2020 Reviewing Asian Studies, Asian languages, Asian studies, Australia - Indonesia relations, Indonesia

The state of Indonesian language in Australian universities: the past 20 years.


A recent volume tracing ‘the journey of Australia’s first Asian language’ (Thomas, 2019) finds that, while successive Australian governments have identified Indonesia as Australia’s most important neighbour and as a key to Australia’s prosperity and security, this recognition has not sustained interest among Australians in studying the language.

For the last two decades, the study of Indonesian at Australian universities has been in decline.

Preliminary data collection as part of a national survey of enrolments in Australian university Indonesian language programs suggests this two-decade-long decline continues apace with national enrolments now less than half their peak in 1992 (see Appendix 1).

However, there are some encouraging indications that some institutions have halted and even reversed that decline, making small but meaningful gains. There are clear differences emerging too between states.

One of the major features of the current national scene – sadly, severely challenged by the current COVID-19 pandemic — has been the strong and dispersed growth in enrolment in in-country Indonesian programs, to a large extent stimulated by the availability of New Colombo Plan funds (and importantly, institutional encouragement and support that accompanies such NCP participation).

Historical overview

Enrolments in Indonesian language in Australian universities peaked in the 1990s. In his 1994 report Unlocking Australia’s Language Potential: Indonesian, Peter Worsley documented a surge in growth in Indonesian enrolments. He noted that a major factor stimulating such growth was the Hawke Labor Government’s adoption in May 1987 of a National Policy on Languages, which emphasised Australia’s Asia-Pacific relations and highlighted Indonesian as one language needing special attention. Indonesian was subsequently nominated as a ‘priority language in all States and Territories’ (p. 99-100).

Australian universities measure enrolments in a standardised Equivalent Full-Time Student Load (EFTSL) where one EFTSL equals the total load of a full-time student in one year across all subjects. That is, if a student was taking one unit/subject of Indonesian plus three other subjects in a semester, that Indonesian enrolment would be worth 0.125 EFTSL.

In broad terms Worsley identified a total of 22 tertiary institutions (i.e., universities and then comparable institutions like Colleges of Advanced Education) teaching approximately 502 EFTSL in 1992 This represented a growth of approximately 150% from the 200 EFTSL (across 15 institutions) in 1988 (Table 2.12 reproduced as Appendix 2).

From that high point, enrolments declined steadily until 2009 when they were around 300 EFTSL.  The reasons for the decline are complex, but a major factor was frequent negative media images of Indonesia (e.g. during instability around the resignation of former president Suharto in May 1998; Indonesian violence in East Timor around the 1999 independence plebiscite; deaths of Australians in the Bali bombings of 2002 and 2005; and the bombing of the Australian Embassy in 2004; and the detention and trial of Australian drug smugglers such as Schapelle Corby and the ‘Bali Nine’ after 2005).  

With some slight fluctuations, Indonesian enrolments halted then plateaued at about 300 EFTSL per annum for the five years from 2009 till 2014 (see Table 1).

 20012002200320042005200620072008200920102011201220132014Total% change  2001 -14
National Total481.9470.0455.1444.0418.3372.8356.8339.1302.2304.9301.2337.9308.5302.55195-37

Table 1: Indonesian language EFTSLs 2001-2014 [rounded to 1 decimal point] (Hill, 2019, p. 209).

Represented in chart form, the downward trend and subsequent plateauing is stark.

Chart 1: Australian National EFTSLs (2001-2014) (Hill, 2019, p. 210)

Along with the overall contraction in enrolments, several universities closed their programs, leaving students with no Indonesian language option. Others negotiated agreements to share programs across campuses, or to retain an Indonesian offering in their handbook which was actually taught by (or taught substantially by) another university. While such arrangements at least retained for students the possibility of studying Indonesian, students were often left with little encouragement to study a language not represented by staff on their campus. Students often faced considerable hurdles to studying via another provider or solely online.

Two decades after Worsley counted 22 universities with Indonesian programs, by 2012 there were only 17 (with Indonesian also available online through the Open Universities Australia (OUA) taught by Charles Darwin University).

The past decade?

Preliminary information compiled for 2019 suggests only 14 universities now offer their own Indonesian language courses (in addition to OUA), thus fewer than the 15 Worsley identified in 1988 prior to the enrolment boom. Significant recent closures include UNSW Sydney in 2014. (The Australian Defence Force Academy’s Indonesian course taught by UNSW Canberra was not included in our data as it is exclusively for the military.)

Information provided by teaching staff indicates at least one other university is poised to wind down its Indonesian offering.

Even more alarming than the reduction in the number of universities offering Indonesian is the finding that the total Indonesian EFTSL is now below the 200 EFTSL base in 1988. (Regrettably, Charles Darwin University declined to reveal the NT load, but this would be unlikely to alter the overall national picture.)

In essence, the growth of Indonesian language over the past three decades has evaporated, despite total student enrolments in Australian higher education having more than trebled from approximately 440,000 in 1989 to 1.56 million in 2018.

Reasons for optimism?

Some gains have been made in recent years.

In my 2012 report, when I projected the 2001-2010 trends, it seemed that by 2019 total Indonesian load in Australia would be less than 90 EFTSL (p. 22, Table 3). It is still nearly twice that projection. EFTSL remain around the level predicted for 2013/4, reflecting the five-year enrolment plateau mentioned above.

In addition, one Victorian university has managed to increase their EFTSL in 2019 (compared to 2014), albeit only marginally.

The picture in NSW also gives reason for optimism. There has been a change in the composition of universities offering Indonesian with Western Sydney University re-entering after UNSW withdrew. The net effect has been to maintain 2019 state enrolments at an almost identical level to 2014: about 38.9 EFTSL, relatively close to the 2010 level of 40 EFTSL.

Victoria stands out

Victoria has remained the nation’s primary provider of tertiary-level Indonesian. While it has declined from 143 EFTSL in 1992 to 80 EFTSL in 2019, this still equates to around 45% of Australia’s enrolments in Indonesian.

It the absence of detailed research, one might speculate as to why Victoria has been successful in this. In recent years there have been specific state government initiatives to promote Asian languages including Indonesian. These include, for example, the Victorian Young Leaders to Indonesia program at secondary school level, which offers six weeks funded in-country experience in Indonesia, and at tertiary level, the Hamer Scholarships which fund a semester of intensive immersion language study.

Victorian universities have also invested significantly in the past five years in strengthening Indonesian studies. Since 2015 Melbourne University has recruited two Indonesia-specialists to relevant chairs (Hadiz, Rosser).

Monash University has the Herb Feith Chair for the Study of Indonesia (the only named chair in Australia in Indonesian studies), held by Ariel Heryanto until his retirement earlier this year, with an announcement expected soon regarding a replacement. In late 2019 Monash also appointed a Chair of Indonesian Studies (Millie) and an Associate Professor (Davies).

In addition, the Monash Arts Faculty offers funded places for all its BA and B. Global Studies students wishing to participate in the Global Immersion Guarantee (GIG), a three-week international experience in either Indonesia, China or Italy. The launch in early 2019 of the Monash Herb Feith Indonesian Engagement Centre and the University’s recent announcement of its intention to open a postgraduate campus in Indonesia are both noteworthy developments, raising the profile of Indonesia significantly within the university and beyond.

By contrast, in at least four of our universities around Australia, Indonesian language lacks even one full-time tenured staff member. Often absent are senior staff ‘promoters’ or ‘protectors’ to ensure maintenance, let alone growth, of the field.

Attempts by ANU in 2015-16 to cull staff in the College of Asia and the Pacific, including in the broad field of Indonesian studies, attracted international dismay. While that university retains a core of internationally renowned senior scholars in various disciplines who work on Indonesia, Indonesian language teaching is considerably weaker institutionally than a decade ago.

In one of the most startling recalibrations in the past three decades, Queensland has shifted from having the second highest state load in 1992 (101 EFTSL) to fifth place in 2019 (with approximately 16 EFTSL).

New Colombo Plan & in-country study

While there is a lack of clarity about individual university credit allocation and enormous variations in how universities calculate resultant New Colombo Plan EFTSL, the NCP has stimulated a huge interest in various kinds of educational programs in Indonesia, including in Indonesian language.

Largely funded by the NCP, in 2017 for example, more than 1,100 Australian undergraduates had study experiences (including study tours or short visits) in Indonesia. In 2018, 40 undertook semester-long language programs with the multi-university Australian Consortium for In-Country Indonesian Studies (ACICIS) and a further 90 took a newly-launched Indonesian Language Short Course. This would equate to approximately 31.25 EFTSL.

Only one individual university had more Indonesian EFTSL on campus than did ACICIS collectively in Indonesia. Only two states have a greater EFTSL than ACICIS. In addition, there are a variety of other bilateral and cross-university collaborations (such as the Regional Universities Indonesian Language Initiative, RUILI) which have swelled such in-country numbers. While the COVID-19 pandemic has temporarily decimated such outbound mobility, in the longer term the demand for Indonesian in-country programs appears to be both sustainable and increasing.

In summary, while the last five years have seen a substantial drop in Indonesian language enrolments around Australia, the contraction has been less than anticipated. There were some encouraging indications that the decline has eased, at least in some states, and that in-country study is growing to fill the gap.


Appendix 1:

 19881992200120102014                    2019Compare 1988:2019Compare 1992:2019
NSW30                         75.283.14038.938.9+29%-48%
TAS029.932.316.58.56.4 -79%
TOTAL                 200503482304303178#-11%-63%*

APPENDIX 1: Indonesian Language enrolments in Australian universities: 1988-2019 (Selected years) in EFTSL. (based on Worsley 1994; Hill 2012; Hill 2019; & 2019 preliminary data provided by universities). 

# CDU was the only institution which declined to disclose its 2019 data.

*1992:2019 comparison is based on 1992 EFTSL without CDU/NTU (ie. 483.6 : 178).

I would like to thank all those who responded positively to my request for 2019 enrolment data.

Appendix 2:  

Appendix 2: Table 2.12 from (Worsley, 1994, p. 67)

About David Hill

David Hill is Emeritus Professor at Murdoch University, and formerly the Consortium Director of the Australian Consortium for In-Country Indonesian Studies (ACICIS), 1994-2018.

5th May, 2020