by Anna Kent,
Anna Kent is undertaking a PhD in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Deakin University, researching the history of Australian and New Zealand government aid to the Pacific
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Scholarships as diplomacy and aid

Most Australian students sitting in a lecture theatre with an international student beside them are probably not aware of the role that the student plays in Australia’s diplomatic program. And if that student happens to be an Australia Awards[1] student, they are also part of Australia’s aid program, and represent a proportion of Australia’s overall aid budget. Realistically, the international student is probably not aware of this either, and while the Australia Awards student is likely to be aware the awards are a development program, the significance of that program may not be obvious. If we were to make our fictional student an Indonesian Australia Awards student, they are now a small part of a program that is nearly eighty years old.

The Australian government has long considered scholarships to be part of the aid program. Until the mid-1980s, all international students at Australian education institutions were subsidised, and this subsidy was considered part of Australia’s aid program (although it was not formally counted as ‘Overseas Development Assistance’ until the mid-1980s). As part of Australian aid funding, the Australia Awards are now run through the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT).

Critical Mass

Australia first offered scholarships to Indonesians in 1949, and since that time more than 18,000 Indonesian students have studied in Australia under Australian government scholarships. Groups of students that have studied in Australian universities are common in the public service, a critical mass that was deliberately sought. The term critical mass, often used in relation to international scholarship programs such as the Australia Awards, indicates expected impact is linked to the changing culture within organisations that comes with a ‘critical mass’ of returned scholars.  The theory goes that the values instilled via an Australian university education will be transmitted more broadly into a workplace through these alumni. A report funded by the Australian government, looking at the impact of the Australian scholarships on women’s leadership in recipient countries showed a select number of workplaces in which a large number of alumni have changed the dynamic, however, they also report of a number of organisations where a ‘critical mass’ has not catalysed change. Other studies point to only 50 per cent of awardees being promoted on return, calling into question the impact that alumni can and do have on their return, even in a critical mass. 

Eminent alumni

With or without critical mass, a succession of prominent Indonesians have studied in Australia – from former Vice Presidents and Foreign Ministers, to university academics and scientists.  This is a more straightforward ‘outcome’ of the scholarships, far less problematic than critical mass. Australia values these high-profile alumni. The government uses them to highlight Australia’s ‘good works’ and seek support from them times of crisis.  These alumni form the ‘ballast’ that Gareth Evans first discussed in 1988.  ‘Ballast’ is the people to people connections that the scholarships aim to develop, and those connections are expected to develop and grow the relationship between Australia and Indonesia.

Who wins?

On the whole, there are three clear beneficiaries of this program:

  • individuals provided educational opportunities they may not otherwise have been able to access;
  • Australian universities, that gain a high-quality student cohort- with fees paid for by the Australian government; and
  • other members of the community such as landlords and business owners who supply the students with goods and services.

What is not clear however, is if the program is valuable for Indonesia or Australia more generally – creating the deep and binding ties the program is designed for. 

The future of the relationship

The relationship between Australia and Indonesia remains problematic, and the intertwining between the two countries remains limited, at economic, social and cultural levels.  For example, Australia’s share of Indonesia’s imports and Indonesia’s share of Australia’s were both under 3 per cent in 2012. Investment levels are similarly low. In addition, Indonesian migration to Australia is at very low levels, with Indonesians being the ‘19th largest migrant community in Australia—equivalent to 1.2 per cent of Australia’s overseas-born population and 0.3 per cent of Australia’s total population.’ And the study of Bahasa Indonesian in schools is now at levels lower than those in the 1970s.  Considering that there is only hundreds of kilometres between the two countries, this is a surprising lack of intermingling.

This is not necessarily a failure of the program of scholarships over decades. As is so often the case – it is impossible to know what the situation would be if no scholarship program was in place.  Culture, language, history, social values and responses to crises, political, financial and security, all separate the nations of Australia and Indonesia.

It would certainly be unfair to put the weight of the Australian Indonesian relationship on the shoulders of our fictional Indonesian Australia Awards student, not least because their trajectory after their study is still unknown. In this, an historical view can be more helpful. A recent in depth oral history project that spoke to alumni from Indonesia about their experiences provides a wealth of information about the individual stories of alumni and their experiences, in many cases decades after their time in Australia. In addition, more systematic research into the impact of the Australia Awards scholarships (and predecessor programs) is currently being undertaken by the Australian Council for Education Research. The outcomes of this and other research add greater nuance to our understanding of the role of Australian government scholarships in shaping and influencing Australia’s bilateral relationship with Indonesia, and what interventions may improve outcomes on both sides, especially for all those real Australia Award students in lecture theatres across the country.

[1] Which means they are sponsored by the Australian Government

Anna is undertaking a PhD in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Deakin University, researching the history of Australian and New Zealand government aid to the Pacific.  She has extensive experience researching and working with scholarship providers, scholarship students and universities. Anna is also the inaugural convener of the International Education Association of Australia’s Sponsored Students Special Interest Group. You can follow her on Twitter @annakent1.

Citation: Anna Kent. Australia’s Scholarships to Indonesia – Value and Values. Australian Policy and History. November 2017.


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