Emma Connors, Singapore – Monash University is working with tech giant Tokopedia and one of Indonesia's largest financial institutions, Bank Mandiri, as it begins an ambitious new chapter offshore.
The first students enrolled at the Monash campus in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta begin classes on Monday, but teaching is just one aspect of the new venture's operations, the president of Monash University, Indonesia, Andrew MacIntyre, said.
"It's all very well to have your academics publishing good stuff and students getting great jobs – but that is not enough," Professor MacIntrye said.
In addition to the research and training collaborations with Tokopedia and Bank Mandiri, he said Monash was working to ensure government agencies, universities and other businesses benefit from its presence in Indonesia.
Monash will be the first foreign university to open a branch campus in Indonesia. The campus builds on Monash's existing international presence, which includes a network of research and teaching locations in Italy, Malaysia, China and India, and an alliance with the University of Warwick in England.
With a population of 270 million, Indonesia represents a massive market for educational institutions. Monash fought off competing bids to secure the right to open the first branch of a foreign university in the country, but it does not have to look far to see how offshore ventures can turn sour.
History of economic nationalism
In late August, Yale University president Peter Salovey announced the National University of Singapore had told him the eight-year-old joint venture, Yale-NUS, would close in 2025.
"Given our great pride in Yale-NUS College and our love and respect for the faculty, students and staff who compose its extraordinary community, we would have liked nothing better than to continue its development," Professor Salovey said in a public statement. Clearly that is not to be.
In Indonesia's case, there is a history of economic nationalism to consider – as demonstrated by the fact it has taken this long to allow the entry of a foreign university. The decades since the country gained independence in 1947 have been dotted with forced divestments by foreign corporations.
President Joko Widodo has made attracting foreign investment a centrepiece of his second term but has met with considerable opposition along the way. Given Mr Joko is barred from seeking another term, it is not clear if the reformist zeal will continue after the 2024 election.
All organisations that venture outside their home jurisdiction know there is a possibility the welcome mat could suddenly be pulled out from under them, Professor MacIntyre said.
Friends in high places: Indonesian President Joko Widodo with Monash vice-chancellor Margaret Gardner in February 2020. Andrew MacIntyre
"This is the world of direct foreign investment. The risk is not zero," he said.
"We have put a lot of effort into government relations. Our mission is to make a clear and strong contribution to the further success of Indonesia. I've got a million key performance indicators – but that's the only that really matters."
The first intake of students at the postgraduate-only university are enrolled in courses spanning data science, public policy and management, urban design and business innovation.
As the institution's six-week terms roll on, the choice of specialties is expected to extend to public health, environmental sustainability, cyber security and creative industries.
Indonesia has logged 4.2 million cases of COVID-19, but active cases have shrunk to a fraction of what they were midyear when the crisis peaked. The capital is gradually opening back up.
Last week the government ruled universities could begin in-person classes again. Monash plans to progress to a blended delivery that mixes online with on-campus teaching.
Eventually, the new campus hopes to draw students from outside of Indonesia as well – that's another aspect of the business the government is keen to see prosper.
Professor MacIntyre concedes it has not been easy to open a new institution amid a pandemic in a country that is not known as an education destination. However, he says enrolments to date have exceeded expectations. Monash has also convinced some Indonesian diaspora scattered around the world to take up teaching roles.
"It's hard doing anything in the context of the virus. But this is the time, this is the window of opportunity in Indonesia," he said.
The country's demographics and economic growth trajectory are favourable and so too is the political climate, he said.
[Emma Connors is the South-east Asia correspondent. She was editor of the Perspective and Review sections. Connect with Emma on Twitter. Email Emma at email@example.com.]