Indonesian studies in Australia
From left Professor David Hill and Professor Tim Lindsey share their concerns over the decline in Indonesian language teaching- Nick Metherall

 

The decline of Indonesian language studies- described as a ‘death spiral’ by The Australian- has been widely covered by news, media and academics throughout Australia. So how serious is this death spiral for Indonesian studies in Australia?

Since 2006, Bahasa Indonesia has been designated a nationally-strategic-language in Australia yet enrolments have fallen 40 per cent and universities are closing programs.[1] Covering this trend, a report commissioned by the Asian Studies Association of Australia (ASAA) in 2011 observed a clear descent in Asian language literacy which it described as a ‘crisis’.[2]

In an opinion piece on the Conversation, Professor of Southeast Asian Studies at Murdoch University and Founder of ACICIS, David Hill also observes this crisis as the death of Indonesian knowledge.[3] Hill refers to a report launched in Parliament House which concluded the need to act decisively and urgently to rebuild Indonesian skills in Australia. Hill believes that Australia’s capacity to benefit from the Asian Century’s dynamic regional growth is hindered by our lack of language skills. The Federal Government funded review or ‘Hill Report’ found that there were fewer year 12 students studying Indonesian in 2009 than there were in 1972 (the golden years of Australian-Indonesian engagement). University enrollments in Indonesian language nationwide were also recorded as falling dramatically by 37% between 2001 and 2010.[4]

Bernard Lane’s article which coined the ‘death spiral’ term, covers a number of skeptical expert opinions relating to the future prospects for Indonesian language in Australia.

Head of the DFAT Australia Indonesia Institute (AII), and Professor at Melbourne University, Tim Lindsey’s outlook is equally grim. Commenting on the decision of the University of New South Wales (UNSW) to close Indonesian studies in 2014, Lindsey forecasted absolute certainty that “….there will be more Indonesian language programs closing in schools and universities….” [5] These declines have been covered widely by government reports and surveys.

The closure of the UNSW program, which used to be a national leader, serves as a cautionary example, demonstrating that even the strongest programs can fall due to a number of threatening supply and demand side factors. From the supply side, the collapse of Indonesian language studies at UNSW has been attributed to neglect and lack of prioritization of Indonesian languages by the university administration. It has also resulted from the lack of renewal of Indonesian studies with retiring academics not being replaced. Many ‘Indonesian-ists’ were most active in the 70s and 80s. Now with the generational aging of these groups coming closer to retirement it has been difficult to fill the resulting gap with a new generation of Indonesia experts.

From the demand side, a generational collapse of mainstream interest in Asian studies has been observed in many universities throughout Australia. This generational collapse has been attributed to a range of misconceptions and cross-cultural misunderstandings between Australia and Indonesia. A Lowy Institute study in 2011 found that as many as 69% of Australians still believe that Indonesia is essentially controlled by the military.[6] When combined with media’s negative focus on various issues relating to Indonesia, the willingness for many Australians to engage with Indonesia has diminished.

This supply-demand side decline of Indonesian studies in Australia is not a particularly recent or sudden phenomena but instead, an ongoing process which has been documented over many years. Solutions have also been sought but with little effect. Back in 2007, a report prepared by the Group of Eight (Go8), entitled “Language in Crisis: A Rescue Plan for Australia” estimated that estimated that 90-95% of Australian undergraduates do not undertake any language study and that less than 13% complete a year 12 language program.[7] The report also observed that while interest in Asian languages struggled, the fastest growing language in Australia was Spanish.

Professor Lindsey said Professor Lindsey said: “Germany will soon have more universities teaching Indonesian than Australia because state governments in Germany see the need to invest in Indonesia as the third rising power in Asia”.[8]

 Indonesian studies in Australia

What are your thoughts and experiences on Indonesian studies in Australia? Feel free to comment below and add to the discussion. 

 Indonesian studies in Australia

[1] ABC Radio, Australia rapidly losing Indonesian Language Skills, http://www.radioaustralia.net.au/international/radio/onairhighlights/australia-rapidly-losing-indonesian-language-skills (accessed 5th of February 2014).

[2] Anne Mclaren, ASIAN LANGUAGES ENROLMENTS IN AUSTRALIAN HIGHER EDUCATION 2008-2009, Asian Studies Association of Australia, http://asaa.asn.au/publications/Reports/Asian%20Languages%20Enrolments%20Report%20Feb%202011.pdf (accessed 5th of February 2014).

[3] David Hill, Indonesian knowledge is dying – just when we need it most, The Conversation,  https://theconversation.com/indonesian-knowledge-is-dying-just-when-we-need-it-most-5630 (Accessed 5th of February 2014).

[4] Murdoch University, ALTC Fellowship, http://www.murdoch.edu.au/ALTC-Fellowship/About-the-Fellowship/ (Accessed 5th of February 2014).

[5] Bernard Lane, ‘Death Spiral’ of Indonesian Studies, The Australian, October 31st, 2013. URL: http://www.theaustralian.com.au/higher-education/death-spiral-for-indonesian-studies/story-e6frgcjx-1226749154711 (Accessed 5th of February 2014).

[6] ABC Radio, Australia rapidly losing Indonesian Language Skills, http://www.radioaustralia.net.au/international/radio/onairhighlights/australia-rapidly-losing-indonesian-language-skills (accessed 5th of February 2014).

[7] Anne Mclaren, ASIAN LANGUAGES ENROLMENTS IN AUSTRALIAN HIGHER EDUCATION 2008-2009, Asian Studies Association of Australia,  http://asaa.asn.au/publications/Reports/Asian%20Languages%20Enrolments%20Report%20Feb%202011.pdf (accessed 5th of February 2014)

[8] Bernard Lane, ‘Death Spiral’ of Indonesian Studies, The Australian, October 31st, 2013. URL: http://www.theaustralian.com.au/higher-education/death-spiral-for-indonesian-studies/story-e6frgcjx-1226749154711 (Accessed 5th of February 2014)

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Nick Metherall

Indonesia Country Coordinator
Nick is a student at La Trobe University. He is currently conducting field work in rural and remote parts of Eastern Indonesia.

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