After the release of the Asian Century White Paper last year, the question of Indonesian language’s decline in schools and universities attracted a lot of coverage. This was highlighted most starkly last year, when two major universities, La Trobe and UNSW, publicly announced – and reversed – plans to axe their Indonesian language programs, due to low enrolments.

It was also highlighted by Foreign Minister Bob Carr in a recent speech to the Indonesia-Australia dialogue:

“The lack of knowledge between our two societies remains a key challenge,” he said.

“At the very moment when we, Australia, should be moving closer to Indonesia, our Indonesian ‘literacy’ has declined. There are fewer university students studying Bahasa Indonesia today than 20 years ago.”

In light of this, we thought it would be worth taking the time to see if this is really the case. While, certainly, there is persuasive evidence to indicate that Australia’s Indonesian studies capacity has declined, significantly, over the last decade, is this still the case? Prompted by a few rumours – and a tweet – we got in touch with academics, lecturers and teachers around the country for their thoughts.

David Hill, director of ACICIS and the Professor of Southeast Asian Studies at Murdoch University in Western Australia, noted that Murdoch University had experienced some growth – indeed, his was the only university to increase enrolments between 2001-2010.

It is great news that Indonesian enrolments in some universities are increasing markedly this year. Thankfully, the Australia in the Asian Century White Paper has stimulated lots of discussion in the media about the benefits of an Asian language. That is great! Hopefully this encourages students to enrol, and to try Indonesian.

Monash University have also seen an increase. Indonesian lecturer Yacinta Kurniasih noted that “In general, the number [of enrolments] is up”, with more than 70 students taking part across all levels of the program this year – including 25 first-year students, and 38 at third-year level.

Professor Hill also highlighted the relevance of circumstances in different institutions. Institutions that offer students more flexibility to take part in Indonesian studies – for instance, through breadth subjects, or a Diploma in Modern Languages – make it easier for students to take part. Examples, career pathways, and role models (link to Career Champions section) are also an influence on numbers.

An ‘open’ degree structure which enables students to include a language as a ‘breadth unit’ whatever their degree, is a great incentive too. The support of senior staff, and the examples they set, across the university in promoting language learning can also make a big difference.

Let’s hope that these very positive signs are sustained and transferable, and that the government steps in to provide much-needed support to reinforce the ‘bounce’.

It’s not only universities that have noticed greater interest – Lyndall Franks of the NSW Department of Education and Communities has also noticed a ‘bounce’ in interesting, following the release of last year’s White Paper. She said that many NSW schools had already expressed an interest in opening or expanding Indonesian study programs, and that she’d fielded many enquiries about courses for beginners.

At Perth’s Balai Bahasa Indonesia, they’ve also noticed an uptick in interest – but hesitate to put it down to the Asian Century white paper alone. Head of enrolments Kate Reizenstein, highlighted consistent growth over the last four years:

Both of our beginner classes were booked out before the commencement of the term in early February 2013.  We have been very pleased (and a little bit overwhelmed) by the high level of demand for studying Indonesian and enquiries about our courses.

I am reluctant to say that the hype around announcement of the Australian in the Asian Century White Paper has been the sole factor for the rise in our enrolment figures. However, it is certainly a step in the right direction at promoting engagement with Asian countries and the learning of Asian languages.

Balai Bahasa now offer beginner and intermediate courses, as well as programs specifically directed towards teachers through the National Asian Languages and Studies in Schools Program, which has contributed to a near-100% increase in enrolments since the school opened in 2008.

Balai Bahasa attracts a different demographic to schools and universities: many of those enrolling are groups of friends who frequently visit Indonesia, particularly Bali, for personal and travel reasons. Against the broader narrative of Indonesian-in-decline, Balai Bahasa highlights the potential of informal programs – and, in the case of its NALSSP-funded programs, the value of government support – in increasing Australia’s Asia-literacy.

Yet, this does not appear to hold across the board. In Victoria, high school teacher Jill Andrew noted that year 12 enrolments have remained low at 9 students this year; while her school struggles to attract students to pick up the language in year 7. This is, in large part the result of demographics, and a relative lack of awareness about Indonesia as a destination for study and travel. Many parents, presumably unaware of Indonesia’s relative political and economic stability, encourage their children to study Mandarin.

In 2012, data prepared by the VCAA about the performance of year 12s was unavailable due to low enrolments, while overall, the number of students studying Indonesian through to year 12 across the state has been dropping by 80-90 each year – with no indication of the trend reversing.

On this basis, it would certainly be premature to declare Indonesian studies ‘saved’. Only last year, both La Trobe University and UNSW announced plans to axe their Indonesian programs, following extensive lobbying from students and local Indonesian communities.

Moreover, the federal government has not yet responded to Professor Hill’s 2012 report into the overall state of Indonesian language teaching in Australian universities, despite prior assurances from tertiary education minister Chris Evans. The report, which contains 20 recommendations, was released in April, 2012, and charts the ‘collapse’ of Australia’s Indonesian teaching capacity.

Only 15 of Australia’s 40 major universities now offer Indonesian language programs, five of which rely on other institutions for staff and materials. Between 2004 and 2009, six institutions closed their Indonesian studies programs.

There also remain serious obstacles and disincentives for students who are thinking of taking up Indonesian as a university major: a lack of interest from business, visa difficulties, cost, and incompatibility between government grants and programs such as ACICIS. Many of these issues were addressed by AIYA in our submission and response to last year’s White Paper.

So, while there are positive signs that interest in Indonesian language studies at universities and colleges are increasing, enrolments in schools – and the extremely low base from which university enrolments are growing – indicate that there remains a lot to be done. AIYA eagerly awaits the government’s response to Professor Hill’s report, and to the Coalition’s recent policy announcements.

If you’re a student or a teacher of Indonesian – or even just someone with an interest – we’d love to hear your thoughts. Have you noticed a similar trend? Leave your comments below, or join the discussion on our Facebook page and Twitter account.