In previous years Indonesian was acknowledge by Australian officials as one of the most important ‘strategic languages’ for its citizens to learn. Indonesia, with the world’s fourth-largest population, is an important trading partner for Australia – but now Australian universities and local governments are announcing cutbacks in Indonesian language programs.
Officially the University of New South Wales has stated that demand for learning Indonesian is simply not strong enough to justify continuing its language courses. The laws of supply and demand affect universities just as much as private businesses in the modern world, but what this move will mean for future relations between Indonesia and Australia remains unclear. Critics have called the move short-sighted, suggesting it will limit options for cooperation and business partnerships between the two countries in the future.
According to the university’s dean, the lack of demand for Indonesian is partly attributable to the high enrolment levels in other Asian languages like Japanese and Chinese. It would appear these markets represent more attractive prospects for many Australian language learners.
However, there has been a strong reaction from the Australian Federal Government to the university’s latest move. MP Julie Bishop has publicly stated that the university’s decision could cause real harm to diplomacy and future prospects between Australia and Indonesia. Bishop criticized the university for failing to make clear to students the many benefits that might open up to them with Indonesian language skills.
The Federal Government’s recognition of Indonesian as a nationally strategic language would normally mean universities are required to get government permission before closing a program. The university has argued, however, that they have not so much closed a program but simply shifted resources and rearranged how and where students who want to learn Indonesian are able to learn it. All in all, the problem appears to be with a lack of desire amongst Australians to learn the language – an issue which will have to be addressed through a campaign of education demonstrating the benefits of learning Indonesian as opposed to a different language which may be useful throughout Asia or the South Pacific.