The COVID-19 pandemic has profoundly affected study abroad programs around the world, including those offered between Australia and Indonesia. Study abroad, exchange, and volunteering programs that normally involve travel between Australia and Indonesia have pivoted to online delivery in an effort to continue fostering intercultural competence in young learners, building global citizenship, and deepen bilateral ties. Yet, while the shift to online programs might be unprecedented, adaptability and resilience in Australia-Indonesia educational partnerships is nothing new.
For over 70 years, Australia and Indonesia’s educational programs have overcome natural disasters, political instability and acts of terrorism to build productive, bilateral people-to-people relationships. Under the original Colombo Plan, from the 1950s thousands of Indonesian students studied in Australia during the White Australia Policy’s final years. In the 1990s, a new generation of Indonesian students headed to Australia amidst the collapse of New Order Indonesia. More recently, despite Australian government travel advisories and negative ‘beef, boats and Bali’ media coverage, record numbers of schools and universities in both countries have partnered through programs such as BRIDGE, Victorian Young Leaders (VYL) to Indonesia and the New Colombo Plan. While the current immobility represents a significant challenge, Australia-Indonesia education partners are well accustomed to working through unpredictability. It is precisely this volatility which has fostered innovation and creativity in the international education links between our two countries, and which stands to serve us well in weathering COVID-19.
Pre-COVID innovation in international education
The ‘Building Relationships through Intercultural Dialogue and Growing Engagement’ (BRIDGE) project was established in 2008 as a sister-school partnership program to digitally connect Australian and Indonesian primary and secondary schools. BRIDGE began in response to Australian government travel advice, which between 2002 and 2012 almost completely prohibited Australian school group travel to Indonesia. By 2021-2022, Asia Education Foundation (AEF) states that BRIDGE will have established 200+ partnerships between schools located across all Australian states and territories with 18 Indonesian provinces. Furthermore, BRIDGE is now a successful school partnership model for the broader Indo-Pacific region; BRIDGE has expanded to connect Australian schools with counterparts across ASEAN and the Pacific as well as in China, India, Japan and South Korea.
In 2019, the Victorian Department of Education and Training (DET) piloted Indonesia as an additional destination for their ‘Victorian Young Leaders’ (VYL) suite, which also included programs to China and India. Under the VYL scheme, unique among government-sponsored high school mobility programs in Australia, Year 9 students undertake a fully funded six-week in-country immersion program, attending local schools and spending time with local host families. Prior to COVID-19, DET had planned to grow VYL Indonesia alongside its successful VYL China program, through which nearly 2,000 students had travelled to China since 2014.
In the tertiary sector, in 2014 the Federal Government launched the New Colombo Plan (NCP) scholarship and grants initiative for Australian undergraduate students to study and intern in the Indo-Pacific region. Designed principally by former Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, the NCP was imagined as a ‘reconceptualisation’ and inversion of the former Colombo Plan. The NCP awards student scholarships for study and internships between six to 18 months, and university-led ‘mobility grants’ for shorter programs ranging from two to 14 weeks. The NCP has grown significantly in size and scope: by 2020, more than 40,000 students had completed an NCP-funded study or internship program in the region. To date, DFAT has allocated close to AUD$200 million to the program, with an ongoing investment of over AUD$50 million projected annually up to 2022.
COVID and beyond
Despite the initial shock of travel restrictions, lockdowns and job losses across the international education sector throughout 2020, Australia-Indonesia educational links have flourished in the shift to online learning. COVID-19 has created new opportunities for Australian and Indonesian students and youth to engage through online platforms and virtual relationship-building. This is evident in the online pivots of the Australia-Indonesia Youth Exchange program (AIYEP) and the Australian Consortium for ‘In-Country’ Indonesian Studies (ACICIS) over the 2020-2021 summer period.
AIYEP goes virtual
AIYEP, established in 1981, ordinarily brings 18 Indonesians to Australia and 18 Australians to Indonesia each year, offering 21 – 25 year olds the opportunity to live, work and volunteer together across both countries. Funded by DFAT’s Australia-Indonesia Institute and supported by the Indonesian Ministry for Youth and Sport, program alumni now hold careers in business, media, education, academia and government. AIYEP has always had a strong focus on building people-to-people relationships: living with host families, adjusting to local intercultural norms, and deepening understanding of everyday work and life in Australia and Indonesia. COVID-19 posed a significant challenge; however, the program continued. All participant selection interviews were conducted online; internship placements were run online and with limited supervision; and, significantly, the group of 36 young Australians and Indonesians never met or worked together in person.
Despite this, what emerged from AIYEP 2020 was an innovative approach to program design and implementation. While delegates are usually placed in one urban and one regional location in each country, limiting the number of internship placements, in 2020 the program was able to secure virtual internships across Australia and Indonesia. An online webinar series, with topics ranging from Australia-Indonesia bilateral relations to education, gender, and business partnerships, attracted a far broader range of speakers than in previous years, and enabled speakers to directly interact with participants in multiple locations across both countries. For the first time AIYEP 2020 introduced a four-week mentoring program for participants, leveraging a diverse network of senior Australian-Indonesian leaders from multiple sectors, without geographic limitations.
It is hoped that many of the components of AIYEP’s new online delivery , such as structured mentorships and weekly webinars, can be included in future iterations to scaffold students’ intercultural and professional learning. Participant feedback has been overwhelmingly positive: despite not being able to physically travel to Australia or Indonesia, or to travel domestically to meet each other, participants noted strong learning and intercultural competency gains and reported ongoing relationships and other changes normally found in in-country study abroad experiences.
Prior to COVID-19, 500+ Australian students per annum participated in ACICIS programs ranging from two-week study tours to semester-long immersion programs. In March 2020, in-country programs were cut short, students sent home and programs suspended. ACICIS have since transformed seven programs previously offered in-country to virtual delivery from November 2020 to February 2021. These were the Public Health Study Tour; the Indonesian Language Short Course and a portfolio of Professional Practicum programs in Agriculture; Business; Development Studies; Journalism; and Law.
The majority of ACICIS students use New Colombo Plan mobility grants to partially fund their ACICIS participation. ACICIS played a key role in lobbying DFAT to change NCP funding rules to support virtual mobility programs. This was given the green light in August 2020, providing ACICIS with a short runway to pivot to virtual delivery and bring new programs to market. Despite these challenges, 200+ participants enrolled in ACICIS’ new suite of virtual programs, retaining almost 70% of previous years’ enrolments. Demand for some virtually delivered Professional Practicum programs, such as the Development Studies and Agriculture streams, actually matched or exceeded previous in-country iterations.
Alongside burgeoning demand for virtual programs, participant feedback has also been strong. In post-program feedback surveys, more than 85% of Professional Practicum participants recommended both the academic content and work placement components of their program to future students. Whilst COVID-19 may have forced change in program delivery formats, student outcomes were still achieved.
In future, ACICIS hopes to further adjust program content to align with new virtual delivery modes. ACICIS Consortium Director, Liam Prince, is positive about ACICIS’ experience of virtual delivery over 2020/21 and believes this provides new ways for students to participate in the Australia-Indonesia relationship. This may even diversify ACICIS’ typical target market and improve accessibility and inclusivity; students who are unable to participate in ‘traditional’ student mobility programs due to financial or family commitments, have a new way to study abroad.
Prior to the onset of COVID-19, a diverse range of rich in-country immersion programs demonstrated the strength of Australia-Indonesia education links. Many of these were already highly innovative to combat existing challenges to the movement of students. It is this extant innovation and energy that will boost bilateral education connections despite current COVID-19-induced student immobility. With student demand buoyant for high-quality, virtually delivered programs, such as those offered by ACICIS and AIYEP, the future is bright for educational links between Australia and Indonesia and the people-to-people connections they seed.