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A relationship well-maintained

Groningen is the temporary home town of thousands of students and postdocs from all over the world. Asia, and Indonesia in particular, play an important role in the UG internationalization policy. The University has had close ties with Indonesia for decades, and dozens of Indonesian students come to follow a programme in Groningen.

While four-year-old Dhana sits colouring nicely, Titissari talks about her research. She is currently writing a second article of the four that she intends to write: ‘Although it’s a bit hectic without Indra, I’m well on schedule’, she says with satisfaction. ‘As a working mum you often need an extra pair of hands.’ Dhana points to the paper: ‘Look Mum, the blue shuttle bus!’ Titissari laughs: ‘We take that little shuttle bus that drives through the centre so often that the driver recognizes Dhana and lets him stamp his own ticket.’

Titis and son
Titis and son

Poorer population

The subject of her research is the financial inclusion of lower-income groups in Indonesia, in other words promoting financial knowledge and access to financial services. Titissari talks about the situation in her homeland: ‘Indonesia has a population of over 260 million spread across 14,527 islands. These are good economic times for the country, but the increasing prosperity only benefits a small group of people. The standard of living differs enormously per region, is lower in rural areas than in the city and is often still gender-determined. Only 36% of the adult population in Indonesia has a bank account. Most of these are men with a high to average income who live in an urban setting.’

Alongside charting the problem, Titissari is looking for possible solutions: ‘I want to find out how to make it easier for banks to reach the poorer population, but also how the authorities can help provide microcredit that poor people can use to start their own business, for instance.’

English-speaking country

Having studied economics at the University of Indonesia in Jakarta and earned a Master’s degree in Urban Economics in Paris, Titissari qualified for a grant from the Indonesian Ministry of Finance in 2015 to do a PhD abroad. ‘We first thought of doing this in an English-speaking country. We thought it would be really practical for Dhana.’ However, the Indonesian Ministry of National Development Planning put her in touch with Tim Zwaagstra, Southeast Asia programme manager at the UG’s Department of International Strategy & Relations. ‘I told him I really wanted to do economics research that focused on Indonesia. He in turn introduced me to British professor Philip McCann, whom I have greatly admired for years and who to my great surprise proved to work in Groningen. That decided it for me. McCann is now one of my supervisors!’

Being a broker, as he terms it himself, is one of Zwaagstra’s tasks: bringing students, PhD students and professors in both countries into contact with each other. ‘The level of education in Indonesia is high and students are generally driven and ambitious. The capacity of the research universities and universities of applied sciences in the archipelago is small, however, and there is little diversity in programmes. Young Indonesians are therefore increasingly going abroad to study, often dreaming of a glittering career as a manager at a multinational or as a successful lawyer. That they often decide to come to the Netherlands is explained, says Zwaagstra, by their shared history: ‘Dutch know-how still has an edge in Indonesia.’

Pioneers of internationalization

Groningen’s particular popularity with Indonesian students is the result of years of efforts, says Zwaagstra: ‘Towards the end of the last century the realization dawned that internationalization would be of huge importance to the quality, innovation and diversity of the UG. Appreciating that if Groningen didn’t do it another university would fill the gap, the UG made the first cautious contact with Indonesia. The pioneers in the late 1980s included then President of the University and Professor of Experimental Physics Folkert van der Woude, Professor of Chemical Technology Ton Beenackers and Professor of International Law Wil Verwey.’

‘The UG’s strength proved to be its staying power: Groningen has a lot of perseverance,’ Zwaagstra explains. ‘During the monetary crisis that followed the fall of Soeharto in 1998, some Dutch universities allowed their contact with Indonesia to fade. The UG didn’t, however: the opposite was true, in fact. For the students with a grant paid in Rupiah, which were suddenly worth very little, Verwey found sponsors in the business community. That was the human thing to do, but it also demonstrates strategic commitment. With this, and with regular visits in good and bad times, mutual trust develops.’

Although Zwaagstra already knows to take numerous cultural differences into account, he is always learning new ones in his work. ‘I joke that it helps that my mother is half-Indonesian, and it also helps that I can say this in my basic Bahasa Indonesia. But I always have to ask myself whether I have interpreted things correctly or have failed to see things due to my Western perspective. This reflection often makes the difference between misunderstanding and trust.’

Fairy tale city

Titissari notes that ranking lists also play a big role in choosing a university abroad: ‘And Dutch universities, and the UG in particular, rank highly.’ Is it a draw that lots of Indonesian students are already in Groningen? ‘Yes, I think so. They form a close community here. Many, like me, involved in the Indonesian student society and many live on Planetenlaan in Paddepoel.’ Indra and Titissari made the conscious decision to live in the city centre: ‘We wanted the full “Dutch experience”, and Dutch neighbours are an element of this. Ours are lovely. Just recently they saved me when Dhana accidentally shut me out.’ Dhana looks up abashed from his drawing: ‘Don’t talk about it, Mum!’

Titissari didn’t really have to get used to Western culture: ‘It made a difference that I had already studied in Paris for a few years. My colleagues here are really involved and helpful, which makes the atmosphere at work really pleasant.’ And she likes the city itself too: ‘Groningen is a fairy tale city for us: all that water and the lifting bridges. How everyone – young and old – cycles here. The market is fantastic too. Indra always popped in to do the shopping there on his days looking after Dhana. And, in contrast to Jakarta, it is really clean here. To escape from the air pollution, lots of people in Indonesia spend their free time in shopping malls. Here we spend a lot of time outside.’

Is there no downside to Groningen? Titissari thinks for a second: ‘Well, one thing perhaps: the food at the University canteen is a bit monotonous. Could it be that there isn’t much variety to Dutch cuisine?’

Text: Kirsten Otten
Source: Broerstraat 5

A relationship well-maintained
A relationship well-maintained
Last modified:19 March 2020 10.24 a.m.
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