Youth perceptions: Improving Australia-Indonesia relations through education

This project explored the role of tertiary education in shaping how young people in Australia and Indonesia perceived the other country. More specifically, it examined how undertaking Indonesian studies at Australian universities, and Australian studies at Indonesian universities, may shape the perceptions of young people over time.

Research by the Australia-Indonesia Centre in 2016 suggests that nearly 50 per cent of Australians have unfavourable views of Indonesia. Levels of misperceptions and ignorance about Indonesia are also high. For example, in a 2013 survey commissioned by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade less than half the respondents knew that Indonesia is a democracy, and the majority believed that Indonesian laws were based on Islamic codes. In contrast, the AIC survey found that only about 10 per  cent of Indonesians have unfavourable views of Australia.

To what extent does tertiary study shape attitudes and perceptions of other countries? While it is an intuitive assumption that learning about the language, society and culture of another country encourages a more sympathetic attitude towards that country, there is a lack of academic studies demonstrating this. We were interested in questions such as why Australians who undertake Indonesian studies, and Indonesians who undertake Australian studies, choose to undertake these subjects as part of their university studies; their previous level of exposure to the other country (for example, at secondary school); and crucially, whether they felt their perceptions of the other country had evolved over time and if so, how and why they had evolved.

The project used qualitative methods including a literature review and analysis, focus group discussions and interviews. 

First, we undertook an extensive literature review, with particular attention to existing survey research (such as the aforementioned AIC and DFAT surveys), academic publications (such as peer-reviewed journal articles and books), commentaries, reports and news articles. The purpose of this review was to gauge understanding of topics such as attitudes and perceptions in Australia and Indonesia in regard to the other country; the state of Indonesian studies in Australia; the state of Australian studies in Indonesia; and the role of the internationalisation of education in diplomacy. We also compiled a comprehensive list of all the Indonesian studies offerings in Australian universities.

Second, we held several focus group discussions in Yogyakarta and Melbourne, with students from seven universities (four in Indonesia and three in Australia). In these discussions, we asked questions such as why students enrol in Indonesian or Australian studies subjects as part of their university courses; whether they had undertaken studies in these areas during secondary schooling; whether they had visited or been otherwise exposed to the other country; whether they felt that their perceptions had changed over time; whether they felt their Indonesian or Australian studies would shape their careers; and various other topics which were driven in part by the students themselves.

Finally, we conducted some interviews with individuals who work in the tertiary sector in roles relating to Indonesian studies. They included lecturers who teach Indonesian studies and Australian studies subjects at universities; people working in student mobility/exchange roles in universities; officeholders in student organisations such as Australia-Indonesia Youth Association (AIYA) and Conference of Australian and Indonesian Youth (CAUSINDY); and people working in the public sector in roles relating to advancing the study of Indonesia and Australia (e.g. Australia Awards in DFAT, Indonesian Ministry of Youth and Sports).

Findings and recommendations

In the Melbourne focus group discussions, many students reported that they had been quite ignorant of Indonesia before undertaking Indonesian studies subjects, and that undertaking Indonesian studies had broadened their perspectives and helped them to realise that there is more diversity and modernity in Indonesia than they had realised. Many expressed concern about the impact of negative media reporting on the perceptions of the general public in Australia. Many students saw Indonesia as close to Australia and important to Australia’s foreign relations, and saw Indonesian studies as important to their future careers. Some described ‘falling in love’ with Indonesia and continuing their Indonesian studies irrespective of career ambitions.

In the Yogyakarta focus group discussions, many students already had positive views towards Australia before undertaking Australian studies subjects at university. The key way in which their perceptions evolved as a result of their studies was learning that views expressed by politicians, which are sometimes negative about Indonesia and the Australia-Indonesia relationship, are not necessarily representative of the broader population. While some students disliked aspects of Australian politics and sometimes actively protested against it, they developed the ability to critically analyse the available evidence and not necessarily take news reports as evidence of broader Australian public perceptions. Many undertook Australian studies for career or travel reasons.

Our findings suggest that undertaking Australian studies at Indonesian universities, and Indonesian studies at Australian universities, have an important role in shaping perceptions of Australia and Indonesia. For students in Australia, ignorant and/or negative perceptions of Indonesia are challenged and reversed by taking Indonesian studies, by learning about Indonesian language, culture and society, but also, crucially, by facilitating travel to Indonesia and interaction with Indonesian people. These processes of learning and shaping perceptions often begin in high school, but university has an important role in continuing and expanding the journey and leading to career opportunities that involve Indonesia.

For students in Indonesia, perceptions of Australia were generally already positive, but taking Australian studies leads to a more nuanced understanding of Australia and Australians, and may facilitate travel and career opportunities involving Australia. For both groups of students, undertaking Australian or Indonesian studies helps them to develop the skills to critically analyse evidence and understand, for example, that negative representations of the other country must be critically examined, and that the rhetoric used by political leaders is not necessarily representative of the views of the general public. The peaks and troughs in the Indonesia-Australia relationship belie the complex ties among people in both countries, particularly in the education and travel sectors.

In Australia, greater knowledge about Indonesia would help mitigate the high levels of ignorance and misperception among the broader public. It would be useful to expand the opportunities for Indonesian studies at all levels of education – primary, secondary and university. Universities should engage in more outreach to encourage high school students to continue their Indonesian studies at university. In Indonesia, an expansion of Australian studies offerings to more universities would contribute to greater knowledge of Australia, and to the possibilities for travel and career development involving Australia.


  • Dr Avery Poole
    Assistant Director, Melbourne School of Government
    The University of Melbourne
  • Dr Dafri Agussalim
    Executive Director, Faculty of Social and Political Sciences
    Universitas Gadjah Mada


Public seminar

‘Youth perceptions: Findings’, Monash University, 23 November 2018.