Obama Begins Rebuilding Academic Ties to Indonesia

Oscar Siagian, redux, for The Chronicle

Students between classes at the State U. of Jakarta.
July 11, 2010

President Obama has postponed travel to Indonesia, his childhood home, three times since taking office, the latest visit sidelined in June by the giant oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

But a "comprehensive partnership" to deepen relations between the two countries is steaming ahead, one that has as a critical tenet the expansion of higher-education ties. At the recent G-20 summit meeting in Toronto, Mr. Obama announced that the United States would spend $165-million over the next five years on programs to help strengthen higher education in Indonesia through educational exchanges and university partnerships. The two countries will also hold a higher-education summit next summer.

American officials say that improving educational opportunity is crucial to the economic growth and political stability of a key ally. "We can't change the rainfall," says Cameron R. Hume, the U.S. ambassador to Indonesia, referring to the climate challenge facing the archipelago. "But we can change people. We can improve opportunity for a generation of young people."

Although Indonesia's government has in recent years sharply increased the amount it spends on education, even amending the country's Constitution to require that at least 20 percent of the federal budget be allocated in that area, the outlay simply isn't sufficient to meet the demands of a country of 240 million people and growing, international-education experts say. As a consequence, Indonesia's college-going rate, 17 percent, lags behind that of its Southeast Asian neighbors, like Malaysia and Thailand, and far behind that of developed countries, like South Korea and the United States.

"It's not enough if we go it alone," says Boediono, the Indonesian vice president. "We don't have enough capacity."

The two governments hope to increase the number of Indonesians studying at American colleges and to link higher-education institutions in both countries.

But such work is demanding: Infrastructure constraints could hinder many Indonesian universities from getting involved in partnerships in the first place. And few American institutions have long-term experience in Indonesia, in part because the U.S. State Department warned against traveling to the country for much of the last decade after a string of terrorist bombings.

"It's a harder sell," says Allan E. Goodman, president of the Institute of International Education, a nonprofit organization involved in international exchanges, "when 60 percent of Americans can't even find Indonesia on a map."

But Mr. Goodman, who has led two recent delegations of U.S. college leaders to Indonesia, argues that the country has much to offer American academics and students, as a unique laboratory to study issues as varied as politics (it's the world's largest Muslim-majority democracy) and seismology (the island nation is hit by some three earthquakes a day). What's more, bringing Indonesian students to American institutions could broaden U.S. knowledge of the world's fourth-most-populous country.

"Just like we care about India and China, we should care about Indonesia," Mr. Goodman says. "The future depends on a lot more Indonesians understanding the United States and a lot more Americans understanding Indonesia."

Playing Catch-Up

In the 60 years since Indonesia became an independent nation, it has been "playing catch-up," says Terance W. Bigalke, director of education programs at the East-West Center, an education and research organization focused on the Asia- Pacific region.

Few Indonesians at that time held college degrees, and the country's efforts to improve its educational offerings have largely failed to keep pace with its swelling population, he says. The government borrowed heavily from the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, and other sources in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s to finance investments in educational programs, school and college construction, and teacher training. But issues of educational quality and access remain among the biggest impediments to further democratization and economic expansion, argues Mr. Bigalke, a specialist in Indonesian history. "It's a major obstacle," he says.

Today, Indonesia is home to half of all higher-education institutions in Southeast Asia, many of them private colleges started to meet rapidly growing demand. Outside of a handful of top-tier national and provincial institutions, though, most would not meet Western standards. No Indonesian university is included in Shanghai Jiao Tong University's ranking of the world's top 500 research institutions. A mere 8,000 Indonesians hold doctoral degrees.

Educational advancement was also slowed by a confluence of events beginning in the late 1990s, including the Asian financial crisis and severe political instability. Many universities and aid organizations pulled out of Indonesia. Those that stayed recall a period of upheaval. David K. Linnan, a law professor at the University of South Carolina whose work has focused on financial-market reform, says that before leaving his office at the downtown Jakarta campus of the University of Indonesia he would "check the political Web sites for protest news, the way you would check talk radio for the traffic report."

In the past several years, however, the situation has calmed. The State Department travel ban was lifted in 2008. A more-stable Indonesian government has refocused on education as central to economic advancement, committing to education-financing requirements, calling for higher standards for teachers and professors, and pressing for universal education through the ninth grade.

But Totok Suprayitno, the educational attaché at the Indonesian embassy in Washington, says increased government spending can only begin to put a dent in Indonesia's educational needs. Fully supported, teacher salaries and training alone, he says, could eat up most of the nation's annual education budget, leaving little for facilities, research, and scholarships.

To illustrate the problem, Mr. Suprayitno grabs a sheet of paper and sketches a misshapen pyramid, bulbous at the bottom and quickly narrowing, a mere sliver at its tip. That, he says, is his country's educational-attainment picture, with the poorest Indonesians disproportionately crowded at the bottom.

"We are moving slowly. We are not stagnating," Mr. Suprayitno says. But, he adds, Indonesia could move far faster with partners to help it improve quality and expand access.

Cultivating Capacity

A focus on Indonesia's homegrown capacity undergirds the effort announced by Mr. Obama and his counterpart, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, the Indonesian president.

The two countries want to support collaborations that center on improving curriculum, research, teacher quality, and assessment capabilities at Indonesian universities, says Alina Romanowski, deputy assistant secretary of state for academic programs at the department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.

Already, there are a number of partnerships in place that nurture Indonesian talent. Georgia State University, for example, between 2001 and 2003 offered a master's degree in economic policy to two groups of 55 Indonesian civil servants and university lecturers, handpicked from the ranks of the federal Ministry of Finance, provincial governments, and higher-education institutions.

In the partnership's current, second iteration, Georgia State, through the international-studies program at its Andrew Young School of Policy Studies, has worked with Gadjah Mada University, a top-ranked institution in Yogyakarta, on Java, to develop a dual-degree program to better prepare fiscal-policy experts in the finance ministry. The first group of 20 students has already started at Gadjah Mada, says Paul Benson, assistant director of the international-studies program, and will arrive in Atlanta next fall.

One year of the course is supported by the Indonesian government, the other through a $3-million grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Jorge Martinez-Vazquez, the international-studies program's director, says the dual degree was created because of a "vacuum in human capital in the ranks" of finance-ministry personnel. "It's kind of a virtuous cycle building onto itself," Mr. Martinez-Vazquez says, noting that graduates of the previous program have gone back to teach at Indonesian universities or to play increasingly important roles in government there.

Ohio State University, meanwhile, is working to establish a dual-degree program of its own in teacher education, in conjunction with Indiana University at Bloomington, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and 12 Indonesian partner institutions. Improving teacher quality has been a major push by the Indonesian government—all of the country's 2.7-million teachers now must be certified, while a new law requires that faculty members who teach undergraduates have at least a master's degree and that those who teach at the master's level hold doctorates.

"You have to work from the ground up to build capacity," says Sue Dechow, director of research support and international development at Ohio State's College of Education and Human Ecology. She points out that when she first began working in Indonesia 23 years ago, just three of the 31 teacher-training institutions with which she collaborated had graduate programs.

Other American colleges are seeking to start or expand partnerships with Indonesian institutions. The University of South Carolina, for example, has submitted proposals to USAID for projects on climate-change research and to train the Indonesian judiciary. Highline Community College wants to adapt a professional-development program it created for Egyptian college administrators for leaders of Indonesian polytechnics.

Northern Illinois University hopes to take a joint engineering program with Hasanuddin University, in South Sulawesi, and offer it by Webcast to other institutions.

But the number of institutions able to develop such projects is likely to be limited. Northern ­Illinois—which has offered Indonesian languages for 40 years and whose faculty members wrote one of the first textbooks on Indonesia—has the experience to form substantive partnerships in Indonesia that few other American colleges can replicate, concedes James T. Collins, director of the university's Center for Southeast Asian Studies.

"Because we have had this longstanding commitment, we can go more places," Mr. Collins says. "We don't have to first catch a potential partner's eye."

And Mr. Hume, the American ambassador, notes that many Indonesian universities simply lack the research culture of their U.S. counterparts. That can hinder research collaborations.

Upping Exchanges

For Ilza Mayuni, a lecturer at the State University of Jakarta, the opportunity to spend four months last fall doing research at Ohio State was one of the key benefits of a "recharging" grant from the Indonesian government. Ms. Mayuni, whose work focuses on teacher preparation, used the time to immerse herself in Ohio State's library, engage with American colleagues one on one, and observe new teaching methods at Columbus-area elementary schools. She plans to write a book on teacher education.

"I feel really lucky," Ms. Mayuni says, adding that, because of the experience, "I think I will teach differently."

The Indonesian government has recently begun to offer small stipends for overseas study to midcareer faculty members like Ms. Mayuni as well as short-term "sandwich" grants to doctoral students to do research abroad.

The American government is likewise ramping up its exchange programs focusing on Indonesia. For one, it is greatly increasing the number of Indonesian students served through a scholarship program that provides foreign students practical training at American community colleges, from about 10 students a year to 50.

The State Department is also expanding the Fulbright Program in Indonesia, including financing a new program focused specifically on encouraging scholarship in critical areas in science and technology. The Indonesian Fulbright program will become one of the largest in the world, Ms. Romanowski says.

Officials from both countries say enhancing student and faculty exchanges will be a critical piece of the bilateral higher-education strategy. Such partnerships "build bridges," Ms. Romanowski says, imagining the linkages that could grow out of a graduate-student exchange. "Who knows what will happen 25 years from now when they are publishing articles together or doing research together?"

Indeed, many experts point to the American education received by earlier generations of Indonesians—some 40 percent of current government ministers studied in the United States—as one reason for the ties between the two countries.

Over the past decade, however, the number of Indonesian students attending college in the United States has dropped precipitously; just 7,500 students from that country studied in the United States during the 2008-9 academic year, down from 13,280 in 1997-8, according to the Institute of International Education. (The partnership hopes to double those numbers within five years.)

The drop-off can be attributed in part to the financial crisis, which sapped the bank accounts of middle-class Indonesians, and in part to concerns after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that Indonesian students would not be able to get visas to study in the United States. Mr. Hume says the embassy in Jakarta has worked to allay worries that the United States is "a hostile place for a child named Muhammad." Student-visa approval rates, he points out, are 86 percent.

Geoff Moody, director of international recruitment at Green River Community College, in Washington state, says American colleges should understand that the decline in Indonesian enrollments "doesn't necessarily have to do with something we're doing wrong. It has to do with what other countries and schools are doing right."

Countries like Australia, Malaysia, and Singapore, Mr. Moody points out, have eaten into the American market in Indonesia, offering destinations that are closer to home and frequently cheaper. Those countries are also more aggressive about recruiting students, he says.

His institution, which draws about 10 percent of its international student body from Indonesia, has managed to maintain its enrollment levels through attentive recruitment and by offering value to cost-conscious Indonesian parents—almost all of Green River's Indonesian students transfer to well-regarded four-year colleges.

Still, with little available scholarship money, only a select few Indonesians can afford Green River's $16,950 annual price tag.

Signaling Readiness

But if the number of Indonesians studying in the United States has bottomed out, the number of Americans studying in Indonesia is woefully low, just 75 in 2007-8. By contrast, 13,165 students from the United States enrolled in Chinese colleges the same year.

There's broad consensus that any partnership must work in both directions, bringing Indonesian students and scholars to the United States and sending Americans to the island nation. Indonesia is an ideal place to conduct research on some of the world's most pressing issues, Ms. Romanowski notes, such as climate change and food security.

At a recent networking event for international-education administrators from U.S. colleges and foreign embassy personnel, in Washington, Indonesian officials signaled their readiness to collaborate with American institutions. They chatted up visitors and invited every educator who passed by their table to fill out a multiquestion survey about the types of partnerships they sought.

"The message we're getting is that they're ready to work together," said Rachel Herman, director of the English-language center and intensive English program at the University of Central Missouri. "We're ready, too."