Critics and Advocates Weigh Faults and Merits of Higher Education Bill
A contentious bill on higher education that critics say will lead to higher fees is set to be passed into law today after legislators finalized the draft late on Thursday.
The bill, which has been held up in deliberations at the House of Representatives for more than a year, was scrutinized for a final time by a working committee from House Commission X, which oversees education affairs, and officials from the ministries of education, finance, justice and human rights and administrative reform.
The government says the legislation aims to bring the education quality at the nation’s 3,000 private schools closer to that of the 83 state universities, as well as guarantee a minimum proportion of places for underprivileged students.
“This bill is very pro-people, and we have stated many times that it orders universities to set a minimum seat allocation for poor students of 20 percent,” Education Minister Mohammad Nuh said.
All parties in the House agreed that the passage of the bill was important in order to provide affordable education for all while improving education quality.
Students and activists, however, argue that the bill has many loopholes, especially on the point of financial autonomy for the universities, which they say could eventually lead to the commercialization of tertiary education and corresponding fee hikes.
Question of autonomy
Faldo Malidini, chairman of the University of Indonesia Student Council (BEM UI) and a member of the National Education Committee, said he and fellow student activists were worried that several points in the bill, particularly Articles 66 through 69 on autonomy, will grant the universities “freedom to charge more expensive fees to their students.”
Under the bill, state universities can run under three schemes: as a working unit, as a general services unit (BLU), or as a state university legal entity (PTN BH).
Under the first two governance schemes, the state retains considerable control over the universities. As a PTN BH, however, a university would have greater autonomy, including the ability to find sources of funding from outside the state.
Faldo said students concerns about the last point was valid in light of a 2010 ruling by the Constitutional Court that scrapped the Law on Education Legal Entities (BHP), passed earlier that year.
The court reasoned that the BHP Law was unconstitutional because it tried to reform all educational institutions into legal entities, which would remove them from the purview of the government and make them self-regulating.
Faldo said that because universities under this scheme are free to set their own standards, that means they could raise their fees arbitrarily.
“We believe that the higher education bill takes the same tone on autonomy. We’ve learned [the autonomy lesson] the hard way over the past 10 years, after UI transformed into a legal entity,” Faldo said.
“After the government took its hands off UI, tuition fees got very expensive.”
Critics also contended that with increased non-state funding, the potential for embezzlement and corruption at universities could increase. They cited UI as an example, where the office of rector Gumilar Soemantri is currently under scrutiny for a string of graft allegations.
They also argued there was little evidence that education quality at the university had increased during its transformation into a PTN BH.
Conversely, there were fears that with a tiered system of university governance, schools with greater autonomy and sources of funding could pull ahead of their state-managed rivals in terms of education quality and thereby widen the gap.
Alghifari Aqsha, a member of the Jakarta Legal Aid Foundation (LBH Jakarta) and the National Education Committee, said another objectionable provision in the legislation was that of a student loan scheme.
He said similar schemes had failed in other countries, including the United States.
Private universities, too, have cited weaknesses in the bill. Edy Suandi Hamid, chairman of the Indonesian Private Universities Association (Aptisi), said the government needed to pay more attention to private schools by supporting research activities.
He also stressed the importance of allowing universities to have the freedom to determine their own curricula. This particular point has been accommodated in the bill, with the House and the government finally agreeing to scrap an article designating the responsibility for curriculum regulation to the Education Ministry.
Making a case
Nuh said he understood if critics were still smarting over the BHP Law, but insisted that the higher education bill was a completely different piece of legislation.
While the BHP Law obliged all state universities to transform into legal entities, the higher education bill offered that change as one of three management options, alongside becoming a working unit or a BLU, he said.
“That is why we call it a state university legal entity, to make sure that the university is run under the government’s watch,” he said.
For private universities, Nuh went on, the government would leave the matter of school governance in the hands of each university’s founding body.
Syamsul Bachri, the House Commission X deputy chairman from the Golkar Party, said not all universities would be allowed to transform into PTN BH.
Only those in sound financial condition, with pledges not to raise tuition fees, would be allowed to undergo the transformation.
“The idea is that the university becomes autonomous, but it should never charge its students exorbitantly,” he said, adding this would be achieved even in PTN BH universities through sustained government subsidies.
Syamsul also said that under the bill, the government would be obliged to support students at state universities by providing student operational aid (BOPTN), similar to the school operational aid (BOS) program in elementary and secondary schools.
The amount per student will vary depending on their university and major. The BOPTN for this year will be Rp 1.4 trillion ($148 million), of which 30 percent is designated for research activities at state and private universities.
Syamsul said the House had been very careful about setting “some protections” to ensure the bill was not detrimental to students. One article provides special budget allocations for both state and private universities, but does not specify the exact amount.
“For private schools, the government will support the professors and research activities,” he added.
Another key article in the bill states that tuition fees may only be adjusted based on each student’s financial capabilities.
“We have guarded the deliberation of the law very closely,” Syamsul said.
Back to court?
Raihan Iskandar, a House Commission X member from the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), said the student activists did not have any reason to protest the bill, arguing that it actually accommodated their interests.
“We’ve been discussing this bill for so long. There have been many changes and it’s for the students’ benefit,” he said.
“Both state and private universities will still have non-profit status. There’s no need to worry.”
Nuh echoed the call, saying the bill ultimately sought to increase access to tertiary education for all students.
Thantowi Syamsuddin, a student from UI’s School of Economics, who attended Thursday’s House deliberations, said that despite the official promises and guarantees, he was still skeptical about the bill.