SHORT COMMENT: On funding the Humanities and Indonesia Studies in the universities by Max Lane

Despite the academe’s now long acquiescence in the corporatisation of the universities, the commodification of education and the subjugation of university activity to the ideology and policies of the governments of the day, I still continue to be shocked by so-called academic leaders praising government decisions that further embed this destructive trend.  Following the visit of Tony Abbott to Indonesia where he re-affirmed long-running Australian government policy of prioritizing advancing business profits above all else in the “relationship with Indonesia”, Abbott announced $15 million for the establishment of an Australian Centre for Indonesian Studies at Monash University, with ‘nodes’ at Melbourne University and the ANU. At the same time, Abbott’s Foreign Minister and deputy, Julie Bishop announces funding for a “new Colombo Plan” to send Australian students to study in Asia as part of their undergraduate degrees.

  These decisions are then noted by some academics as “investments” and “general policy” that are to be applauded.

  But these decisions are in the aftermath of other decisions to cut funding to universities by over $2 billion at a moment when this sector has been progressively under-funded for several years. Moreover, this is Abbott government funding for university activity that is seen as an extension of Australian foreign policy and business agendas. University “leaders” should be demanding increased funding for the humanities as a whole, with decisions about how such funding should be used left up to the universities. I am all for the funding of Asian and Indonesian Studies – but not as an extension of the activities of the state or business. It has been the funding by the Department of Foreign Affairs for the Indonesia Project at the Australian National University that underpinned the existence of an “Indonesia Lobby” that acted as apologists for the Suharto dictatorship. That programmes still acts today as an Australian government funded intervention to support one particular economic ideology (classical liberal and neo-liberal economics) in evaluating and helping formulate economic policy in Indonesia today.

  Universities should remain several arms lengths from the state. Academic freedom means that we should expect to find supporters, critics as well as opponents of state policy in such institutions. That is impossible when universities get tied to government policy goals.

  Asian and Indonesian Studies should be supported as part of the general support for the Humanities and should not be linked to the foreign policy of governments. These recent decisions by Abbott are bad decisions for the universities. They undermine the concept of the independence of academic endeavour. Even worse, appeals for this kind of funding for Indonesian studies over the last several years have been accompanied by justifications by academics arguing that it will enhance Australia’s [sic] business prospects or increase “Australian” influence in Indonesian decision making circles. They have used a ‘national interest’ argument. I am sure I remember being taught even back in the history subject at high school  and certainly in Politics 1.01 at university: beware of anybody arguing “national interests”, “Australia’s interests”. The tone has been: the more Indonesia savvy people “we” have the more money “Australia”  will make. Sometimes it will be dressed up in more grandiose vocabulary about future partnerships, but that remains the essence of the approach. One assertion of this approach, propagated publicly as a result of all this campaigning about how “we” can get a slice of the amazingly growing Indonesian economy, is that there is an Indonesian economy success story. The 80% of Indonesians trying to survive on a few dollars a day will have a different view. As Australian business, politicians and even some academics salivate at the prospects of access to the middle class 20%’s disposable income, one can imagine very easily how among the other 80%, Australia will be seen to be the home of the ugly Australians.

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