Australian universities defer decisions on teaching Indonesian

Murdoch gives the language another year and backs away from proposal to sideline some academics from research

December 16, 2020
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Indonesian has had a stay of execution at two Australian universities that have been teaching the language for decades following community outcries over proposed course closures.

But classes will end at a third university and are under a cloud at a fourth, as experts warn that language programmes will remain under constant threat without more enrolments.

Perth’s Murdoch University has backed away from a proposal to “teach out” its Indonesian degree by next August, in an acknowledgment that the subject was strategically important. The university told staff that it had decided to continue teaching the language next year, although new enrolments will not be accepted in the Indonesian major.

Victoria’s La Trobe University has also deferred a decision on its proposal to scrap Indonesian until the end of January “owing to the need to consult at greater length with external stakeholders”.

But Queensland’s University of the Sunshine Coast has said it will not accept new Indonesian enrolments in 2021 and will stop teaching existing students later next year.

Western Sydney University also reportedly plans to axe Indonesian classes. Times Higher Education sought confirmation from the university but had not received it by the time of publication.

The other 12 Australian universities that currently offer independent Indonesian programmes have all confirmed their intention to maintain them next year. The University of Queensland stressed Indonesian’s importance as “one of the most widely spoken languages in the world”.

For Australians, the rationale to study Indonesian is arguably stronger than for any other language. Less challenging to learn than most other regional tongues, it also offers a connection to a giant nation on Australia’s doorstep with a youthful population and an economy tipped to rank fourth in the world by 2050.

Despite this, the number of Australians studying Indonesian at tertiary level has crashed from an estimated 2,000 in the early 1990s to 800 last year. “The onus is on language educators within higher education and the community more broadly to drive up enrolments,” said Liam Prince, director of the Australian Consortium for In-Country Indonesian Studies.

“Until we rectify that structural issue of declining enrolments in some meaningful way, the programmes will always be vulnerable.”

Mr Prince said Murdoch was the “birthplace and incubator” of his organisation, and the university’s cessation of Indonesian would have been a “symbolic blow”.

Murdoch said it would investigate a sustainable way of delivering Indonesian in consultation with staff and the wider community. A review in late 2021 would assess whether the subject met the criteria for retention, which would be based around financial sustainability, enrolment growth and collaborations.

Murdoch has also backed away from a contentious proposal to withdraw research rights from academics who teach the “foundational disciplines” of mathematics, statistics, physics, chemistry and economics – areas in which specialist degrees will no longer be offered, although units will still be available to students of other fields.

The university said staff feedback had persuaded it to maintain existing work arrangements. It said academics would qualify for research-time allocations as long as they met performance criteria for their levels and disciplines.

But Murdoch maths professor Graeme Hocking said the publication, research income and PhD supervision benchmarks that governed research rights, prescribed under the university’s Academic Career Framework, would be “beyond the reach” of most teaching academics in any Australian university.

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