Indonesia is allowing the first-ever foreign campus to open in its capital of Jakarta. Image: Facebook

JAKARTA – Back in the early 1990s, Melbourne’s widely-respected Monash University sought to open a campus in Indonesia’s capital.

But buoyed by opposition from local universities, academics and nationalist politicians, the Indonesian government planted so many obstacles in the way that the Australians gave up and went to Malaysia instead.

More than two decades later, with 1,500 Indonesian students now attending Kuala Lumpur’s Monash University Malaysia, President Joko Widodo’s administration has finally cleared the way for Monash to become the first foreign university to establish a presence in Indonesia.

Authorized by the passage of the 2012 Higher Education Act, only now being implemented under a 2018 ministerial regulation, the move has been welcomed in both countries as a significant step towards improving Indonesia’s human resource development.

The Australian government sees the campus opening, changes to Indonesia’s foreign investment rules under the Job Creation Omnibus Law and the recently-signed Indonesia-Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement as signs of closer collaboration between the often uneasy neighbors.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) estimates there are 45,200 Indonesians currently studying abroad, about half of them in Australia and the rest mostly spread among the United States, China, Malaysia, Britain and Japan.

Ranked 58th in the world and one of the few universities to make a commercial success out of its education ventures overseas, Monash plans to open the post-graduate Indonesian campus in October 2021, starting with an initial 200 master’s and PhD students and eventually rising to more than 2,000, with an additional 1,000 short-course participants.

Monash University’s main campus in Melbourne. Image: Facebook

When Monash College was opened in partnership with Indonesian philanthropist Mu’min Ali Gunawan’s Panin Bank in the early 1990s as part of a transition process to the Melbourne University, it was looked on as a precursor to the establishment of a local campus.

But former Australian diplomat Ian Porter, who led that effort in 1997, found the Indonesian government unwilling to make concessions. “It could only be a joint venture and the local universities were worried about competition,” he recalls. “It was just too difficult to get around government regulations.”

It was only during Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s presidency that the government began to actively reconsider the policy as the number of Indonesian students studying abroad rose by leaps and bounds, with Australia edging further ahead of the United States as the preferred destination.

Up until then, much of the funding had come from donor countries. But in 2010 – the year she resigned to join the World Bank – Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati initiated the Indonesian Endowment Fund for Education (LPDP), giving the government the lead role in providing overseas scholarships.

After inevitable delays, the fund finally became fully operational in 2013 and has since financed the overseas studies of more than 20,000 Indonesian post-graduate and doctoral students at an annual cost to the state of about $1.6 billion.

Sources familiar with the fund’s history say mercurial vice president Jusuf Kalla, a businessman known for his pragmatism and for cutting through red tape, threw his support behind allowing foreign campuses in Indonesia as a way of saving money. 

Then, with Indrawati back as finance minister in his new Cabinet in 2016, Widodo enthusiastically took up the cause of improving Indonesia’s human resources as his second priority behind infrastructure development, the mission that has sealed his legacy.

President Joko Widodo is known to back the Monash University plan. Photo: AFP Forum/ Eddy Purwanto

“The support from the government has been comprehensive and nothing short of amazing,” says Professor Andrew MacIntyre, Monash’s senior pro vice-chancellor for Southeast Asia partnerships. “I have been astounded frankly. People I have dealt with at every level of government have been very enthusiastic.”

One of Australia’s leading Indonesianists, MacIntyre says the university plans to offer a mix of short courses and professional development programs, with its research focused on topics that impact Indonesia and promote sustainable development.

The passage of the 2012 law encouraged Monash to redouble its efforts to add Indonesia to its list of overseas campuses, which now also includes India, China and Britain.

“We want to keep building capability and capacity in such areas as data science, urban design, business innovation, public policy,” MacIntyre told Asia Times. “We have a huge opportunity to support Indonesia’s development objectives and make a positive difference to the region.”

Established in 2014, Monash is the host of the Australia Indonesia Center (AIC), a consortium of seven Indonesian and four Australian universities that concentrates on fostering people-to-people contacts in science, technology, innovation and culture.

Private universities see important advantages to having a foreign campus. They hope that Monash’s trail-blazing will now allow them – and possibly state  institutions as well – to push for much-needed changes to the domestic education system.

Previously under the Education Ministry, notorious for its corrupt practices and policies that dwell on quantity over quality, higher education was taken away in 2014 and placed under the Research and Technology Ministry, where officials are known to be more open to change and innovation.

Although it was inexplicably returned to the Education Ministry under Widodo’s second-term Cabinet, the president and his senior advisers, including Monash-educated Economic Coordinating Minister Airlangga Hartarto, ensured the Monash plan stayed firmly on track.

Indonesian students share a screen. Photo: Facebook

Hartarto is also a graduate of Jogjakarta’s Gadja Mada University, whose collaboration with Monash medical researchers recently resulted in a major breakthrough towards the elimination of dengue fever, the mosquito-borne scourge that kills 500 Indonesians each year.

An initial trial by Monash’s World Mosquito Program (WMP) showed a stunning 77% reduction in the incidence of dengue in parts of Jogjakarta where mosquitos were released carrying Wolbachia, a tiny bacterium which occurs naturally in 60% of insect species.

Dewi Fortuna Anwar, another Monash graduate and Kalla’s former deputy secretary for political affairs, says although it is an important life experience for students to study abroad, having a campus at home means less affluent parents can send their children to an international university “without having to spend a fortune.”

Along with the absence of additional living expenses, a typical 18-month post-graduate course, which over time will also include public health, transport  infrastructure, environment and sustainability, digital health and cybersecurity, will be about half of what it costs in Melbourne.

McIntyre says the university is anxious for its research and innovation hub in Jakarta to be well-connected to industry, with the new campus located in the capital’s outlying Bumi Serpong district, close to a state-owned Telkom data center, the Apple Academy, Unilever, Huawei and other global and national companies.