Controversial higher education bill clears parliament after delays

Indonesia’s House of Representatives finally endorsed a controversial higher education bill on Friday, amid criticism of the way important issues such as foreign universities and student access have been handled in the legislation.

The bill had been postponed a number of times in the past year, most recently in April, over various contentious issues including financial autonomy for universities, which student groups feared would lead to tuition fee hikes.

However, all political parties agreed it was important to pass the bill into law.

“This is the right time to endorse the Higher Education Bill,” said Minister of Education and Culture Mohammad Nuh, adding that postponing the bill again could have “negative consequences”.

The bill allows some public universities to seek funding outside government sources while remaining under government regulation. Nuh insisted that increased autonomy would not mean increased fees and that tuition fee levels would be set for each region of the country.

“Universities cannot charge their students whatever they please, because we will set standards for tuition fees,” he said.

Student protesters outside the legislature said increased autonomy would pave the way for the commercialisation of higher education.

Nuh said that the bill ultimately sought to increase access to higher education, and would ensure social justice by setting a minimum seat allocation of 20% for poor students.

Regulation of foreign universities

Other articles that raised strong objections include the regulation of foreign universities.

Nuh said on Thursday: “This is a dilemma. We cannot remain closed [to foreign institutions], but we cannot open up [completely] either. That's why we will regulate them in the Higher Education Bill.”

Under the bill, only foreign universities of ‘good quality’ will be allowed accreditation. Foreign providers must be non-profit and can only set up campuses in cooperation with an Indonesian university.

Nuh said he would soon issue ministerial regulations on where foreign universities will be allowed to set up and the programmes they will be able to offer.

“They cannot open up everywhere; there are only certain areas and major subjects, for example, programmes that we ourselves cannot open because they need huge investment,” said Nuh.

But the government has given way to demands from private providers for more freedom to set their own curriculum, scrapping an article in previous drafts that gave the responsibility for regulating the curriculum to the Ministry of Education.

The National Commission for Education has criticised this, saying it is concerned that foreign institutions will not instil Indonesian cultural values, including religion and the nationalist political philosophy pancasila (five principles).

“These probably will not be included in their curriculum,” said Andreas Tambah, secretary-general of the commission.

The Indonesian Association of Private Universities said that some articles included in the bill did not need parliamentary legislation. Rather, they could have been “under government regulations or ministerial regulations”, according to Suyatno, the association’s secretary-general.

Andreas agreed, saying that some major issues such as student access had been left out of the bill while technical matters – such as the appointment of a board of trustees for universities – were included even though in his view this did not need to be regulated by a law.

“If it is regulated under the bill, it's a dead end,” Andreas told University World News.

Besides that, according to Andreas, some issues remain such as a gap between Indonesia's credit standard of 150 credit points on average compared to foreign degrees, which require only 130 to 140 credits. “That means the length for study is shorter [for foreign degrees].”

The qualifications of foreign universities, which will be legally allowed in the country, “will have more value than [those of] national universities. Students will choose foreign universities, and the national universities will be crushed,” said Andreas.

Critics also said the new bill has been rushed to fill a vacuum left after the 2008 legal entities bill had to be annulled, following a Supreme Court ruling in April 2010 that it promoted the aggressive privatisation of higher education.