Creativity and Crisis: Indonesian in Australian Schools
By Hamish Curry, Executive Director, Asia Education Foundation
The story of Indonesian language learning in Australian schools shows clear patterns of rising and falling. Unfortunately, in the last two decades, the fall has dominated. If current trends continue, Indonesian in Australian schools will be in irreversible crisis – caught between some positive efforts in primary schools and ever-dwindling student numbers in the secondary years.
Indonesia is Australia’s nearest Asian neighbour, a key player in Southeast Asia, a member of the G20 and an emerging economic force fast developing in business, technology and education. During his visit to Australia in February 2020, Indonesian President described Australia as Indonesia’s “closest friend”. With a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership and ambitious new Economic Partnership Agreement (IA-CEPA), Australia and Indonesia have a strong bilateral relationship. Against the backdrop of rising regional uncertainty and the challenge of COVID-19, the two countries have an important opportunity to deepen ties moving forward.
Sadly, however, Indonesian language learning in Australian schools is at a historic low. There are fewer students learning Indonesian now than in the early 1970s. Without the language skills, knowledge of Indonesia and intercultural capability, Australians will struggle to navigate their relationship with one of Asia’s key players and the world’s largest Muslim population.
Encouragingly, there are pockets of excellence where Australian schools show successful engagement and participation with Indonesia and Indonesian. The Australia-Indonesia BRIDGE program has shown that intercultural learning takes individual and school commitment, passion, and creativity. Teaching, curriculum, policies and system pathways are also key influencers. So too is an understanding of the wider context in which learning Indonesian makes sense for our young people for whom Indonesia will feature in the future as a key regional partner - well beyond holidays to Bali.
And while we have some new data about the current status of Bahasa Indonesia in our schools, almost nothing is known about what students learn, if anything, about Indonesia through other areas of their education.
In the context of Australia’s place in the world, our engagement with Indonesia and Indonesian language (Bahasa Indonesia) is critical.
In 2021 AEF is undertaking a project to develop a national rationale for the study of Indonesia and Indonesian in Australian schools. Due for launch in October, 'Why Study Indonesian? A Rationale for Australian Education, is funded by the Australia Indonesia Institute of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
AEF has three recommendations that need to be implemented if the current crisis is to be addressed.
Australian education systems must:
- Regularly collect, analyse and report on data on Indonesian language and studies across Australian schools to inform progress and planning.
- Develop a significant national learning bank of Indonesian language and studies curriculum resources to support schools.
- Substantially increase investment in school partnerships between Australian and Indonesian schools.
The key findings summary of this report originally appeared on the AEF website and was also published by the University of Melbourne's Pursuit.
The people of the world must be able to speak to each other and be understood—to communicate as effectively and as rapidly as technology allows.
Australia’s engagement with Indonesia and Indonesian through education has risen and fallen over seven decades. It stretches back as far as the 1950s, with Indonesian growing in schools up until about 1970. This was an effort by successive Australian Governments to address greater awareness and understanding of Indonesia’s significance for Australia. The focus on Indonesia waned over 1970-1985 with changes in Australia’s policy settings, economy, and in Indonesia. In 1987, Indonesian was included in the first national languages policy, and by 1991 was embedded as one of the priority languages to be offered in Australian schools.
The two most significant and well-funded national initiatives since that time were arguably our most successful. One was the National Asian Languages and Studies in Australian Schools (NALSAS) Strategy (1994–2002) and later the National Asian Languages and Studies in Schools Program (NALSSP) (2008–2012). These initiatives were coupled with funding incentives for schools, professional development for teachers and school leaders, national data collection, and greater engagement with Indonesia. Program alignment came in the form of initiatives like the BRIDGE School Partnerships program (Building Relationships through Intercultural Dialogue Growing Engagement) which directly linked schools in Australia and Indonesia delivered by AEF (which commenced in 2008).
Two other significant points in this timeline were the 2008 Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians emphasized a focus on Asia, and the introduction of the Australian Curriculum in 2009 that identified ‘Intercultural Understanding’ as a general capability for all students and ‘Asia and Australia’s engagement with Asia’ as a cross curriculum priority.
The 2010 snapshot below (Figure 1) gives an indication of what was known about the numbers of students learning Indonesian in schools at that time, with secondary students most likely picking up some of the momentum from primary school exposure to the language.
Figure 1: The Current State of Indonesian Language Education in Australian Schools: Bahasa Indonesia (AEF, 2010)
This data defined a time when Australian education was riding a wave of efforts to engage with Indonesia, in spite of the many growing challenges in assumptions and stereotypes around Indonesia. The seven-year gap between NALSAS and NALSSP coincided with wider shifts, especially the negative impact of the 2002 Bali bombings and growing domestic terrorism in Indonesia.
From 2013, NALSSP had ended and Australian education began a period of decline in national languages funding and policy support. There was the publication of a key 2014 report by AEF on ‘Senior Secondary Languages Education Research Project’ and ACARA also published more detailed work on Indonesian curriculum in the same year. In 2015 AEF lost its Federal Government core funding to promote the studies of Asia and Asian languages in Australian schools despite a series of informative key reports and school programs.
Australian states and territories were left to shape languages policies and incentives for themselves. Over the last decade, the pursuit of second language studies has been uneven across the Australian education system. We explore that further in the next chapter. However, the full picture of what happened across Government, Independent, and Catholic schools in studies of Indonesia or Indonesian language is not clear. Kathleen Turner from Newcrest Mining Limited says “…language learning at Australian schools and universities has been on a downhill trend for a long time now and educators and advocates of foreign language literacy have been completely disillusioned by a trend that seems inevitably veering towards the extinction of certain languages being taught.” (p.79)
Key to understanding the context for Australian education engaging with Indonesia and Indonesian is an appreciation of the school and community factors that emerge regularly in investigations such as this and are also backed by data from the BRIDGE School Partnerships program. Primary schools deserve special mention as they make up the overwhelming bulk of students learning Indonesian in Australia. However, there are now far fewer pathways for students to follow the language into their secondary education.
Common school factors that impact languages education include –
- Access to languages
- Quality programs
- Time allocation
- Teacher education
- Whole school commitment
- Staffing impact
- Parent and broader community support
- Business and tertiary education sector links
One of the most important perspectives is that of the students themselves. Very little is known about why and how students choose and continue languages over time, taking into account that languages become optional after Year 8 in most states and territories. Figure 2 below (from AEF research in 2014) is a powerful summary of the factors that impact on student decision-making in choosing to study or not study a second language in the senior secondary years.
Figure 2: Asia Education Foundation, Senior Secondary Languages Education Research Project (2014), p.68
In 2019 the Australian Federation of Modern Language Teachers Association (AFMLTA) received funding from the Federal Government to commence research and recommendations on all languages across Australian education, with outcomes expected by 2022. This is welcomed after a hiatus of Federal Government action over 5 years. However, more sustained and specific research also needs to take place to understand specific languages like Indonesian.
The most recent research on Indonesian was published in 2020 by Dr Michelle Kohler at the University of South Australia. In ‘Indonesian language education in Australia: Patterns of provision and contending ideologies’ Dr Kohler summarised the history and context of the initiatives on Asian languages as “the message, actual and symbolic, to schools and the broader community was that Indonesian was an important, and easy to learn Asian language for both individual young Australians and for the prosperity and security of the nation.”
But in the world of 2021 Indonesian language learning continues to slip away. Universities are now questioning whether they can sustain language offerings, with Indonesian one of the first on the chopping block. Should nothing change, Indonesian study in Australia will be in irreversible crisis.
Develop a significant national learning bank of Indonesian language and studies curriculum resources to support schools.
The Importance of Languages in Global Context: An International Call to Action (2020), p.2
The Current State of Indonesian Language Education in Australian Schools: Bahasa Indonesia (AEF, 2010), p.17
 Turner, K. Australia’s language deficit is a threat to its role in the global economy (Asia Society Disruptive Asia 2018), p.79
 Asia Education Foundation, Senior Secondary Languages Education Research Project (2014), pp. 72-76
 Kohler, M. Indonesian language education in Australia: Patterns of provision and contending ideologies (2020), p.2
If Australia does not understand what is happening then it risks missing out on using its home-grown smarts in a much bigger way.
Crisis is borne out of complexity and a lack of capacity to manage, read and control a situation over time. Given the wider landscape of languages in Australian schools, there is no doubt that this space is deeply complex and has reached a critical juncture. There are no easy solutions, no silver bullets, to solve what appears to be a crisis of engagement in Bahasa Indonesia in schools, with a great void and disconnect between primary and secondary schools.
Australian education strives to be evidence driven. In languages this is commonly limited to counting the numbers of students learning Indonesian. The most consistent measure of numbers of students studying Indonesian over the past decade has been the proportion of Year 12 students who study the language. Figure 3 below is the cumulative data from ACARA on Year 12 language enrolments from 2006-2019.
What’s noticeable about the thin-blue line of Indonesian since 2006, is that Year 12 enrolments have halved, from 6.4% of languages enrolments to 3.4%. One of the few languages to have such declines.
Figure 2: ACARA data – Proportion of Year 12 tertiary-recognised language enrolments by language, Australia 2006-2019
Due to the fact that there had simply been no collection of languages participation data from Foundation to Year 10 for a decade, Dr. Michelle Kohler took the initiative to see if she could update the 2010 data she had collected and analysed for the AEF’s Current State of Indonesian Language Education in Australian Schools: Bahasa Indonesia.
The reality begins to look dire when you consider, for example, that in South Australia last year, the number of Year 12 SACE students who completed Indonesian numbered just 32, down from 44 in 2019 (0.4% of all SACE enrolments). The ‘cliff’ between primary and secondary school participation in Indonesian is particularly pronounced and clearly contributes to a lack of senior secondary students learning the language. It is at the junior secondary level that more investigation and intervention need to take place. See Figure 4 below comparing the national differences (all States and the ACT) between 2009 and 2016.
Figure 4: Kohler, M. Indonesian language education in Australia: Patterns of provision and contending ideologies (2020)
While the reasons for these stark differences and declines have been outlined in Chapter One, the picture still feels incomplete - the voice of young people is either not factored in or disappears into a ‘head-count’. With Indonesian an “economic narrative is not enough: it does little to inspire twelve or even twenty-year-olds, and young people must be shown the value of engaging with others, and in the process learn about themselves and their own communities.”
There is an ongoing lack of even the most basic data to inform solutions. Catholic and Independent sectors in many states do not contribute to languages data, and this results in an incomplete picture. The Victorian Department of Education and Training records the most comprehensive languages data in Australia, and their annual analysis is very detailed. In 2019, about 87% of Victorian Government schools offered language programs, with 70% of all students enrolled in these programs. Even so, and with some supporting initiatives and policies, the actual numbers of Victorian students in Indonesian (14% of all language enrolments) have been moving downward (despite a positive gain in secondary schools in 2019); see Figure 5 below.
Figure 5: Langauges Provision in Victorian Government Schools, 2019 (p.21)
One of the other glaring gaps in analysis is the absence of data at levels deeper than this. Consider that the other major channels for students to learn about Indonesia comes through subject areas like the Humanities, Arts, Civics and Religion. Very little is known about the consistency and depth that students learn about Indonesia, beyond formal program engagements. Teachers and school leaders play a key role in this. The level of teacher awareness and competence with Indonesia is a central element, one where it is surrounded by narratives that for “much of Australia’s past, Indonesia has been regarded as exotic, alien, and suspect.” In fact, the latest Lowy Institute poll suggests that Australians generally have a limited understanding of Indonesia and low trust in its leaders.
To add more tension to this crisis, observe what is happening at the tertiary level. Indonesian has been on the chopping block for several prominent Australian universities, with media and public pressure appearing to stave off the inevitable.
The contradicting messaging is that “Indonesian is easy yet useless, it is fun yet threatening, it is economically important yet not culturally prestigious.” When that involves our nearest Asian neighbour with deep historical ties, learning about language and culture should be a sincere effort to build relationships and two-way engagement.
Regularly collect, analyse and report on data on Indonesian language and studies across Australian schools to inform progress and planning.
 Brown, H. Bridging a looming digital divide with Indonesia (Asia Society Disruptive Asia 2018), p.55
 Kohler, M. Going there: reviving Indonesian in education, (Asia Society Disruptive Asia 2018), p.86
Languages Provision in Victorian Government Schools, (State of Victoria, Department of Education and Training 2019) p.10
 Kohler, M. Going there: reviving Indonesia/n in education, (Asia Society Disruptive Asia 2018), p.86
 Kohler, M. Indonesian language education in Australia: Patterns of provision and contending ideologies (2020), p.16
When we show homage and respect to the people of Indonesia as a society, we gain a very inclusive and positive response because that’s us showing Indonesia that we value their culture, we value their language, and we value their existence.
It would be safe to argue that there would be no Indonesian language or studies in Australian schools if it weren’t for the work of committed, passionate and informed educators and education leaders. Despite the statistics and mainstream decline, it is important to understand and recognize that many schools around Australia are engaging in fulfilling Indonesia-focused programs.
From the teaching of Indonesian language in creative ways, to fostering school partnerships with those across Indonesia, schools in primary and secondary settings have found success and rich relationships through engaging with Indonesian. Perhaps one of Australia’s shining examples is Scott’s Head Public School in NSW. As one of the only bilingual Indonesian schools in Australia, this school has demonstrated that through strong leadership, teacher passion and support, students can thrive in their education and language acquisition that connects them in memorable ways to Indonesia. Indonesian language and culture are embedded using approaches from CLIL (Content Language and Integrated Learning), which have been shown to be highly effective in blending language and culture across the curriculum. Scott’s Head has hosted of a range of high-level visits from Indonesia, including the Indonesian Consul-General. These experiences have helped shape not only this school, but also neighbouring Macksville High School which offers Indonesian, where many Scott’s Head students complete their final HSC Indonesian exams one year early. The AEF podcast ‘Building BRIDGES’ features a more detailed conversation with Scott’s Head school leadership about how they have fostered Indonesian language, studies, and networks.
Central to the creativity of schools with Indonesian is connecting and developing relationships with peers in Indonesia. Time and again stories affirm that investing in school partnerships and student experiences with Indonesia offer long-lasting impact on learning and intercultural understanding. AEF’s BRIDGE School Partnerships program has been one of the most significant investments in this work over the past decade. By 2021-2022, the program will have established over 200 partnerships across Australia with 18 provinces in Indonesia. BRIDGE has survived due to the tenacity and commitment of schools and educators between the two nations, and the ongoing support of the Australian Government. Indonesian President Joko Widodo and Prime Minister Scott Morrison released a joint statement during a 2019 state visit that included recognition that “Leaders welcomed the continuation of programs such as BRIDGE… which enhance interactions among students and teachers from both countries.”
The stories of impact have been numerous over the years with teachers exploring everything from science and sustainability projects, to shared storytelling and recipe books, diverse arts, and traditional practices. Technology has been a very significant enabler between schools. Even during the pandemic in 2020, schools continued their connections in even greater numbers, with hundreds of teachers from Indonesia joining AEF webinars to share remote teaching practices and wellbeing support with Australian peers. Heathmont College in Victoria worked with their partner school Karangmojo SC in Jogajakarta to create a collaborative ‘Stay Safe’ COVID related dance video between Year 7 students. Three years ago, the BRIDGE program introduced even greater technology integration into partnerships. Schools received Google Cardboard VR boxes to use with mobile devices, with many sharing panoramic images and virtual tours. It was a powerful way to almost literally ‘see the world through someone else’s eyes’.
Image supplied by AEF. Students use custom VR boxes to explore Australian and Indonesian content.
Education and technology are clearly playing a key role in amplifying the approaches between educators and students in the two neighbouring countries. Even back in 2012, Kangaroo Island Community Education (KICE) in South Australia demonstrated a powerful project with their partner in Indonesian aptly titled ‘Two rivers, two islands, one future’.
Hand-in-hand with this are the similarities in the curriculum. Both Indonesia and Australia are looking to balance the emphasis on a range of key capabilities in teaching and learning – with a shared focus on skills in critical and creative thinking, communication, and collaboration. Coupled with a surge in the need for teacher capacity building in teaching with technology, the wider opportunities for educators to work together on pedagogy and curriculum development are exciting and should be amplified. For example, in 2018 Marcellin College (Victoria) ran a design thinking workshop with 60 peers in Indonesia to help support shared work on creative problem-solving.
While many Australian primary schools prioritize second-language learning with it being optional in secondary, Indonesia is the reverse. English is no longer compulsory in Indonesian primary schools but emphasized in secondary. The requirement in most Australian states and territories to study a second language in primary school means that Indonesian remains relatively stable in the primary setting, and in fact this is the only area in which some states reported growth in Kohler’s 2020 study. The framing of Indonesian as the “easy” language seems to be largely effective in maintaining its position in primary schools, however this situation changes in secondary school. Perhaps it is an opportunity to leverage the secondary school sector between Australia and Indonesia and collaborate much more on mutual language support.
Opportunity and optimism are important not to lose sight of amongst the dire data with Indonesian language. Schools can foster meaningful studies of Indonesia in schools. This requires school leadership and teacher capacity to be creative and inventive and understand contemporary orientations to teaching about/with/through Indonesia in order to realize more engaging programs and experiences. Forthcoming updates from ACARA to the Australian Curriculum including with Intercultural Understanding and Asia and Australia’s engagement with Asia also present an opportunity for schools to refresh their focus on studies and links with Indonesia. However, it will be important to support schools in moving beyond the common cultural ‘F-words’ of engagement: food, flags, festivals, and fashion. One successful program that addressed this was the Indonesian Language Learning Ambassadors (ILLA) run by AEF from 2017-2019. This supported Indonesian nationals studying education in Australian universities with the opportunity to spend 3 hours per week in a school over 5-6 weeks. There were 148 Ambassador-School partnerships created, with 89% of teachers stating that their students were more motivated to continue their Indonesian language studies as a result. The relationships, sustained connections, and integration made a measurable difference to all participants.
The students have gained more learning experience by listening and meeting more Indonesian people. They would develop better understanding about multi-culturalism. Not all students have been exposed to the Indonesian community in the area where they live in.
(2018 teacher participant)
A final consideration within the myriad of ways education can blend between Indonesia and Australia is through the support of other organisations. The Australia-Indonesia Youth Association (AIYA) offers a range of events and network opportunities across Australia with passionate young Australian and Indonesian professionals. Similarly, the National Australia-Indonesia Language Awards (NAILA) have continued to foster communication and language exchange opportunities and awards across education. In Victoria, the Government established the Victorian Young Leaders to Indonesia program in 2019 and is planning to evolve the offering as a result of the pandemic. This has also been the transition approach for ACICIS (Australian Consortium for ‘In-Country’ Indonesian Studies) who have been scaling up the numbers of tertiary students, and some schools, seeking experiences in Indonesia over a number of years, and are now offering a series of digital services and programs. These are all indicators of the great creativity and commitment that education services and sectors are making to address the need for fostering and sustaining ongoing strong relationships between Australia and Indonesia.
In the words of Karl Krause at Scott’s Head, “…the real vision of what we’re doing which is to produce Australian people who are able to engage with Indonesia in the future and are able to communicate with others in that region for our mutual benefit.”
Substantially increase investment in school partnerships between Australian and Indonesian schools.
 Krause, K. Building BRIDGES by Asia Education Foundation, podcast Episode 1: Love Your Resistance (2020)
 Kohler, M. Indonesian language education in Australia: Patterns of provision and contending ideologies (2020), p.14
 Krause, K. Building BRIDGES by Asia Education Foundation, podcast Episode 1: Love Your Resistance (2020)
The Importance of Languages in Global Context: An International Call to Action (2020), p.3
Language skills foster literacy, educational attainment, and a confident mindset that views cultural difference with curiosity rather than prejudice. They enhance employability, enabling people to navigate multicultural environments and to be sensitive to cultural difference and better at conceiving events from multiple points of view. They encourage us to be flexible, adaptable, and globally mobile, whether as citizens or as researchers working in pursuit of new knowledge that cannot be bounded by geography.
Is Indonesian in schools seeing creativity or crisis? The data indicates that at present it is more crisis than creativity, but innovation and passion for ensuring Indonesia and Indonesian remain integral in Australian schools will not disappear. Constraints have always been a powerful enabler of creativity, but without a way to amplify the impact of that creativity, it remains localized and fragile.
Without nation-wide policies, funding and collective support, Indonesian could be relegated to a forgotten corner of our education experiences. Such an outcome does not serve our next generations of Australians well. And it would say much of Australia’s lack of commitment to our largest neighbour.
Much of what has been studied and researched about Indonesian in schools has often resulted in a common recommendation – we need a more unique rationale about why Indonesian is an important language to teach and learn. There needs to be a demand for concerted efforts to intervene, much like the International Call to Action on languages published late last year.
Figure 6: Asia Education Foundation, Senior Secondary Languages Education Research Project (2014), p.5
In 2014, AEF published a report with a number of interventions for Asian languages like Indonesian in the senior secondary setting which are still as relevant today; see Figure 6 above. For 2021, the Australia-Indonesia Institute has funded an initiative to develop a contemporary rationale for studies of Indonesia and Indonesian language at a crucial juncture – one where the crisis is pressing. AEF will be working on this to consult as widely as possible to capture a diverse range of experienced, youthful, and passionate voices to articulate a strong and relevant rationale for Australian schools. The rationale for ‘Why Study Indonesian?’ will be launched in October this year.
A rationale that speaks to Australian schools on its own won’t have the impact of national or state policies or funding, but it will be a provocative and reassuring first step in demonstrating to communities in Australia and Indonesia, that Indonesian language and studies is considered an important and essential offering in Australian education. One that must be strengthened nationally and systemically.
The key findings summary of this report originally appeared on the AEF website and was also published by the University of Melbourne's Pursuit.
Banner image: Australia Asia-Pacific BRIDGE School Partnership Program students use VR devices to undertake digital lessons led by the Asia Education Foundation exploring intercultural understanding. Credit: AEF.
Funding Acknowledgement: Why Study Indonesian? A Rationale for Australian Education, has received grant funding from the Australia Indonesia Institute of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.