Despite a lack of solid results, a growing number of Australian universities are rushing to set up in Indonesia to teach wealthy locals.
Students at Monash University in Indonesia, located in Bumi Serpong Damai (BSD) City in southwest Jakarta. Photo credit: Monash University Indonesia.

The new intake lines up as the sun rises. They’re nervous, silent and focused. The scene is monochrome, with black strides or skirts and white shirts with most women wearing black jilbab (Islamic headscarves).

They stand in shadeless carparks. Marshals bark names and places. When long wait times cause fidgets, they order push-ups. All obey. The cohort is late teens.

This is not a military parade ground but a major public university campus in Malang, Central East Java. Apart from a gathering to study, this scene has no relationship to an enrolment week in Australia where the assured and ambitious come in colourful gear, flaunting their individuality.

Students in multicultural Australia come from different ethnicities. Their ages cover all decades. Many have worked for years and travelled widely, gaining what New Zealanders call ‘OE’ – maturing through overseas experience. They can sit alongside kids barely out of puberty.

That exciting mix is not found in Indonesia’s learning culture.

Regimented tertiary education is just one of the many awkward differences to be faced by Australian universities going offshore. As the terms pass, the Indonesian students start to assert themselves, but the stamp of authority remains.

Three Australian universities plan branches in Indonesia after Jakarta stopped banning standalone foreign campuses in 2018. There’s been no rush as the outsiders had to be high-ranked or invited by the Ministry of Education.  Hopes they’ll make money and lift education quality are problematic.

The ventures are exploring niche markets for the few with cash. The total cost for a 72-credit point Australian Master of Business Innovation degree in Jakarta is AUD$33,000. The average annual income for a worker in the capital, Jakarta, is a third of that fee, and far less in the regions.

Almost ten per cent of the national population of 275 million lives below the poverty level of AUD$55 a month. Indonesia is now unhappily ranked as the sixth country with the greatest wealth inequality in the world. That’s according to Oxfam International: ‘The four richest men in Indonesia have more wealth than the combined total of the poorest 100 million.’ 

The Australian offerings to its neighbour are not a rounded education for all, but a handful of specials for the few. Whatever the websites claim, these are risky commercial investments, not foreign aid programs.


In 2015, Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop (now Chancellor of the ANU) cut aid to Indonesia by 40 per cent, crippling the Australia-Indonesia Education Partnership programme. This was building schools and training teachers in the poorest parts of Indonesia, mainly the East Nusa Tenggara province.

Professor Andrew MacIntyre, president of an already established Jakarta branch of Monash University, said policies in Canberra had shifted across the years from seeing Indonesia as an aid recipient to a market.

He told Declassified Australia that he felt, ‘very confident that our campus is making a very clear and strong contribution to the further success of Indonesia.’

Professor Andrew MacIntyre is President of Monash University, Indonesia. Photo credit: Duncan Graham and Erlinawati Graham.

Monash is an Australian pioneer but it’s not alone. Chinese universities are exploring the field. Likewise, the British. The French and the Dutch are already in place as partners with local unis. Also, some Asian institutions are involved.

If all Australian universities thrive, they’ll cater for an estimated total of fewer than 10,000 students.  Monash hopes to lift its current enrolment of 220 students to 2,000 within eight years. There are almost 3.4 million in state universities and 1.3 million in those with religious links. Most are Muslim.

Since Australian aid for Indonesia has been slashed university senates in Australia are being pushed by the Indonesia-Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement to expand exports beyond bulk grain and beef and sell specialised services like education.

The three-year-old IA-CEPA free-trade accord that took ten years to negotiate has ‘yet to deliver much’, according to Indonesia expert Professor Tim Lindsey of Melbourne University.

During negotiations, an Australian Parliamentary Committee on Treaties was warned by international trade experts of potential hazards, particularly different expectations and ways to resolve disputes.

After the signing, two ANU academics claimed foreign investors avoided Indonesia because of ‘institutional quality and regulatory uncertainty.’ 

Further proof that the deal isn’t thriving comes from the one-day Sydney meeting in July between President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo and PM Anthony Albanese. The communique told their foreign ministers to ’renew the plan of action’ for the IA-CEPA, though giving no reasons why.

A favourite Australian sales pitch has Indonesia fertile with opportunities while growing into the world’s fourth-largest economy by 2050 as the workers move from farming to factories.

Rarely reported is that this shift is threatened by the lousy level of education of the workers needed to make the transition.

World Bank research in 2020 shows that more than half of Indonesian school leavers are ‘functionally illiterate’ (meaning they can’t understand what they read), compared with 20 per cent for countries in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development:

‘Student learning levels and learning inequality are major challenges. Most students do not meet the national learning targets Indonesia has set itself.’

The sickness spreads beyond classrooms. The UN Population Fund in Indonesia reports investment in youth is ‘critical for the present and future prosperity of Indonesia… policies that address youth needs, diversities and disparities will enable young people to claim their rights and fulfil their potential ’.

Australian universities operating in this needy environment should help achieve some of these worthy goals, though only at the margins. That’s because the ventures are too small and exclusive, and flogging courses that draw individuals but won’t satisfy Indonesia’s national needs.

The demand in Indonesia is for engineering graduates, unmet by the Australian newcomers. Nor will they explore the liberal arts so avoiding problems with asserting freedoms of expression in a nation where these principles are under attack by religious zealots.

To get nutritious brainfood, learners will have to leave the country and feast on higher learning elsewhere. Almost 13,000 are in Australia. On their return to Indonesia they often find opportunities restricted, pay low and ‘skills mismatch’ so head overseas again. Singapore has benefited from this brain drain.

The Indonesian university year is already underway with hundreds of thousands of hopefuls expecting that tertiary education will be little different from school. Lecturers dictate, pupils transcribe and there’s little questioning, as this writer knows from teaching and observing.


There are deeper issues facing Australian academics abroad. The heart of Western campuses is the library, usually the biggest building. In Indonesia, the centrepiece is the place of worship, mosque, church or temple.

Although the Indonesian Republic is constitutionally secular, religious instruction is compulsory at all levels of education; citizens’ ID cards must state that she or he is a Muslim, Catholic, Protestant, Hindu, Buddhist or Confucian.

Language students’ workshop at Malang University, East Java. Photo credit: Duncan Graham and Erlinawati Graham.

There are private faith-based universities in Australia but public schools and unis are secular under the Constitution.

A few years ago, Professor Gavin Moodie, an expert observer of overseas education and formerly with RMIT in Melbourne, warned that:

‘International branch campuses are one of the biggest reputational and financial risks universities take…They rarely repatriate great financial or academic riches to their home campus.’

Currently at Toronto University, he took a more optimistic position, updating this story by saying that ‘Australian universities now have considerable experience in managing these risks.

‘This suggests (they’ll) invest in campuses in Indonesia for broader intellectual, cultural and foreign relations benefits beyond financial cost-benefit analyses.’

But will they? Monash, which has been in Malaysia since 1998, opened in Jakarta in 2021 offering courses in business, management, data science and public policy.

Idealists inspired by Winston Churchill’s declaration that ‘the first duty of a university is to teach wisdom, not trade; character, not technicalities,’ won’t find much traction in Indonesia whether the campus is local or an import; the purpose is practical, not philosophical.

Monash Jakarta President Andrew MacIntyre told Declassified Australia that he had ‘sympathy for your critique of what at least some university educations are and are not. Indonesia does have an array of undergrad arts-type programs from its leading universities that do provide opportunities for the more rounded type education.’

But these don’t match the quality of Western inquiry and independence according to Indonesian scholars at Melbourne University, claiming a lack of academic autonomy:

‘(This) encompasses the capacity to produce good quality knowledge, exchange ideas, and take a critical stance against the interests of the state and market. And this is where Indonesian universities are struggling.’

Before the 1998 overthrow of President Soeharto’s 32-year authoritarian reign, ‘political controls over academic life in Indonesia were among the most intrusive in the world,’ according to a Human Rights Watch report.

The quality of tertiary institutions is measured by the British-based company QS World University Rankings. Monash at 42 is a smart catch for Indonesia where the two top in Indonesia are Jakarta’s Indonesia University (237) and Gadjah Mada in Yogyakarta at 263.

There are 43 universities in Australia but so far Monash is the only one in the ‘elite eight’ prepared to invest heavily in Indonesia.  The start-up cost was AUD$60 million for a campus in a new prestigious area 35 km south of central Jakarta.

Western Sydney (375), expects to open next year in Surabaya, the capital of East Java, with an eventual enrolment of 2,500. Victoria’s Deakin (233) – in partnership with Britain’s Lancaster University (122) – is planning a campus in the West Java capital of Bandung.

Central Queensland (590) offers business courses in partnership with a private university linked to the Bakrie and Brothers group, a massive conglomerate owning the Brisbane Roar soccer team and in Indonesia it’s involved in mining, plantations, manufacturing and the media.

Investor risks are substantial, particularly where corruption is well embedded. The Indonesian Corruption Eradication Commission reported that:

‘Corruption in Indonesia has threatened all aspects of social, national, and state life. Corruption has also brought enormous material losses to state finances regarding economy, society, and culture.’

When Jokowi leaves office in 2024, ‘Indonesia will likely be a more corrupt nation than when he moved into the presidential palace a decade earlier,’ according to a Jakarta Post report into the latest research. 

That suggests a lack of political will in tackling the curse because many Indonesian oligarchs are allegedly involved.

There’s also insecurity: Next year’s 14 February presidential election will see a total clean-out of ministers; as the political system doesn’t have an Opposition shadow Cabinet, there’s no knowing who might be the next Education Minister.  Recruitment outside political parties is frequent.

Some newcomers may want to clamp down on foreigners working in the Republic, an evergreen policy for arousing populists.

So why not stay comfortable in Australia? Prestige, getting international recognition and expanding, as universities are expected to be commercial, competitive and innovative. Professor MacIntyre believes the two neighbours should see themselves as peers.


Poll fever is rising ahead of the 2024 vote and infecting the populace. Student activists helped end the 32-year autocracy of the Soeharto autocracy; most dissidents against his regime were reportedly from the humanities.

Another quicksand is free thought, a fraught concept in many countries. Last year the Indonesian Caucus for Academic Freedom reported to the UN alleging:

‘Since March 2017 the Indonesian government increased pressure on higher education institutions to punish and silence dissent, inquiry, critical thinking, overall, and academic freedom as an integral part of freedom of speech.’

So far, these arguments haven’t impacted. The protesters’ best hope for a leader who might listen would-be presidential candidate Dr Anies Baswedan. He’s a US-educated former university rector and later a reformist minister for education who got the President’s boot in 2016 when his ideas and methods clashed with traditionalists.

The polls show he’s trailing his main rivals. The leaders so far are from the military – former General Prabowo Subianto – and civil administration – Central Java Governor Ganjar Pranowo.

Says Monash Professor MacIntyre: ‘I very much welcome the three new Oz unis coming, and have tried to be of assistance to them. I believe this is good for Indonesia and good for Australia.’

Though only if they stay afloat. If that means jettisoning education values inherited from the Greek philosophers and held high across the ages, then the purpose is to open wallets, not minds.

The late Adnan Buyung Nasution, who founded the Indonesian Legal Aid Institute, reportedly said: ‘I think it is [second President  1968-1998] Soeharto’s worst crime that he has made Indonesians afraid to think, afraid to express themselves.’

It will take many brave academics from inside and outside Indonesia to fix that damaging legacy.  But some are trying.

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Duncan Graham

Duncan Graham has been a journalist for more than 40 years in print, radio and TV. He is the author of People Next Door (UWA Press) and winner of the Walkley Award and Human Rights awards. He lives in East Java and is now writing for the English language media in Indonesia on a permanent resident visa with work rights. This took five years to get using sponsorship through his Indonesian wife. View all posts by