INDONESIA: Obstacles to university reform

Reform of higher education in Indonesia, as in any sector of governance, cannot be considered outside the context of the history of Dutch colonialism and the record of the 32-year militarised dictatorship of the late President Suharto.

In the first instance, Dutch investment in 'native' education in their East Indies colony was so paltry that, according to colonial statistics published in 1930, only some 6.4% of 'native' Indonesians could read and write in the Roman script.

The number advancing to higher education was thus pitifully small and there were probably fewer than 500 at the declaration of independence in 1945. When the Dutch finally left in December 1949, Indonesia had no worthwhile higher education system and would, along with its primary and secondary systems, have to build from bottom up.

In the second instance, there is a paradox. Although the Suharto New Order regime oversaw an expansion in the provision of higher education, both state and private, it also enforced a conformist, bureaucratic ethos on it. Rectors were in effect political appointees with connections to Suharto's political vehicle, the dummy ruling party Golkar.

Today, there are more than 60 state universities and some 2,000 private institutions, some of the latter on single-building campuses and effectively no more than 'hobby items' for wealthy, arriviste patrons.

The New Order stamped bureaucratic inertia on the university sector, as on so much else. Reformers such as Professor Mochtar Buchori, previously profiled here, faced enormous difficulties in promoting education reform at any level.

Although the post-Suharto period, which began with his student-driven ouster in 1998, has brought some change, difficulties in promoting it remain. The dictator's fall came with the deep Southeast Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s in which the Indonesian rupiah crashed mightily.

But some top level civil servants, known as 'echelon one', have attempted to steer Indonesia's overall education system towards happier shores. One such is the Director General at the Ministry of National Education, Dutch-born Satryo Soemanrti Brodjonegoro, who holds a PhD from the University of California.

The DG has addressed the matter of higher education reform in detail. Identifying reformist programmes in use in Indonesia, Satryo points to schemes such as the development of undergraduate education, the quality of undergraduate education and the professional skills development programme, all of which, he says, "...focus on improving the efficiency of higher education".

This is broadly taken to mean improving the match between employers' expectations and graduate student suitability, which is, of course, a contentious matter. But Satryo is fully conscious of the general economic effects applying to Indonesia's higher education, and in particular the ever-widening gap between the rich and the rest of society. This is a gap likely to be markedly exacerbated by a 30% fuel price hike just introduced.

As recently related on this site, access to Indonesia's state universities and indeed to graduation certificates is prone to corruption in the form of 'brokerage' fees for 'guaranteed' entry and the like. This appears beyond the ability of even high-minded civil servants and rectors to control, let alone put down.

Structural reforms may take place piecemeal but corruption remains a problem for the higher education system. For this reason among others, Indonesia will continue to lag behind its assertive neighbours, Singapore and Malaysia.