INDONESIA: Students swindled and stranded

A scandal involving 49 Indonesian students who sought places in Egypt's prestigious Al-Azhar University has been revealed. Instead of enrolling in the Cairo university, the students ended up in Malaysia where 15 were discovered doing odd jobs to support themselves.

The students had been promised places at the most famous Arab university by a Jakarta-based education agency, the Fikruna Centre. But the group was apparently abandoned in Malaysia, having been swindled of more than US$1,000 each in initial fees and a further US$1,200 for tuition and accommodation. All had previously failed the university's entrance examination.

In what may be an example of bureaucratic cross-purposes, Indonesia's Ministry of National Education is not responsible for the vetting and verification of students applying for places at Islamic universities abroad. Instead, the Ministry of Religious Affairs has that role.

According to Imran Hanafi, an education attache at the Indonesian Embassy in Kuala Lumpur which is dealing with the stragglers, students who were recruited by private agencies without the ministry's involvement could not go to Egypt.

Meanwhile, the Director-General for Higher Education within the Religious Affairs Ministry, Muhammed Machasin, washed his hands of the affair. Machasin told Indonesian media the government could not be held responsible for the fate of the students.

He said the ministry was only responsible for those students who passed the entrance tests held jointly by the ministry and the relevant university.

The ministry's line is that a single-door recruitment policy, with his department administering a test drawn up by the Egyptian institution, was the best means of protecting Indonesian applicants.

Yet Machasin was forced to admit that some private education centres were still offering aspirants 'guaranteed' places at foreign universities: "I am sure there are still education agencies recruiting and we are going to do something about it."

Indonesia's own higher education system faces a similar problem. It is not uncommon in the big cities to find private institutions offering preparatory courses that 'guarantee' entry to leading campuses such as the University of Indonesia. This, needless to say, is a source of corruption with administrators potentially involved in kickbacks and other levies.

The Fikruna Centre affair should be a focus for the country's energetic Corruption Education Commission (KPK), one of the success stories of the post-Suharto 'reform' period. Legal action against the owners would appear to be appropriate and the KPK currently has the religious affairs ministry in its cross-hairs over alleged embezzlement of pilgrimage funds.

There is then the argument that all overseas university placements should be handled by the national education ministry. The religious affairs ministry's role also raises the question of which department should handle the placements abroad of non-Muslim Indonesian students, bearing in mind the Chinese who are largely either Buddhist or Christian.

Equally, it might be argued that the national education ministry should provide counselling for students intent on overseas study, as well as supplying them with up-to-date information about back-up services in the host countries.