$98 million needed to lift study of Indonesian over next decade

To maximise opportunities in Indonesia’s expanding economy, Australian businesses will need to speak the language. AAP/Bagus Indahono
The study of Indonesian has sunk to “crisis levels” in Australian universities, according to a government-funded review that calls for $98 million to save the language before it vanishes from campuses in most states.

Between 2001 and 2010, enrolments in Indonesian dropped by 40%, even as the undergraduate population grew by nearly 40%. In NSW, Indonesian language enrolments slumped by more than 70%.

At the launch of the report in Canberra today, the author, Murdoch University Professor of Southeast Asian Studies, David Hill, said that if the rate of decline continued, by 2021 Indonesian “will be gone altogether from universities everywhere except in Victoria and the Northern Territory”.

There were fewer Year 12 students studying Indonesian in 2009 than there were in 1972, Professor Hill said.

Unless Australia reinvested in the study of the language, it risked “losing the advantage offered by linguistic expertise, as well as the economic, political and strategic benefits from our relationship with the most populous nation in our region”, Professor Hill said.

His report, which will be part of a submission to the Henry Review on Australia in the Asian Century, recommends that the state and federal governments take 20 steps to revive Indonesian language studies, at a cost of $9.8 million annually over the next decade - “[which] equates to less than 0.3% of the value of Australia’s 2010 stock of direct investment in Indonesia and just 0.08% of the value of 2010 annual two-way trade between the two countries”, he said.

Most importantly, the report calls for a national taskforce to oversee an “Indonesian Language in Universities Program” to promote the language and monitor enrolments at both school and university level.

It proposes creating a scholarship scheme for students who want to study the language in Indonesia, and recommends that the Federal Government fund 15 new lectureships to teach the language for a minimum of five years.

The report also urges the government to review the “wording and impact of the [Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade] Travel Advisory for Indonesia, with a view to making it more nuanced, and noting explicitly that the advice is not intended to be interpreted as a ban upon educational exchanges with Indonesia”.

Professor Hill said the period of steepest decline in Indonesian studies began in 1997, when the Asian financial crisis hit. The Bali bombings and the arrest of several Australians for drug trafficking in subsequent years had fuelled a negative perception of Indonesia among Australians, he said.

“All of these and other things, layer upon layer, have affected Australians’ enthusiasm for learning about Indonesia and studying the language,” he said. “But these incidents don’t encapsulate the real attitude of Indonesians to Australia, which is very welcoming and very keen for collaboration to mutual advantage.”

“We should be engaging much more with languages from across the whole Asian region. But Indonesian for a whole range of reasons is in my view the most strategically important, due not just to our proximity to Indonesia, but also because of a whole range of other factors: environmental issues, issues relating to national security, the movement of people – we have to be able to work really closely with Indonesia.”

Indonesia’s economy is growing by more than 6% per annum. The International Monetary Fund projects that its nominal GDP growth rate for 2009-15 will be 15.1%: higher than Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Korea, Japan, or the rest of Southeast Asia.

Greg McCarthy, Head of the School of Social Sciences at the University of Adelaide, agreed that Australia would miss out on major opportunities if it could not engage with the Asian region through language.

“Asian language studies have really been neglected in the past two decades, and we’re now behind where we were in the 1960s, which is a terrible situation when you think about it,” Professor McCarthy said.

“When you consider that Indonesian could disappear from year 12 completely in five years, then that’s a real worry.

"It’s not just Indonesian. Chinese, Japanese and Korean also have poor enrolment numbers. If we don’t do more to promote these languages, then Australia will miss out in many ways.”