Indonesia's Potential

February 26, 2010

The recently released annual “Open Doors” report on the number of international students in the United States made headlines. The data showed that a record number of students from abroad -- 671,616 -- were studying on American campuses in the 2008-9 academic year. The report in general was good news for U.S. higher education and the U.S. economy and good news for international education cooperation.

Those of us involved with Indonesia viewed the results with special interest. The report showed that only 7,509 Indonesian students are studying on American campuses. A decade or so ago, some 13,000 Indonesians were studying in the U.S. The number of Americans studying in Indonesia is an abysmal 120 or so.

Just as China, India and South Korea have surged ahead, today Indonesia is approaching a new take-off point as well. Indonesia has joined the Group of 20 and its economy is buoyant. The country is managing the threat of terrorism well, and President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was re-elected in peaceful elections last July.

The U.S. Embassy in Jakarta is now working overtime to make the most of new opportunities to engage with Indonesia, the world’s fourth largest country and the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation. Higher education is a cornerstone of the Obama administration’s new, evolving comprehensive partnership with Indonesia. As Secretary of State Clinton said during a Jakarta visit last February, “education is the key to expanding economic opportunity in Indonesia and allowing people to live up to their full potential.”

We welcome efforts by U.S. educational institutions to expand cooperation with Indonesia. Rich in natural and cultural resources, and newly democratic, Indonesia has much to offer American academia and the world. The country, for example, demonstrates that democracy and Islam can exist together, and it offers a variety of academic and real-world topics for fruitful study, training and research.

Our embassy in Jakarta is pursuing two major goals over the next five years: doubling the number of Indonesian students in the U.S. and the number of American students in Indonesia, and increasing university-to-university partnerships. An embassy education working group has been established to mobilize our public diplomacy, consular, economic, commercial services and development assistance in support of more bilateral higher education cooperation. The embassy is also working to expand science and technology collaboration with Indonesian counterparts. For example, Bruce Alberts, president emeritus of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, will be visiting Indonesia this year in his capacity as science envoy appointed by President Obama.

Reversing the Indonesian student enrollment decline, which really began with the Asian financial crisis of 1997-8 and then was complicated by post-9/11 issues and concerns, will not be done overnight, and the current economic problems in the U.S. and around the world certainly aren’t helping. Working with a variety of U.S. and Indonesian public and private partners, however, the embassy is making progress on a number of fronts.

The Department of State recently launched an expanded "EducationUSA" student advising service to help provide Indonesians with easier access to accurate, credible information about studying in America. Our Fulbright scholarship program, managed by the American Indonesian Exchange Foundation, was recently renewed for five years by a binational agreement between the governments of the United States and Indonesia to support the exchange of M.A. and Ph.D. students, teachers and scholars. Indonesia has also committed to sending hundreds of promising Indonesians to the U.S. for M.A.'s, Ph.D.'s and research as Fulbrighters over the next four years. The Peace Corps will be returning to Indonesia in July after an absence of more than 40 years. Indonesia has asked that the first group of volunteers comes as English high school teachers and teacher trainers.

USAID is expanding its higher education efforts. It is working with the government of Indonesia to improve both basic and tertiary education. A key component of the government’s reform program for higher education is creating more space for new and innovative partnerships with international institutions. Likewise, USAID is providing seed capital for direct partnerships between U.S. and Indonesian institutions. A first round of awards was just made. Finally, USAID is sponsoring more scholarships to the U.S.A.

We are eager to assist U.S. institutions that are interested in Indonesia. Colleges and universities can get more information by contacting our EducationUSA office. EducationUSA can help colleges begin or enhance recruitment in Indonesia, talk about opportunities for bringing American students here, or facilitate efforts to begin university linkages.

Two large U.S. education delegations have recently made productive trips to Indonesia. In July, some 30 educators representing more than 20 U.S. institutions were hosted by the Indonesian government. And in early December, the Department of State funded a 14-member College Board delegation of admissions officers. They visited nine Indonesian cities and gave numerous presentations to government and education officials and parents and prospective students. Both groups saw firsthand Indonesians’ enthusiasm for U.S. education and new opportunities for cooperation through a range of public and private partnerships.

And a good example of private sector interest in engaging with U.S. higher education involves Harvard University, where the John F. Kennedy School of Government recently announced a $20.5 million gift from Indonesian businessman Peter Sondakh’s Rajawali Foundation to launch an institute for Asia and an Indonesia studies program.

President Obama -- who knows Indonesia firsthand from having spent several years studying in the country as a child -- is expected to visit Indonesia in March. One thing he surely will observe is Indonesia’s renewed interest in American higher education cooperation. U.S. higher education is a key element in a new U.S.-Indonesia partnership for the 21st Century based on common interests. As we know from relations with countries that exchange thousands of students with the U.S. each year, higher education cooperation increases people-to-people connections that help bind countries together and promotes much-needed mutual understanding in this global age. Indonesia is on the move, and both countries stand to gain much from increased people-to-people contacts. Now is the time for U.S. educators to be giving Indonesia some long-overdue attention.


Cameron R. Hume is U.S. ambassador to Indonesia.

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