Indonesia-UK Relations: Student Exchange Needed

31/05/2016 12:29 | Updated 31 May 2016

In April this year, the seventh Indonesian president, Joko Widodo (known colloquially as 'Jokowi') travelled to the UK. During his visit, he inked at least five agreements in different fields; namely, sports, fisheries, maritime affairs, education, as well as the deal between national flag carrier Garuda Indonesia and Airbus and Rolls Royce. Of all these deals, the agreement on education seems ripe for further discussion.

Undeniably, the Indonesian government, historically, has exerted considerable efforts to send a number of its students to pursue education at the world's best institutions, including those in the UK, through several scholarship programmes. There are scholarships from the Ministry of Religious Affairs (DIKTIS), the Indonesian Directorate General of Higher Education (DIKTI), the Indonesian Endowment Fund for Education (LPDP); the latter has the highest number of recipients. Each scholarship provider has sent thousands of students to various countries worldwide. Particularly LPDP, whereby approximately 6,400 recipients have studied at several universities globally, including the UK.

The new trend of Indonesian students studying in the UK has increased significantly in recent years. This is even recognised by the UK Ambassador to Indonesia, Moazzam Malik. It is estimated that approximately 3,000 Indonesian students are studying currently at several UK institutions. This figure is expected to increase around 20 to 30% annually. The interests of Indonesian students to pursue education in the UK are driven primarily by the world-renowned quality of UK education.

Although this growing number should be appreciated, it is important to note that the UK is not yet a top-choice destination for Indonesian students. The UK is ranked seventh among the main destination countries of Indonesian students, behind Australia, the US, Japan, Singapore, Malaysia, and Germany. Therefore, it is not surprising that the number of Indonesian students in the UK remains relatively low; for example, compared with Australia, which has around 19,000 Indonesian students.

The government in London has made some efforts to attract more Indonesian students to study in the UK. One example is the routine education exhibition held by the British Council in various cities in Indonesia. This year, the Council held the largest exhibition on UK education in three different cities; Jakarta, Surabaya, and Medan. Moreover, the UK Embassy in Jakarta has also taken a step. Last March, for instance, it launched a programme named 'UK Education Month' in cooperation with the British Council. Various programmes were held during the event, which took place between 3rd of March and 1st of April. The event included the promotion of 64 universities from the UK, Education UK Alumni Awards, and the collaboration between Indonesian and UK researchers through Newton Fund. Although this effort undoubtedly provides a platform from which both countries can strengthen their educational partnership, such event are usually held only in major cities of Indonesia; thereby, reaching only a small proportion of the population. Given the vastness of the Archipelago, it is necessary to hold such events in smaller cities in the country.

Despite these efforts, especially when compared to top destination countries for Indonesians to study, the UK's determination to enhance people-to-people contacts with Indonesia remains minimal. One possible explanation for this is the absence of youth and student exchange programmes between the two countries, as was implemented by Australia, Japan, and Malaysia. Australia, for instance, has an initiative named the Australia Indonesia Youth Exchange Program (AIYEP), where 18 youths from various Indonesian provinces are sent to Australia for two months to learn about, and exchange, culture. Moreover, this is not a one-way initiative; the Australian government also sends 18 of its youths to Indonesia.

Other initiatives, such as the Indonesia Malaysia Youth Exchange Program (Malaysia) and Ship for Southeast Asian Youth Program (Japan), are undertaking the same activities as AIYEP. The young students from Indonesia, Malaysia, and Japan take turns visiting each other's countries to improve people-to-people contacts. Turning to the US and Europe, similar programmes are in place, such as the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study (YES) and AFS Intercultural Programs.

In addition to the limited promotions and awareness, the relatively small number of Indonesian students in the UK can be attributed to the absence of annual exchange programmes between Jakarta and London. Besides offering an opportunity for the two different groups of people to develop a sense of brotherhood and understanding, exchange programmes could be an impetus for the participants wishing to continue their studies in the countries they had visited. Moreover, the exchange alumni could become the mouthpiece for the country to which they had exchanged. Furthermore, these individuals can spread important information to other prospective students regarding the country's education and living conditions. This, of course, will boost the interests of others to study abroad, because it has become human nature for people to trust those who have the same background than foreigners.

Exchange programmes become more crucial for the UK, given the interaction patterns among the people of Indonesia and the UK remain one-way; whereby only Indonesians study in the UK and not the other way around. It is unsurprising that, in 2014, fewer than 50 students from the UK were studying in Indonesia. With the exchange activities, British and Indonesian societies will have close emotional ties, which will increase the interests of British to study in Indonesia and otherwise.

As the UK-Indonesia relationship has grown significantly in recent years, both governments should realise the importance of strengthening people-to-people exchanges to overcome linguistics-cultural barriers. These ties will boost the number of their populations who are acquainted with each other's societal norms and customs, methods of performing business, and national and institutional interests. While stimulating cooperation is not a simple process, through the use of student exchanges and stronger educational partnership, the UK-Indonesia ties could expand to spheres beyond that of education.

The MoU signed by Jokowi last April, especially in the field of education, is the correct step. Cooperation in education should be a priority for the two countries in order to complement their growing relationship.

This piece is co-authored with Muhammad Beni Saputra, a postgraduate student at the University of Manchester.