INDONESIA-AUSTRALIA: Higher education plays diplomatic role

Australia and Indonesia bind their sometimes strained relationship through Canberra's progressive aid programme in higher education. Bill Farmer, Australian Ambassador to Jakarta, recently announced that Canberra was offering 300 postgraduate scholarships in Australia to Indonesian students.

There have been numerous low points in the relationship between the two massive neighbours, not least during and just after the 32-year Suharto dictatorship ended in 1998 amid turmoil on university campuses. Perhaps the most critical of those lows occurred during Indonesia's brutal occupation of East Timor and with the Bali and Australian embassy bombings.

The role that cooperation in higher education can play in binding wounds should not be underestimated. Farmer, for his part, clearly understands this, telling the Indonesian media,

"The students' experience will be rich and rewarding and equip them to play a significant role in contributing to the development of Indonesia and in promoting common purpose and understanding between our two countries."

Award winners will study subjects across a spectrum that includes economic management and good governance. The latter is especially relevant to Indonesia, where official and other corruption continue to flourish. Health, education, justice and peace are also to be covered.

One problem that Indonesia faces in sending its students abroad is the generally low level of English-language proficiency in this former Dutch colony. Indonesia plays catch-up in English but this is a very uneven process.

The mystifying closure by the British Council of its English-language courses in Jakarta, Surabaya and elsewhere has closed off one avenue for aspirant entrants to university preparation in English-speaking countries.

Among the institutions filling that gap in Jakarta is Australia's Monash University which runs 'Uniprep' courses, and the Indonesia-Australia Language Foundation.

Returning Indonesians generally speak highly of their university experiences in Australia, although concerns are from time to time expressed over some manifestations of anti-Islamic sentiments.

Ambassador Farmer's pro-active role in promoting university scholarships has met a warm response in the Indonesian media.