Going Back to School
Oei Eng Goan
The ongoing discussions of a higher education bill in the House of Representatives have split university presidents, with some suggesting that the enactment of the proposed law, which is set to be passed this month, should be postponed because, according to them, it goes against “universal academic freedom.”
The bill says both state and private universities have to follow government regulations in developing their curriculums and that any decisions they make about offering new majors or conducting research is subject to evaluation by the Ministry of Education and Culture.
Presidents of private universities and other institutes of higher education oppose the bill on the grounds that it creates a dichotomy between private and state universities, academies and polytechnics, as well as limiting campus autonomy in developing science and research.
Their opposition, announced by members of the Association of Indonesia’s Private-Run Higher Education Institutes (Aptisi) at the end of a meeting in Samarinda, East Kalimantan last Friday, will be conveyed to the government and the House before the bill is enacted.
Academics who share Aptisi’s view agree that certain clauses in the bill give the ministry too much power over campus affairs and need to be revised or dropped to ensure universities can remain independent in carrying out their three major functions: teaching, creating new knowledge and public service.
Education Minister Muhammad Nuh, however, said the bill was designed to accommodate the interests of many people. He said the law would not reduce campus authority and autonomy, but would instead regulate the operations of every institution to meet the nation’s education standards.
The minister may have a point here, given that there are 97 state universities and colleges and more than 3,000 private ones operating in the country, each applying its own education standards. This prompted the ministry to standardize the curriculum to prevent education quality from being compromised.
Scores of state university presidents have come out in support of Nuh, saying there’s nothing wrong with the government regulating the operations of public universities and institutes. “Intervention is justified as long as it’s not politically motivated and for the good of the general public,” said one of the presidents.
Nuh also said the regulation would require established state and private universities to make tuition “affordable,” so students from low-income families would have the chance for a college education. “That way, colleges can’t just fix fees as they please,” the minister said last week.
State universities are financed by the government so there is no controversy over implementing this here. But at private universities? That’s a different story because these universities rely heavily on the fees paid by students to remain open, in addition to the funding they receive from the foundations that manage them.
So government intervention in regulating their tuition and entrance fees — to the management of private colleges — is trespassing in their realms, undermining their role in helping develop the country’s higher education.
Any effort to beef up the overall national education standard is a noble undertaking. Not only will it raise the nation’s stature internationally, but it will also create qualified graduates who can readily enter the labor market. Good quality education is a must in this era of rapid technological changes.
But one cannot turn a blind eye to the fact that there are large differences in the quality of education in the developed and less developed regions of Indonesia, and it will take some time before the ideal standardized curriculum is applicable across the country.
Viewed from here, lawmakers and ministry officials need to take the final revision of the bill to students and academics alike, convincing them that the new law truly benefits the public.
Oei Eng Goan, a former literature lecture at the National University (UNAS) in Jakarta, is a freelance journalist.