Indonesia’s higher education is in dire need of an overhaul. To describe the current situation as a crisis, as done by Jonathan Pincu in his article, might however be a slight exaggeration. A more thorough comprehension is needed to be able to pinpoint the roots of persisting issues.
Since the central government introduced autonomy for seven state universities at the beginning of the new Millennium, the regulatory framework of Indonesia’s higher education institutions altered. The management of state universities is now decentralized, with the promise of greater academic freedom and financial independency. Universities were allowed, and required, to seek their own funds and adapt to market mechanisms. However, over the years, failure in raising and managing funds efficiently also meant that universities were forced to raise tuition fees as a means of covering operational costs.
Established universities, particularly the Gang of Four (UI, ITB, UGM, IPB) capitalized on this newly gained autonomy by improving their marketability. These four entities have the liberty to maximize their political capital in pursuing commercial interests, often neglecting students who seem rather hapless (but often also disinterested) in resisting disempowering policies. Campaigns to become world universities were launched while at the same time, peripheral universities -a term used to describe any university based outside of Java- are having a hard time catching up with even national standards.
A matter of cultural impingement
As a requirement of becoming more efficient, state universities have become more market dependent in their duty to deliver public service. Efficiency was meant to be a key theme in transforming management, but mostly failed due to strong feudalistic attitudes and rent-seeking behavior of their bureaucrats. Employees of Universitas Andalas for example, lately held protests as their salaries were reduced due to the inability of the rectorate in managing their annual budget. In terms of recruitment, patronage and favoritism are still major obstructions towards a more professional bureaucracy. Transparency is also an alien concept in most universities, exemplified by how a former rector of Universitas Mulawarman allegedly signed his own doctorate certificate, while the former vice rector of Universitas Indonesia was involved in a corruption scandal. Yet despite these alarming cases, almost none of the major institutions dare to establish a recruitment system based on merit or even publish an annual report.
Alas, policy changes such as the 2012 Law on Higher Education did try to address structural issues by emphasizing academic and bureaucratic autonomy, they simultaneously failed to recognize cultural impediments within the university bureaucracy.
Thus, state universities are being caught in a permanent transition, moving back and forth within a series of trial and error approach. In the absence of open-mindedness, the hope of a thorough transformation has in many contexts, especially the peripheral universities, become a battle to overcome institutional inertia. Change has long been desired, yet none is foreseeable.
University leaders on any level rarely have an idea of where to best introduce reformist policies. As a result, the academia is left with higher education elites who are not afraid of creating their own version of academic oligarchies within an already ivory-toweresque approach in management. With most senior officials seeking comfort in the status quo, it is difficult to foster, or even create institutional preconditions for reform.
Competition as driver of change
Entering public universities has always been a matter of prestige and security for Indonesia’s young minds. This however, might change in the medium term. Internationalization has enabled foreign institutions to set up their branch in Indonesia’s major cities, whilst forcing parents of the (upper) middle class to send their children to renowned private universities or abroad.
This leaves public universities with no other option but to compete. They are no longer seen as the sole option to obtain degree. And without the willingness to improve, they might end up finishing even further down the rankings, which increasingly becomes the single most important indicator for university managers.
Competing with private universities should help public institutions reflect on their weak points and trigger a willingness to improve. This however, does not mean that higher education shall give in to the most powerful force in post-Soeharto Indonesia: the market.
Can the market replace the state?
While competition may well be an important factor in improving quality and service, autonomy can only become meaningful with increased institutional capacity and a professional management. This is where the leadership of the state comes into play. State funding is crucial in order not to depend on market mechanisms only and provide a chance for peripheral universities to compete on level terms with more reputable universities. Competitive funding only works if all universities compete on a level field, which is not the case as there are twice as much lecturers with a doctoral degree in Java as outside of it (DGHE, 2010).
Hence, one aspect where the central government shall always be responsible is in closing institutional discrepancy by providing sensible support and performing affirmative actions. Increasing funding (including research) for lagging institutions is important to prevent an out flux of students and leaving provincial universities with empty seats.
Lastly, how state universities overcome this transition period will to a large extent depend on the quality of leadership and governance, as well as political will of their bureaucrats. This proves to be a hindrance when they retain an outdated mindset, seeking comfort in the status quo and unwilling to introduce reform, leaving their institutions in a state of inertia.