INDONESIA: Universities disrupted by volcanic ash

When the world's most active volcano Mount Merapi - the 'mountain of fire' - erupted recently, the ash cloud heavily inundated the neighbouring city of Yogjakarta, known in Indonesia for its large number of higher education institutions.

Ash has seriously disrupted academic life on university campuses, particularly at the Islamic University of Indonesia (UII) located within Merapi's 'danger zone', as defined by the government's volcanology watchdog known by its Indonesian initials CVGHM.

Poisonous gas clouds rolling down the volcano slopes and the pyroclastic flow took victims in surrounding farming hamlets by surprise. The flow signalled the start of one of the largest eruptions since the 1870s, according to authorities.

University campuses were abandoned. Many students have returned to their home towns and the student body has not apparently been given a time-frame for re-opening.

Indonesia's chief geologist R Sukhyar, head of the Energy and Mineral Resources Ministry's Geological Agency, said on 8 November that it was difficult to predict when the eruptions would cease as the volcano was still "holding a huge amount of energy". The volcano has been continuously erupting since 26 October.

However, local media reported that at least one group of students insisted on re-entering the danger zone despite official appeals not to. They said they were going in to retrieve books and computers.

Some 400 Malaysian students studying in the area were evacuated by three Malaysian air force planes last week, although around 100 stayed in Yogyakarta, mainly medical students who volunteered to help victims.

A mitigating factor for UII and campuses in the 'universty city', such as the prestigious University Gadjah Mada, the largest university in Indonesia in terms of student population with around 55,000 students, is that the eruption struck very early in the academic year and outside the exam season.

Meanwhile the disaster, which occurred at virtually the same time as a tsunami on the Mentawai island off the coast of West Sumatra, has underlined Indonesia's need for graduates in geology, geophysics and volcanology.

Universities in disaster-prone areas have a particular role to play in educating local communities to deal with quakes, eruptions and tsunamis.

Apart from those in Java close to volcanoes and beaches open to tidal waves, such as on the coast of Central and West Java provinces, a university such as Andalan in Padang, the West Sumatra capital, could take a high profile in this work.