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Dumb and Dumber: Government, University Responsible for decline in Indo-Pacific literacy

 *this article first appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald on 15 December 2020. 

La Trobe, Swinburne, Murdoch and Western Sydney University. These are some of the Australian universities considering axing various Indo-Pacific language programs from Indonesian to Hindi. It’s feared other universities may follow suit.

Abolishing language programs is a dumb move. Australian universities are a key ingredient in the government’s commitment to engagement with the Indo-Pacific.

Universities are essential training grounds for a future generation of Indo-Pacific literate Australians.

The decline in programs corresponds with a decline in enrolments. This is evident with the Indonesian language.

In the 1990s, enrolment in Indonesian language was at its height, with 22 programs at Australian universities. In the decades since then, there has been a major decline.

According to David Hill, emeritus professor of south-east Asian studies at Murdoch University in Perth, in 2019 there were only about 14 Indonesian language programs left at Australian universities. As a result of COVID-19, that number may fall further.

Australian universities must retain language programs, which are vital to equip the next generation for smart engagement with the Indo-Pacific.

Institutional commitments to language programs by universities are crucial because studying a language requires a significant investment of time, commitment and money.

As part of my Arts degree I undertook an Indonesian language program, building on my four years of Indonesian language studies in high school.

Yet this was in mid-2000s, when I was one of about 400 students studying Indonesian in Australia.

By 2014, those numbers dipped below 200 equivalent full-time students. It is feared that in the future the number of students could be much less.

At university, I was privileged to be taught by the likes of Arief Budiman, a well-known activist and scholar, and Professor Ariel Heryanto, a cultural studies expert.

As part of my degree, I also took Indonesian studies programs like politics, media, religion, law and society. This helped me to appreciate the great diversity and richness of the country’s history, people and culture.

My university also facilitated several internships in Indonesia. It was through contacts at university that I heard about the Australia-Indonesia Youth Exchange Program. This collective experience with a group of 15 Australians and 15 Indonesians set me on a course of lifetime engagement with Indonesia.

Many of the Australians on that youth exchange program have found exciting and fulfilling careers in diplomacy, business, academic, education and the civil service. Their skills in the language and their knowledge of Indonesian enabled them to achieve the vocations they now pursue.

Through my university, I also received support from my faculty to undertake an internship with the Office of the Ombudsman in Yogyakarta.

These short-term trips would not have been as rich and meaningful if I did not have basic competence in the language.

In short, my years of studying the language in high school and at university equipped me for deep engagement with Indonesia.

Our universities are now at risk of curtailing access to Indonesian language programs for a future generation of students.

If the decision by some Australian universities to close language programs is dumb, then the Australian government is dumber.

Over the past two decades, the government has been told time and time again that student enrolments in languages of the Indo-Pacific are falling, particularly for Indonesian. This is a well-established fact.

Yet the federal government has done nothing about it. Short-term study abroad is no quick fix for an Indo-Pacific literacy crisis. It's great to have the Governor-General of Australia studying Indonesia, but what about the future generation?

The government frequently refers to its commitment to the region and its Indo-Pacific strategy, as set out in its 2016 Defence Paper and 2017 White Paper.

Yet it has failed to live up to this aspiration with real policies that create incentives for Australian students to study languages of the Indo-Pacific and the necessary funding for institutions to make this happen.

What we are left with is a future where there are fewer graduates of Australian universities than ever with basic competence in one language of the Indo-Pacific.

These graduates are going into business, diplomacy, academia, education and science with less knowledge than ever before about our neighbours.

Collaboration and partnership in the Indo-Pacific region require mutual understanding.

Australia’s bilateral relationships are strengthened when Australians take the time to learn a language.

To take one example, the landmark Indonesia Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement should see more Australians incentivised to study the language, rather than less.

The more students studying Indonesian language, the greater chance we have of building strong relationships with our most important neighbour. Our economic, diplomatic and cultural ties remain hollow without a basic appreciation for the language.

The dual lack of commitment by Australian universities and the government to invest in language capabilities affects our engagement in the region.

Even the embassies based in Australia agree. That’s why the recent consultations to axe language programs at some universities have received a strong and swift response from both the Indian embassy and the Indonesian embassy.

That’s right, our neighbours know it’s important for us to learn their language more than our own government and universities do.

And there lies the challenge for 2021: both the government and Australian universities must work together to ensure Asian language programs not just survive, but thrive, post COVID-19.


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