perpetual calls for more students to study science despite the fact that there’s no shortage of scientists (the link is to the United States, but Australia’s situation is similar). Students don’t choose study options to help Australia’s foreign policy establishment to achieve long-held goals. They choose them to benefit themselves.

And, unless such benefits can be clearly demonstrated and marketed to students, such an initiative is doomed to failure, like every other well-intentioned attempt to push Australians into a deeper engagement with Indonesia.

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One Response to Indonesia, Asian languages, and what’s in it for me?

  1. Nic Stuart says:

    Absolutely. But knowledge is still vital. I rushed to study in the UK and only learnt Thai (thanks, taxpayer) when I was posted to Bangkok. This achieved nothing for me or the country, but I firmly believe SE Asia is where our future will be decided. We need political ‘leaders’ to lead us there.

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