Mar 23, 2023 Last Updated 2:07 AM, Mar 22, 2023

Learning abroad in the time of COVID-19

Published: Aug 05, 2021

Elena Williams & Ratih Indraswari

The global COVID-19 pandemic has had an unprecedented impact on international education, including on study abroad and research partnerships between Australia and Indonesia. As international travel ceased and borders closed in 2020, Australia’s top services export took a significant hit, while Indonesian students were left stranded, and campuses scrambled to pivot to online learning. Just as many formal educational opportunities for students, researchers and practitioners were lost, so too were numerous opportunities to deepen people-to-people relationships across Australia and Indonesia which learning abroad ordinarily affords.

However, despite – or perhaps because of – these limitations, educational partnerships between Australia and Indonesia have flourished, demonstrating the strength of our bilateral ties through innovative and original responses via online delivery. As this edition demonstrates, Australia and Indonesia have a long history of building strong, resilient and innovative partnerships in education. From the early days of the original Colombo Plan when thousands of Indonesian students studied in Australia, through to the more recent revisioning of the ‘New Colombo Plan’ for Indonesia-bound undergraduate Australian students, education has been an integral part of the Australia-Indonesia relationship for more than 70 years.

Higher education study programs such as those facilitated through Australia Awards Scholarships, Dharmasiswa Scholarships, and through the Australian Consortium for ‘In-Country Indonesian’ Studies (ACICIS), are complemented by informal learning abroad programs such as those offered by The Australia-Indonesia Youth Exchange Program (AIYEP), and Australian Volunteers International (AVI). In the schools sector, the long-running BRIDGE program, AFS exchanges and more recently, the Victorian Young Leaders to Indonesia Program, encourage younger learners to take up Indonesian and English language at an early age, to study abroad, and to form friendships with our regional neighbours.

New Colombo Plan students in Indonesia 2014 / DFAT cc

Prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, mobility between Australia and Indonesia was booming, and international student numbers accounted for a significant portion of those visitors. In 2019, almost 200,000 Indonesians visited Australia, while the number of Australians visiting Indonesia peaked at 1.3 million. While the overwhelming majority of these visitors were for tourism or leisure purposes, student numbers between Australia and Indonesia have been on the rise in recent years as well. Pre-COVID, Indonesian students in Australia amounted to 22,000, while more than 2,000 Australians studied and interned in Indonesia in 2019.

A significant driver of this growth for Australian students to Indonesia has been the Australian Government’s scholarship initiative, the New Colombo Plan (NCP), which has provided around AUD$50million annually since 2014 to fund undergraduate students’ study and internship experiences in the Indo-Pacific region. Initially one of four ‘pilot destinations’, together with Hong Kong, Japan and Singapore, Indonesia has been among the top five NCP destinations each year, increasing the total number of Australian students in Indonesia from 678 in 2013 (before the NCP commenced), to 2,061 in 2019.

The effects of COVID-19 on student and research mobility between Australia and Indonesia have been far reaching. Many Indonesian students who were home for the holidays in early 2020 have been unable to return to Australia and now find themselves completing degrees online. Research collaborations involving fieldwork and data collection were paused and new collaborations suspended. Long-running organisations such as ACICIS, and programs such as AIYEP, faced the possibility of closure mid-2020 with the cessation of all international travel and their financial viability on a precipice. The total number of international students studying in Australia dropped from 83 per cent in July 2020 to 69 per cent by March 2021. For many weeks and months, the prospects for international mobility and bilateral relationship building between Australia and Indonesia seemed bleak.

However, what initially may have seemed the end of student mobility between Australia and Indonesia in the early days of COVID-19, soon transformed into agile and collaborative partnerships as a result of our strong and long-running educational ties. Study programs pivoted online and enrolments at Australian institutions actually increased from 13 per cent in July 2020 to 25 per cent by March 2021, highlighting a student appetite for online learning. From online research and virtual fieldwork, to virtual internships and intercultural learning modules, this edition explores the many diverse ways Australians and Indonesians have pushed through COVID-19’s limitations to open up new possibilities for learning abroad through virtual spaces.

Virtual exchange

Ratih Indraswari and Sylvia Yazid kick off our edition with an overview of COVID’s impact on international education in Indonesia, both for Indonesians studying at home, and for those abroad. Leading international education researcher, Ly Tran, then offers a view from Australia, exploring COVID’s impact on inbound and outbound Australian student mobility trends, and posing several questions for the future of mobility as we continue to live with COVID.

Our issue then delves into examples of the ‘online pivot’: Ella Prihatini highlights what it was like to steer ACICIS’ Journalism Professional Practicum program virtually this year, and notes that despite the online shift, students were able to achieve strong learning outcomes and still complete internships and build a portfolio of work. At the postgraduate level, Nur Azizah describes how the shift to online fieldwork has been made possible by drawing on innovative online fieldwork methods to stay on track with her PhD milestones, and with the support of the Australia Awards and ANU communities.

Natali Pearson and Zainab Tahir discuss the impact COVID-19 has had on collaborative teaching and research practices across borders, and how they’ve continued to foster collaboration in marine conservation using digital technologies and online learning during this challenging time. Finally, Kate Purcell and Verdanica Desta close our edition by sharing their experience of this year’s virtual Australia-Indonesia Youth Exchange Program (AIYEP), and the learning outcomes they were able to achieve despite their distance, in what was an AIYEP cohort like no other. 

As we continue to live with international border restrictions and ongoing changes to the way we live, work and study, these creative responses demonstrate that the desire to get to know each other through education is still as strong as ever. The resilience and adaptability in Australia and Indonesia’s educational partnerships will continue to stand us in good stead as we continue to navigate learning abroad in the COVID-19 era and beyond.

Elena Williams ( is a higher education consultant and PhD researcher examining the impact of study abroad programs on Australia-Indonesia relationship building. Ratih Indraswari ( is a PhD researcher in Political Science and Diplomacy at Ewha Women’s University, Korea, and senior staff member in Universitas Katolik Parahyangan’s (UNPAR’s) International Relations Department. 

Inside Indonesia 145: Jul-Sept 2021

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