How autonomous are Indonesian universities?

The number of social science articles published by Indonesian academics in credible journals has increased over recent years, but remains low. Photo by PALNI Libraries on Flickr.

 

The fall of the authoritarian New Order regime in 1998 heralded new opportunities for Indonesian social science.

 

Over the past decade, the number of social science articles published by Indonesian scholars in credible journals has increased. Social scientists have more opportunities to provide advisory and consultancy services to government, international donor agencies, the private sector, and political parties. Students and academics also have more freedom to engage in protests and voice opinions critical of the government. Books that were banned during the New Order are now accessible.

 

Replacing the highly centralised and controlled system that existed under Soeharto, Government Regulation No. 61 of 1999 was issued to grant universities greater institutional autonomy. This restructured public universities into “state owned higher education autonomous legal entities”, allowing the universities to raise and manage their own funds and withdrawing state involvement in the appointment of university executives and managers. But these advances have not been sufficient to guarantee genuine autonomy for Indonesian universities.

 

Autonomy involves more than simply providing universities with greater financial and managerial freedom. A broader understanding of academic autonomy encompasses the capacity to produce good quality knowledge, exchange ideas, and take a critical stance against the interests of the state and market. And this is where Indonesian universities are struggling.

 

Despite the recent increase, the number of peer-reviewed articles published by Indonesian social scientists is still inadequate. Even more concerning is the poor citation rate, suggesting the quality of published articles is low. And although there are more opportunities for social scientists to conduct applied research with institutions outside academia, connection with policy-making remains weak.

 

Academic freedom is also restricted. Often it is the universities themselves that restrict the activities of their academics. Several universities have, for example, banned or cancelled meetings, discussions, and movie screenings on issues deemed to be controversial. These have included issues related to conflict between local communities and corporations, the 1965 violence and political upheaval, and the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community.

 

The weak autonomy of Indonesian universities has its roots in their politicisation under the New Order. Public universities were positioned as formal units within the bureaucracy, with no managerial and financial autonomy. This centralised management allowed the state to exercise control over the production and distribution of knowledge. The government blacklisted critical discussions, censored publications and suppressed students’ political activity. The New Order bureaucracy pritoritised the production of technocratic forms of knowledge that could contribute to or legitimise its developmentalist policies. In this environment, it was left mainly to civil society to produce social science knowledge that was critical of the ruling regime.

 

Further, the management of human resources provided inadequate support for strong scholarship. As academic staff were employed as civil servants, they were required to demonstrate loyalty to the state, and regulations and procedures offered few incentives to excel in the provision of service or teaching. Recruitment followed a mostly closed or semi-closed system and scholars faced difficulties transferring between universities, including overseas, resulting in academic insularity. Low salaries drove academic staff to pursue additional earning opportunities, for example, from teaching, consultancies or by securing an administrative position.

 

University reform after the fall of the New Order has focused on neoliberal policies geared toward establishing universities’ financial autonomy and increasing their productivity. Universities can now seek and manage funds to support academic activities like research, teaching and community engagement. They do so by increasing tuition fees and student intakes and engaging in training and research activities with the business sector. Funds have also been increased to enhance university competitiveness. The government has allocated more funding to support good quality research and publications, although Indonesia’s spending on tertiary education is still lower than countries like India, Thailand, and Malasyia.

 

Despite organisational changes, universities remain subject to the interests of political elites and the larger patronage networks that dominate politics. The state retains 35 per cent of the vote for the appointment of university rectors, allowing political interests to influence university management. A weak tradition of critical scholarship means many academics do not feel that they can take a critical stance against political elites. The banning of campus-based discussions on issues deemed to be controversial shows that political elites will readily use their influence to gain greater support for their causes.

 

The structural and political problems Indonesian universities face are only made worse by the huge teaching workloads academics face. Many are also required to take on research projects to bring in revenue for their university, leaving them with less time to write.

 

Despite this bleak picture, democratisation and the demands of the market have led to some progress. More academic journals run by Indonesian institutions have been established to accommodate the increased demands for publication and a few have gained reasonable international reputations. There is increasing academic attention to the poor status of Indonesian higher education, including by Indonesian social scientists. Academic staff frequently voice criticism about matters related to university management. The recent suspension of the Jakarta State University (UNJ) rector for alleged plagiarism and mismanagement, for example, was partly driven by pressure from academic staff.

 

Further progress, however, will be limited by the restrictive environment. If Indonesian social science is to compete internationally, the structural and political barriers to academic autonomy need to be addressed. The increasing support for academic journals, especially in the field of social science, is welcome, but needs to be expanded further. Greater opportunities need to be provided to support social scientists to produce good quality publications that take critical stances against the government and market.

 

 

This piece was written as a summary of, and response to, a monthly discussion convened by Indonesian postgraduate students and scholars at the University of Melbourne. Dr. Herlambang P Wiratman, Indonesia Initiative Fellow from Airlangga University, and Abdil Mughis Mudhoffir, PhD Candidate at the Asia Institute, discussed academic freedom in democratising Indonesia during a discussion held in August 2017.