Evaluating the re-integration process of the Australian Development Scholarship programme’s Indonesian alumni (1)

Dr Halil Chalid

Dr Halil Chalid has a Master's in HR Management from the University of New South Wales and a PhD in Organisation and HR Development from Monash University. In between the two, he worked as the HR Development Manager for the Australian Development Scholarships programme – now known as Australia Awards Indonesia.

Historically, the benefits of Australian scholarships for Indonesian students have been regarded as self-evident, yet my research indicates they are harder to quantify. Scholarships are one of the most substantial components of Australia's aid programme with Indonesia. Early evaluation of the programme has largely focussed on the benefits to individual scholars, with less emphasis on the impact on the organisations to which alumni return.

In 2015, I completed my PhD research on the re-integration of Indonesian alumni of the Australian Development Scholarships (ADS) programme who have undertaken higher education in Australian universities. My research sought to shift the focus of evaluation from the benefits to individual alumni that had been the pre-occupation of much earlier research, to the alumni's impact on the organisations they return to after completing their studies in Australia. It was based on data from 29 qualitative interviews – supported by observation and policy document review – with three groups of purposefully selected participants from the Government of Indonesia's Ministry of Finance: alumni, the Ministry's representatives and managers of alumni.

The ADS programme has been in operation in Indonesia since 1998. Two thirds of awards are offered to the public sector, which includes employees of government organisations and state universities. The overall objectives of the ADS programme are firstly, to develop capacity and leadership skills so that individuals can contribute to development in their home country; and secondly, to build people-to-people linkages at the individual, institutional and country levels. In light of these objectives, the concept of re-integration is considered important as a way to increase the impact and effectiveness of the ADS programme. Re-integration in the context of the ADS programme refers to re-integration into the workplace, which includes re-entry and ongoing contribution by an alumnus. The main intent of the re-integration plan is to drive action that will contribute to development outcomes in an alumnus' home country and organisation.

One of the challenges of the ADS programme in Indonesia is to ensure that the ADS alumni are able to apply their knowledge and skills in the workplace, and are effectively integrated into their home organisation to strengthen agency service provision. Three themes from the perspectives of the three groups of participants provide insight into the examination of alumni re-integration.

Alumni show high regard for their Australian study experiences

The non-academic and social dimension of the Australian educational experience was highly regarded and valued unanimously by the alumni. The experience enabled them to acquire and develop soft skills (leadership, communication, critical thinking, decision making and problem solving skills) and intercultural competencies (adaptability, open-mindedness and people skills) that have impacted on their personal and professional lives on return. In the words of one alumnus:

For me, the experience of living in Australia is more valuable than the study itself. We can study and gain knowledge through books. However, when we experience firsthand how to live in an overseas country, with all its advances and problems, it becomes a valuable knowledge and that has inspired me more than the study itself. In fact, perhaps the Australian Government should know that in terms of ADS experience, the field of study comes second, what comes first is the living experience.

My research findings were derived from an exploration of the unfamiliar cultural and non-academic domain that the alumni found themselves in during their stay in Australia. The exploration uncovered various aspects of socio-cultural adaptation, personal development, language and communication. It analysed how these aspects were negotiated, internalised and reflected upon after the alumni returned to Indonesia and their respective home organisations.

For example, in building the notion of the alumni cultural experience, the alumni were asked to describe the non-academic things they acquired through their ADS experience. The comments from the alumni generally indicate interest, appreciation, gratitude and astonishment as they reflected upon their adaptation process into the "Australian way of life". During their ADS experience in Australia, the alumni learned about how a country manages its people, a multicultural society, an orderly culture, the legal system and egalitarian values in the society. These learning experiences exemplify exposure to a robust liberal democracy and lessons in how a mature civil society functions – all of which were regarded by the alumni as an invaluable experience.

Thus the ADS experience encompasses both academic and non-academic skills and, in my view, should not be seen solely as an academic endeavour.

Limitations in alumni managers' capacity to assess alumni's skills

Managers of ADS alumni are ideally the best placed officials in the Ministry to assess the alumni's capacity and discuss their re-integration. They work as middle managers and are key drivers of organisational change and transformation.

Despite this, managers are often not in the best position to make a judgement on any changes the alumnus may experience between leaving to study in Australia and returning to Indonesia because they are, in most cases, new managers and hence do not capture the journey of the alumni right from the point of application to the time when they return. This is a consequence of the high mobility and dynamics of staff placement, largely affected by the processes of the Ministry's bureaucratic reform.

Even though the managers have significant understanding of, and connection with, various organisational aspects in the Ministry (due to their strategic positions), they are somewhat isolated from the ADS programme given their disconnectedness from the alumni when they return. The alumni experienced reverse culture shock (for example, loss of individual freedom and privacy) and resented an underutilisation of their knowledge, skills and attitudinal changes. Managers, meanwhile, did not know how to assist the alumni. The impact of this means that alumni feel the soft skills and intercultural competencies they have gained while in Australia are insufficiently recognised and consequently not effectively utilised.

Bureaucratic reform as the macro-contextual environment contributing to change in the workplace

My research highlights the importance of bureaucratic reform as the notable factor contributing to change in the workplace environment and culture. I argue that the macro-contextual environment of bureaucratic reform both enables and inhibits the utilisation of the ADS awards within the Ministry.

Given that bureaucratic reform aims to achieve good governance by implementing organisational change, its framework focuses on change management in the areas of organisation, management and Human Resources (HR). These areas of focus are in line with the aims and objectives of the ADS programme, which places a strong emphasis on development in Indonesia, particularly in the area of organisation and HR development.

Bureaucratic reform in the Ministry is highly dependent on the quality of, and commitment to, reform processes by the leaders who implement effective systems and policies in the organisation. It can, however, become a weakness or limitation if the leadership fails to be supported by a system and regulatory structure that incorporates succession planning.

The progress of bureaucratic reform in the Ministry affects its ability to identify HR priorities and skills gaps, and so the Ministry's ability to effectively manage the ADS scholarships is dependent on the progress of bureaucratic reform. There is evidence of reform in the HR areas and in the workplace environment, despite the challenges. As one manager explained:

One aspect of bureaucratic reform that I have been very impressed with is how we measure our work performance. This is something that simply did not exist in the past. Previously we were not aware of our work performance. We simply just did our work based on the job description. I believe that this is a massive change of our mindset in the Ministry where we now start to think more on what we actually do, what we produce, and we consider more of the output of what we do. This may sound simple, but I think that it is the very essence of what the reform is, which is to change people and I personally think that this change is very important.

There have consequently been improvements in the Ministry's capacity to select and nominate ADS candidates to undertake courses that broadly suit the HR needs of the Ministry, for example through training need analysis and development of staff planning and mapping. On return, alumni have a greater capacity to contribute to the organisation and HR development of the Ministry. This has potential over time for more effective alumni re-integration and better evaluation for the benefits of ADS awards to the Ministry.

Final thoughts

As a concluding remark, the acquisition of a range of soft skills and intercultural competency is significantly underrated by the stakeholders of the ADS programme and the management of the alumni's re-integration into the workplace.

Technical skills, soft skills and intercultural competency are potential indicators in a performance evaluation structure. The development of soft skills and intercultural competency through the Australian study experience – irrespective of the field study – holds the key to understanding alumni employability and providing better awareness of the full suite of skills and competencies alumni bring to a workplace. We should also recognise the pivotal role that managers of ADS alumni can play in the effective re-integration of the alumni and utilisation of their new skills.

Finally, in line with bureaucratic reform, it is imperative that all stakeholders of the ADS programme – AusAID, the Government of Indonesia, ADS alumni, and managers of alumni – achieve some common ground in addressing these potential indicators. An approach that assesses the integration of alumni back into their home organisations and recognises these additional skills and competencies is therefore recommended, for example, through a monitoring and evaluation framework that includes assessment of both technical/hard skills and non-technical/soft skills.