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Clarity needed for education in Australia–Indonesia FTA

Australian universities and vocational providers could be the big winners in the recently signed free trade agreement with Indonesia, but experts say further clarification is needed in developing a two-way flow of students, workers and research.

The Go8 hopes the FTA will open up a two-way flow of workers, students and researchers between Indonesia and Australia. Photo: Unsplash/ Nick Argus Ayra

Widodo has increasingly focusses on building human resources in the lead up to the 2019 election

The agreement, signed by Australia’s new prime minister Scott Morrison and Indonesian president Joko Widodo in late August 2018, will open up trade across a broad range of goods and services industries between the two countries, with an emphasis on education.

“The tendency is to lean towards attracting more experienced providers”

“TAFEs in Australia look forward to working with the Indonesian Government, technical education institutes and industry to assist in developing skills programs for Indonesians,” said TAFE Directors Australia chief executive Craig Robertson.

“The Indonesia-Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement supports and encourages this collaboration to help Indonesian firms lift their capability through skilled workers to enable trade with Australia and across the globe.”

As part of the agreement, both vocational and higher education partnership opportunities will increase, with Australian skills providers eligible to own up to 67% of partnerships with businesses, and a provision for “future liberalisation” for Australian universities to set up in country.

“Despite being Australia’s closest neighbour… the research relationship remains underdeveloped.”

Once implemented, the agreement could see Australia benefit from Indonesia’s focus on education, as Widodo increasingly looks to build human resources in the lead up to the 2019 election. Early 2018 saw research, technology and higher education minister Muhammad Nasir open up the possibility of foreign campuses after a six-year hiatus.

But according to experts, further clarification and work are needed on the final document, which is expected to be completed in December 2018, before any significant developments can be made.

Group of Eight chief executive Vicki Thomson said the agreement was long overdue, but warned there were a number of issues for Australian providers to be solved before they can “realise the full potential of ties with Indonesia”.

“These issues cut across international education exports, research collaboration, the development of Indonesia country knowledge, and cultural and language skills among young Australians,” she told The PIE News.

“Despite being Australia’s closest neighbour, home to 240 million people and sharing many common challenges, the relationship between Australian and Indonesian researchers remains underdeveloped.”

“The trade agreement is a reset both countries needed to have”

According to Thomson, anecdotal evidence suggested a preference for Indonesian researchers to engage with US institutions, in part due to pressures to publish in ISI Journals, which she said indicated a need for further investment by the Australian government.

Other recommendations the Go8 hope to see in the finalised document include an increased two-way flow of Indonesians and Australians in work, research and study, as well as the development of a joint accreditation framework encompassing the provision of online education.

Which of the Australian providers will benefit most from the agreement is also uncertain.

“Some Australian universities have expressed interest in establishing campuses in Indonesia,” said Eugene Sebastian, director of the Australia-Indonesia Centre.

Among them, RMIT, Central Queensland University, the University of Queensland and Monash have signalled a desire to set up in Indonesia, but Sebastian said other more experienced players would be “cautious that Indonesia is not a flippant environment”.

Speaking with The PIE, Sebastian added the Indonesian government was similarly cautious in how it proceeds.

“The relevant authorities will want to get this right. The tendency, I think, is to lean towards attracting the more experienced providers.”

Uncertainty over regulations, as well as where and with whom providers can establish operations may also be a sticking point, he said, but there was still sufficient time to iron out those details and place Indonesian-Australian relations on a new footing.

“When two close neighbours have gradually become indifferent towards each other, the trade agreement is a reset both countries needed to have,” Sebastian said.

Australia attracted over 20,000 Indonesia enrolments in 2017, while just under 1,400 Australians are expected to go to Indonesia in the latest round of the New Colombo Plan.

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