Notes from the Field

Study Abroad Programs: A ‘Sure Thing’ for Development in Indonesia

December 7, 2011

Having worked with Indonesia’s higher education sector since 2000, I have come to believe that studying abroad is as close as one may come to a “sure thing” in Indonesian developmental assistance. Indonesian students and professors studying abroad are exposed to new educational techniques and knowledge, and will take that expertise home with them either (as graduates) to their new workplace or (as professors) to an educational system sorely in need of innovation. The likelihood that those individuals become leaders in their fields rises exponentially – and, as a result, they have the potential to bring great economic and intellectual benefit to Indonesia. In fact, almost 50 percent of the ministers in President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s current cabinet spent some time studying overseas.

Hidayatullah State Islamic University students

Above, students mingle after class at Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University. Indonesia's student population in higher education has witnessed an explosive 35 percent increase in just six years.

Indonesians who study overseas, most of whom do so in the United States, Australia, the UK, or the Netherlands, carry their experiences – the vast majority of them overwhelmingly positive – with them for the rest of their lives. It is reflected in their work and their conversations; it becomes a part of them and thus the environment they interact with. It is arguably the ideal of what we mean when we speak of long-term impact and sustainability. Absent such exposure, perceptions of the West are often left to be derived from some combination of anti-Western rhetoric, syndicated TV shows, and internet conspiracy theories.

Yet the number of Indonesian students studying in the United States has fallen to half of what it was 10 years ago. That number, and the number of visiting professors, should ideally be increasing dramatically every year, and developmental projects should be making sure that happens. But despite some recent efforts, such as an increase in funds for U.S.-Indonesian Fulbright exchanges, the majority of these developmental opportunities remain untapped.
It has been difficult to witness such educational development opportunities with Indonesia being overlooked, especially at a time when the United States is refocusing on the Asia-Pacific region. Indonesia is huge in every way: with a population of 240 million people, Indonesia is the fourth most populous country in the world; flying direct from Banda Aceh to Jayapura (if one could do so) would take longer than Seattle to Miami or Edinburgh to Amman; its economy grew at a rate of over 6 percent for four of the last five years; it’s the most populous Muslim country in the world, and a vital young democracy; and the student population in higher education has witnessed an explosive 35 percent increase in just six years. Despite this, study abroad opportunities in the United States are declining rather than increasing.

The Asia Foundation is working on a solution to this challenge through our new legal education program, which is funded by USAID and designed to benefit the nation’s justice sector. The program includes a large study abroad component, and is also currently assisting eight law faculties in Indonesia to develop clinical legal education so that students have the opportunity to use the law in a real-life, real-time environment. Students work and study under the guidance of their professors and a partner institution, such as a civil society organization or a government office such as the court. It is a response to a problem that Supreme Court justices, attorney generals, and even law faculty deans have expressed to me: that law faculty graduates need to do more than just memorize the law for four years; they need to know how to use it. The program will make them better lawyers, and that means better justice and thus increased political stability.

To help develop clinical legal education in Indonesia, the program will also send 10 professionals, eight of whom will be professors, to the University of Washington School of Law for one year to study for a master of laws in clinical legal education. The professors will then return to Indonesia where they can pass on to their university and their students the educational benefits they received and the increased global outlook that they gained.

There are five million students and professors in higher education in Indonesia. Our legal education program will undoubtedly have a significant impact, but is just a single drop in what should be a wellspring of study abroad programs. For it is this type of partnership that can ultimately deliver a pan-institutional increase in Indonesia’s capacity, and stronger, deeper bonds of understanding, economy, and security among the countries participating.

Eric James Graham Putzig is chief of party for The Asia Foundation’s Educating and Equipping Tomorrow’s Justice Reformers program in Indonesia. He can be reached at eputzig@asiafound.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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