Building on Presidential Bonds, U.S. and Indonesia Seek Ways to Increase Academic Partnerships

October 31, 2011

Higher-education leaders and government officials from the United States and Indonesia came together here Monday to find ways to increase academic partnerships between the two countries.

President Obama, who spent part of his childhood in Indonesia, has made strengthening relations with the predominantly Muslim nation a diplomatic priority, with education a key part of that effort. Last year his administration allocated $165-million over five years to support student and faculty exchanges and university connections.

For its part, Indonesia wants to develop better ties with American colleges as a way to expand its economy and reform its university system. The country has significantly increased its support for education, requiring that at least 20 percent of the federal budget be allocated in that area, and raised the number of students attending its 3,777 higher-education institutions, from 3.8 million in 2005 to 5.2 million last year. But it still needs to do more to serve its fast-growing population of 245 million people, Mohammad Nuh, Indonesia's minister of education and culture, told the 100 or so attendees.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan applauded efforts by American institutions to build links with their Indonesian peers, like a new Cornell University partnership with the island nation to study the effects of climate change. But he emphasized that more needs to be done. For example, he said, the lack of student mobility between the countries "is quite frankly troubling."

The Asian financial crisis, domestic terrorism, and the 2004 tsunami have contributed to a perception that Indonesia is an unsafe destination for students, according to international educators at the meeting, which was held at the U.S. Department of Education. Similarly, many Indonesians are concerned about what they see as an anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States, they said.

About 6,950 Indonesian students attended American institutions during the 2009-10 academic year, the latest year data are available. That is about half of what it was in 1997-98, according to the Institute of International Education. The number of students from the United States studying in Indonesia is less than 200 annually.

"If this was anyone's medical chart, they would have to be rushed to the intensive-care unit," said Peggy Blumenthal, a senior counselor for the institute, as she presented a slide showing the two anemic trend lines.

Limited Awareness

Lack of information about study-abroad opportunities and successful partnerships hinders the development of exchanges, said Ms. Blumenthal, citing a survey of 153 American higher-education institutions commissioned by the institute. A majority of respondents—88 percent—described their engagement with Indonesia as low or very low, though 26 percent said they anticipated a shift in priority toward Indonesia in the next five years.

The institute's survey also looked at Indonesian institutions. According to six universities that have hosted American students, lack of housing and of courses taught in English are obstacles to receiving a larger number of them.

To help pave the way for mobility, the U.S. Department of State has increased the amount of money available under its Fulbright program for Indonesia-U.S. exchanges as part of the Obama administration's effort. For example, the department is spending $15-million over five years for a new program focused on science and technology research. So far, 37 students and scholars from both nations have received awards.

Developing links with community colleges was also a theme of the meeting. Mr. Nuh said the country wants to establish more than 200 community colleges by 2015, while Mr. Duncan noted that 40 percent of the Indonesian students who come to the United States enroll at such institutions. Several partnerships have already been started.

Highline Community College, in Des Moines, Wash., for instance, is hosting nine faculty members from Indonesian polytechnical institutes this academic year "to get a sense of what American community colleges are all about," said Jack Bermingham, the college's president. The program focuses on the classroom learning environment and how Highline has developed relationships with local businesses.

While the program, which is financed in part by the State Department, will help Indonesia, Mr. Bermingham emphasized there are benefits closer to home. With his college located near major seaports, expanding international links will help students on campus be better prepared for working in shipping or other globalized industries.

Other higher-education officials said that ties with their overseas counterparts were still only aspirational and that they hoped the meeting would serve as a matchmaking opportunity.

Julie Mostov, vice provost for global initiatives at Drexel University, said she was trying to see if collaborations in climate and health research were possible or if Indonesian institutions were interested in the Philadelphia university's online program for teacher education, a field that Indonesia is attempting to overhaul.

"I think there are some potentially interesting areas," she said.

Searching for Partners

Badia Perizade, the rector of the Sriwijaya University, in Sumatra, said she was on the hunt for partners interested in the study of agriculture, renewable energy, and water management. Her public institution has dual-degree programs with universities in Europe and Japan and would like to have one with an American university.

Sriwijaya had a long-standing agriculture program with the University of Kentucky that started in 1982, but it shrank significantly when financing from the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Asian Development Bank stopped in the 1990s. She is glad to see the agency, among others, is once again focused on Indonesia.

"It's great that we are hearing that the funding will grow and that the collaborations will continue," she said.

While it's unclear what fruitful partnerships the meeting—or the broader effort by the two governments—will yield, Mr. Nuh, of Indonesia, said there is a special educational bond between the two countries. Mr. Obama of course attended elementary school in Indonesia, while Indonesia's president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, earned his master's degree in business management from Webster University, in Missouri.

This unlikely coincidence, said Mr. Nuh, is a "sign of a new era" between the two countries.