Investing in the U.S. – Indonesia Comprehensive Partnership: Current Government Efforts and What YOU Can Do To Help

A few weeks ago, I found myself sitting in a classroom at MIT surrounded by about thirty Indonesians. My mind was wandering since everyone was speaking in rapid Bahasa Indonesia and, sadly, my Indonesian language skills are limited to “hello” and “thank you.” On the upside, I noticed the half-erased math equations on the chalkboard—something about “r” and squares and Greek letters—realizing that Bahasa might not be the most confusing language in the room.

I was at a gathering of Indonesian students and scholars who had all come out on this Monday night to hear from their Vice Minister of Education, Dr. Musliar Kasim, who was visiting Boston and DC to learn about the various types of colleges and universities that make up the complex and unique U.S. higher education system. On behalf of IIE, I had the mission of guiding the Vice Minister and several other delegates to a variety of schools: from Northeastern University to Bunker Hill Community College; from Harvard to UMass Boston. The participants in this particular meeting ranged from young to old, hailed from a number of regions in Indonesia, and were studying or teaching at all of the finest schools in the Boston area. In fact, one of the only bits of conversation I caught was when the single audience member from Harvard mentioned something about “MIT” to many groans and boos from the rest of the group. Some things are just universal.

The Vice Minister’s “town hall” type gathering at MIT was just one part of the Ministry’s fact-finding mission in the U.S., but was indicative of his serious desire to know as much as possible about the Indonesian student experience in the U.S.—whether at an Ivy League school or a community college—and what feedback about the U.S. higher education system he might be able to take back with him. The Indonesian higher education system is currently undergoing significant changes, and the government of Indonesia is taking great measures to both increase external relations and address domestic challenges.

Take for example their Community College initiative, which anticipates the development of at least twenty community colleges over the next five years, and eventually all over the country! With the ground already broken on the first community college in Pacitan (the hometown of President Yudhoyono), the Vice Minister and other officials examined the community colleges we visited from head to toe. What is the mean and median age of students? How does one best engage with the local community? How does one support students who want to continue at a four-year institution? Bunker Hill and Northern Virginia, two of the community colleges we visited, were more than happy to discuss their models in detail. Indeed, the community college is one of the proudest achievements the U.S. higher education system has to offer the world, and these are two of the most comprehensive and well-established community colleges in the country. With this initiative, the Indonesian government hopes to prepare a growing population of high school graduates ready to gain employable skills, and serve local communities in need of industry-ready individuals.

While introducing community colleges is a relatively new government initiative—and one that will mostly serve Indonesia’s domestic needs – the Ministry of Education and Ministry of Higher Education (DIKTI) have been striving to increase their international exchange activities as well. Since Presidents Obama and Yudhoyono named education as one of the pillars of the comprehensive bilateral partnership between the U.S. and Indonesia in 2010, both countries have been working to increase the number of students sent and received by the other. Everyone is doing their part: 2012 is the “Year of Fulbright” in Indonesia and the U.S. Department of State’s contribution to the program in Indonesia has expanded, making it one of the largest programs in the world; the U.S. government has committed more than $165 million over the next five years to support the higher education partnership. The Indonesian government has also invested, supporting the joint Fulbright-DIKTI program to fund advanced study and research in the U.S. for Indonesian university faculty. USAID has funded a similar program, PRESTASI, for Indonesian lecturers to receive Master’s Degrees in the U.S., and supported a number of innovative linkages under their University Partnerships Initiative.

One lesser-known Indonesian government-funded scholarship is the DIKTI scholarship for Indonesian lecturers, which, similar to the Fulbright-DIKTI scholarship, supports current lecturers to pursue a Master’s or Ph.D. degree overseas (two and three years of funding, respectively). For a variety of reasons, the vast majority of scholarship recipients choose to go to universities in Australia or Europe, and the U.S. continues to lose out on receiving these excellent scholars. During the delegation, the Vice Minister made a point of spreading the word about this scholarship, asking for support in several ways: (1) providing a Letter of Acceptance (LoA) to potential DIKTI scholars, if accepted; (2) ensuring that the Letter of Acceptance is “unconditional” in nature (i.e. no conditional acceptance pending English language training; and (3) to consider pitching in for the final one or two years of funding for Ph.D. candidates, since the scholarship only supports the first three years. On the surface, this seems fairly straightforward, but the need for extra English language training and the perceived difficulty of applying to U.S. schools, have caused this scholarship to go wholly under-utilized at U.S. universities. A number of organizations, including IIE and the U.S.-Indonesia Joint Council, are working hard to ensure that more DIKTI scholars come to the U.S. for their degrees.

Finally, one way that U.S. institutions can work to increase the movement of students and scholars between our two countries is to promote U.S. study abroad to Indonesia. The world’s largest Muslim-majority democracy and a land of over 17,000 islands, Indonesia is a gold mine for learning first-hand about anything from religious pluralism to primatology. The past decade has seen pitiful numbers of U.S. students studying abroad in Indonesia: the Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange cites a low of 24 students in the 2003/04 academic year and a decade high of only 221 students in AY 2009/10. To address this, IIE just published a new white paper intended to inform the U.S. higher education community about how best to initiate a study abroad program to Indonesia, titled “Models for U.S. Study Abroad to Indonesia”. This white paper is the second in a series of publications based on outcomes from the U.S.–Indonesia Partnership Program for Study Abroad Capacity, a two-year initiative funded by the U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, and administered by IIE’s Center for International Partnerships.

There are inexhaustible opportunities for U.S.–Indonesia academic collaboration, the majority of which remain untapped by U.S. and Indonesian educators. Through continued efforts from both countries to increase awareness, we will surely see a day when there is a strong and steady flow of Americans and Indonesians traveling to each other’s country for educational opportunities.