Indonesian language programs at Australian universities become latest casualties of COVID-19 pandemic

Perth – Thursday, 3 December 2020. The Director of the Australian Consortium for ‘In-Country’ Indonesian Studies (ACICIS), Mr Liam Prince, expressed his concern this week at news that Murdoch University is planning to close its Indonesian language program in 2021. The Murdoch University announcement comes just two weeks after La Trobe University similarly announced the planned closure of its Indonesian language program from next year.

“Unfortunately, I fear that La Trobe and Murdoch are just the beginning,” said Mr Prince. The next 6-12 months are going to be nail-biting times for those of us who care about the survival of Indonesian language programs at Australian universities.”

Indonesian is currently taught at 14 of Australia’s 42 universities – including at Murdoch and La Trobe – to an aggregate national cohort of approximately 800 students each year.  This is down from a historical high point in 1992 when 22 Australian universities taught Indonesian to a national cohort of approximately 2,000 students. The closure of programs at Murdoch and La Trobe is likely to cause a further 10% decline in student numbers from mid-2021 with the loss of some 80 students nationally studying Indonesian at a tertiary level each year.

After nearly three decades of declining student enrolments, many of the Indonesian language departments at these remaining 14 Australian universities were already teetering on the edge of financial viability pre-pandemic or, worse, were financially underwater and dependent on cross-subsidisation by other disciplines for their survival. This, explained Mr Prince, made Indonesian language departments particularly vulnerable to the kind of discipline-by-discipline rationalisation currently underway at universities across the country. With Universities Australia estimating $16 billion in COVID-related losses to the Australian higher education sector between 2020-2023, and most of the resultant structural pain still to come, Mr Prince observed that niche or marginal disciplines like Indonesian not “paying their way” are going to be very lucky to survive into 2021 and 2022.

“The sad irony is,” said Mr Prince, “if they can survive the pandemic-related cull, the Australian Government’s recently passed “Job-ready Graduates Package” higher education funding reform might have just provided Indonesian language departments around the country with their best chance at “paying their way” in decades. Specifically, the new higher education funding package radically discounts the price a student pays for completing a language major within their Arts degree ($3,950) relative to most other arts and humanities majors ($14,500). From next year, completing a language major will cost an Australian undergraduate approximately one quarter of the expense of most other arts, humanities, and social sciences majors.

The new funding regime is an attempt by the Australian Government to use stark price signalling to encourage students to enrol in disciplines (like Indonesian) deemed to be of national priority, but that historically have struggled to attract large numbers of students. While admitting there was some doubt as to whether this price signalling will sway students’ choices, Mr Prince suggested that “Study Indonesian and knock $10,000 off your $40,000 Arts degree” might be just the kind of simple, compelling message that sees Indonesian language enrolments tick up nationally over the next few years. “But we won’t get to test the efficacy of the new policy settings if Indonesian language departments fail to survive COVID-19,” he added.

With the Commonwealth Government clearly telegraphing through these new HECS price signals that the teaching and learning of languages is a national priority, Mr Prince suggested that it was now up to the universities – and those within them who cared to – to amplify and communicate these signals to incoming students. “I think language departments and advocates around Australia should be pooling their resources to conduct a coordinated national communications campaign in 2021 in order to sell both the hip pocket and intrinsic virtues of studying a language at university,” said Mr Prince.

Long after the pandemic passes, observed Mr Prince, “Indonesia is going to be of geopolitical significance to Australia”. The national interest, he suggested, “was currently well-served by having a distributed network of Indonesian language programs, taught by a community of academics and language instructors spread across the country.” “The cause of Indonesian language education in Australia will be ill-served if it becomes the specialist preserve of a handful of institutions like the ANU or Open Universities Australia (OUA),” he added.  “If we don’t keep our eye on the ball over the coming months,” cautioned Mr Prince, “each of the universities will quietly make their individual cost rationalisations, close programs, and we will end up with – perhaps – the ANU, Monash, and OUA left teaching Indonesian by the end of 2021.” “We are going to wake up in 12 months’ time with COVID having destroyed a national network of Indonesian language programs that took two generations to build,” said Mr Prince. “To allow university-level Indonesian language education in Australia to become yet another casualty of the pandemic would be national mistake.”

The Murdoch University administration is taking community submissions regarding the proposed closure of its Indonesian language program until Friday, 11 December 2020. Submissions can be made via email to: change.feedback@murdoch.edu.au.

 

The Australian Consortium for ‘In-Country’ Indonesian Studies known as ACICIS (pronounced “Ah-Chee-Chis” as an Indonesian would) is a national, not-for-profit educational consortium that develops and facilitates study and internship programs for Australian university students in Indonesia. Since its establishment in 1995, more than 3,500 students have undertaken study in Indonesia through the consortium’s programs – including 517 students last year (2019) alone. Earlier this year (2020), ACICIS was recognised by DFAT as a highlight of the first 70 years of bilateral relations between Australian and Indonesia.

For more information, please visit: www.acicis.edu.au 

 

For further media comment, please contact:

Liam Prince

ACICIS Consortium Director

l.prince@acicis.edu.au

+61 6488 6689

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