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Does Indonesia's higher education system need a reset?

Indonesia at Melbourne - May 3, 2023

Sulistyowati Irianto – Academia is no longer an attractive career path for educated Indonesians, and this spells disaster for the nation's future. Lecturers are subject to a constant stream of changing policies that ensure only their complete submission.

The dream of our nation's founders – including Soepomo, Indonesia's first Minister of Justice – was for universities to be independent of government. This dream has now been lost.

The most recent assault on academic freedom is Ministerial Regulation on Administrative and Bureaucratic Reform No. 1/2023. Under this policy, academics must take on more responsibility for government administrative functions. They must now record their work every semester and document completed activities in a centralised government system. Key performance indicators then determine whether a lecturer's allowances are paid out or not.

Academics, much like factory workers, are treated as work inputs. This diminishes the public stature of the profession. Some universities even require lecturers to input their fingerprints into an electronic reader when they arrive at work and leave, to evidence their attendance. What policymakers do not understand is the work of a university lecturer does not end when they clock off and go home. Lecturers need to be constantly thinking to prepare for lectures and advance research and publications.

A special operating environment

The university is a special institution because its role is to create knowledge. Universities therefore cannot operate under the same conditions as political institutions or corporations – they must remain free from the influence of power and money. Lecturers and researchers have a duty to contribute to science and culture – not only artistic culture, but a culture of thought – in a way that can guide our relations with one another and help society overcome new challenges.

Higher education policies are applied uniformly across Indonesia. Despite vastly different geographic and socio-economic realities, Indonesia's more than 4,500 universities are subject to the same rules and regulations. As a result of this standardisation, academics are unable to harness local knowledge and universities cannot respond to local needs.

Because of this, we have not seen Indonesian universities develop the deep specialisations that are demanded by hugely varied local environments. For instance, our universities in Papua and Kalimantan should be centres of knowledge on forestry and agriculture, but this is not the case.

A shortage of professors

It is no wonder our universities are experiencing a shortage of professors under these deteriorating work conditions. Of a total of around 236,000 lecturers, only around 5,500 (2.3%) hold permanent positions.

The shortage of professors and experienced lecturers in Indonesia is driven by a lack of research funding. Research funding usually only covers small, short-term projects. Almost all research is underfunded, because initial research findings often require subsequent research to produce the impactful findings. Indonesia will never produce a Nobel laureate under these conditions.

The response to this shortage of professors has been a policy of granting honorary professorships. The title of honorary professor allows professionals without teaching or research experience to serve as professors. Unfortunately, those who take advantage of these opportunities are typically public officials and politicians, and not trained researchers or scientists working outside universities.

Meanwhile, thousands of lecturers who have served their universities for decades, teaching ever more classes and students, have limited opportunities to read and conduct research, and have difficulties advancing their careers.

Misinterpreting autonomy

Today, the 21 largest universities in Indonesia have the status of autonomous legal entities. Yet, autonomy now has a different interpretation to how it was envisioned by the nation's founders.

'Autonomy' in current higher education policies requires universities to be financially independent, which allows the state to save money on education subsidies. As a result, universities depend heavily on student tuition fees, which contribute around 70-80% of revenue. Universities fund lecturers from their own pockets, with a decreasing number of positions funded by government. This funding model negatively affects the staff to student ratio, leading to weaker learning outcomes.

While universities are happy to accept fees from students, there is a notable absence of collaboration with industry. 'Triple helix' innovation partnerships with industry, government, and other important community stakeholders are rare. Instead, industry and state-owned enterprises establish their own universities. Higher education, it seems, is now viewed as a commercial investment, accompanied by aggressive advertising campaigns targeting prospective students.

Time for reform

Indonesian universities have lost their way. Most, including those with autonomy status, are teaching universities with a tuition business model. Meanwhile, the government wants them to be world-class research universities with rankings to match but does little to make that possible. The ministry enters into performance contracts with rectors, who push ambitious targets onto the deans, who pressure lecturers to teach an ever-increasing number of students. At the same time, these same academics are expected to produce international publications on par with countries where research is properly managed and resourced.

The result is that researchers in Indonesia are alienated from their work because they lack academic freedom and are bound to the administrative directions of government, leaving them with little time or funding to carry out research.

One has to question how this obsession with journal article publications is serving the nation? Is there a correlation between publications and social progress or a culture of innovation? Apparently not – Indonesia still face continuing problems of corruption, crime, climate change, and wars of identity politics among the political elite.

Higher education in Indonesia is in need of a total reset so it can engage the scientific community and respond to the future needs of our society.

[An earlier version of this article was published in Kompas on 13 April 2023.]

Source: https://indonesiaatmelbourne.unimelb.edu.au/does-indonesias-higher-education-system-need-a-reset