AFG Venture Group Dispatches

Corporate advisory and consultancy in Australia, South East Asia and India.

Working with Islamic Education Groups In Indonesia

Michael Fay, Director & Head of Education & Training Services, AFG Venture Group

Australian education institutions have provided opportunities for fee paying Indonesian students to study at school, college and university level in Australia for nearly 25 years and are an important part of the soft diplomacy engagement with our closest Asian neighbour. These educational opportunities are now being offered for program delivery at Australian campuses in emerging education service hubs in Singapore and in Malaysian cities like Kuala Lumpur, Kuching and Miri. Australian universities such as Monash, Curtin, James Cook, RMIT, UTS and Swinburn are now active transnational course providers in South East Asia.

A sampling of the Indonesian student profile in both Australia and at regional centres indicates that apart from the generous Australian Government scholarship program, the ethnic make up of the Australia bound Indonesian students is stacked strongly in favour of Indonesians with Chinese ancestry who come from middle class and wealthy families and are mainly Christian and Buddhist. The focus for courses of study has been firmly in areas like business, commerce, engineering, IT and marketing.

What then of our efforts to connect with the Muslim majority population in Indonesia? The generous Australian and Indonesian government post graduate scholarship programs target the Muslim majority for study in those subject areas considered important for Indonesian national development. This includes Education, TESOL, and Development Studies, Management, Health, Environment, Women’s Studies and Engineering. We now have a strong alumni base in business, industry, education and government and amongst our well connected alumni are the Minister of Foreign Affairs, the recently departed Minister of Finance and the current Vice President. The President’s son attended university in Perth.

The TAFE sector link remains a continuing disappointment with limited understanding of the potential role of the TAFE sector in addressing skills training and capacity building in Indonesia and little action. The upcoming Government to Government working group on VET may offer some glimmer of hope but with all main decision makers being University educated it’s often difficult to progress the TAFE agenda. AusAid is yet to embrace significant funding for TAFE scholarship programs as its focus remains firmly with the government University sector. The development of the vocational training sector, like its counterpart in India, may well be driven by the demands and actions of the private sector.

It is at the school level however where significant strategic steps are being taken to link Indonesian and Australian students and teachers despite the Australian Government travel advisory that discourages people to people contact between Australia and Indonesia. Victorian schools are providing national leadership in the teaching of Indonesian and some such as Mt Erin College at Frankston on the Mornington Peninsula south east of Melbourne are managing their own links with Indonesia through the enthusiastic support of their Indonesia language teachers, the school administration and privately sourced Indonesian schools including from the Islamic education sector.

On the national level the Bridge Schools Program provides a formal and funded mechanism that links 46 Australian schools with 47 Indonesian schools. It was initiated by the Australia Indonesia Institute (AII),  funded by AusAid and the Myer Foundation and is  managed by the Asian Education Foundation at Asialink University of Melbourne. Its aim is to link Australian and Indonesian primary and secondary schools through staff training in Australia for Indonesian teachers; curriculum development and student linkages. In place of face to face student visits, internet and digital technology platforms are being used to allow students to meet each other “virtually”. Some Australian students from private schools are however allowed to make in country visits to Indonesia despite the travel advisory and have been able to link “face to face” with their Bridge school partners which the ideal outcome.

Most of the Indonesian students participating in the Bridge Schools program are from the Muslim majority population and include a small number of Islamic boarding schools (pesantran). This is a praiseworthy initiative, but what Australia needs is for our universities and schools both public and private as a well as our youth leadership programs to drive a significant multi level engagement with Islamic society including at the pesantran level. This may seem to be a challenging and difficult task but the youth leadership award level provides us with another engagement model that is having positive outcomes.

The International Award for Young People in Indonesia is a youth leadership program that has been active in Indonesia for over ten years and has been refocussing its efforts over the last two years through the work of the Asia Pacific Award office in Sydney and the National Award Authority for Indonesia based in Jakarta under the chairmanship of Mohammad Faisal Badroen, formerly the Dean of Economics at the State Islamic University in Jakarta. The example of its work with pesantran in central Java is a timely reminder of how community engagement can work, driven by the NGO sector and hopefully enabled by government. See: www.intaward.org

Pesantran Pabelan is located near Magelang in central Java within a 15 minute bike ride of the famous Borobudur Buddhist Temple. In the Magelang region there are over twenty pesantran or Islamic boarding schools that cater for boys and girls who come from all over Indonesia and pay small fees to receive an Islamic based education. In the liberal pesantrans students receive a modern outward looking education but in conservative pesantrans education can be narrow and potentially fundamentalist. This perceived danger has become a policy agenda issue for DFAT and has in part driven the soft diplomacy education engagement.

Pesantran Pabelan is known for being moderate, pluralist, modernising and international in its outlook; it numbers among its alumni Dr Komaruddin Hidayat, the Rector of the influential State Islamic University in Jakarta (Syarif Hidayatullah). The Dean of the international relations department is also a graduate of the pesantran which is close in both location and co-operation with the Catholic community in Central Java. Catholicism was first introduced at the nearby town of Muntilan in the 19th century. The meeting hall for the pesantran was built with a donation from a local Catholic business family. In 2001, the Japanese government donated four dormitory buildings while the Indonesia Department of Religious Affairs has sponsored the building of biology, physics, chemistry and computer labs which would not be out of place in any well supplied Australian public high school. The students have internet connections and the walls of the boy’s dormitory are adorned with pictures of international football stars like David Villa from Valencia, Jermaine Defoe from Tottenham, Kaka from Real Madrid and naturally world footballer of the year Lionel Messi from Barcelona. Tim Cahill hasn’t made the dormitory wall yet but there’s always next year depending on how Australia performs at the June 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

The International Award for Young People has been active in supporting the bronze, silver and gold award programs at Pesantran Pabelan for nearly ten years and has had over 600 successful participants in the award program since 2004. There are now ten award leaders from the teaching staff who manage the current 160 award participants as they undertake the 4 parts of the award that are common in all of the 130 countries where the award program is offered: learning a new skill; developing a physical activity ; participating in community service and undertaking an adventurous journey.

In May 2010, Asia Pacific Award Training Manager, Rob Oliphant who is based in Adelaide conducted training in both Jakarta and Jogyakarta for over 60 award leaders from universities, schools, NGOs and vocational training institutions. This included 4 teachers from Pesantran Pabelan. Like the students these teachers have a wonderful enthusiasm for the Award and for engagement with young people in other 130 countries where the Award program is offered. What they also need is volunteer teachers or student teachers to undertake internships of 1-6 months teaching English and learning Indonesian in the pesantran. Pesantrans like this that are linked to Australia through the Award would also benefit if they became Bridge program schools to strengthen the link to Australia. We need all support we can muster to address the shameful lack of interest in the teaching and learning of Indonesian language by the next generation of young Australians and to keep young pesantran minds open and engaged.

Indonesia literacy is acknowledged to be in a state of crisis in Australia but with strategic commitment, increased funding and public awareness is an achievable though long term public diplomacy goal. It will have positive outcomes for all involved and for Australia’s long term relationship with Indonesia. The agenda needs to be driven by the Australian International education sector, Australian business and industry, by the schools and youth leadership sector and supported by Australian government funding and Indonesian education and community organisations.

It could also helpful if the current Bridge school partners were to target building links between Bridge schools and Award schools who in some cases are already informally linked; in a numbers of cases in Indonesia and Australia the Bridge schools also offer the International Award for Young People. This linkage would act to strengthen both programs and provide increased opportunities for the exchange of teachers, students and teaching and learning resources. In a crisis situation we need to cooperate on all levels to address the issue of Indonesia literacy.

Significant for both countries could also be the development of increased youth sports contact in areas like basketball, badminton, boxing, cricket, volleyball, soccer, surfing and even Australian Rules where there is the start of a small scale coaching program in Indonesia supported by the Australia Indonesia Institute. The Northern Territory and Western Australia are both encouraging exchange of sporting teams but unless the travel advisory and travel insurance issues are resolved the people to people link will remain a challenge.

About the Author

Michael Fay is an international education specialist who has lived and worked between Asia and Australia for over 25 years. He continues to be a leading member of Australia’s international education and training sector and was the co-founder and Managing Director of Insearch Language Centre at the University of Technology Sydney from 1987-1999. Insearch has been one of the major success stories of Australia’s international education sector and was the first public private partnership in international education in Australia. In 2000 Michael was made a Fellow of UTS for his contribution to the profile and reputation of the university. He advises a varied group of public and private sector educational and media organisations as well as government departments and peak industry bodies. His focus areas are on strategic marketing strategies, establishing and managing offshore education sector investments and building cross sector networks and linkages. He is also active in M and A work in the education services sector.

Copyright 2010, Michael Fay, AFG Venture Group. All rights reserved. All material in this article is the Intellectual Property of Michael Fay, AFG Venture Group and cannot be reproduced, copied, published, quoted or disseminated without the prior permission of Michael Fay, AFG Venture Group