Government allows fee concessions but students protest

Indonesia’s Education and Culture Ministry has announced a raft of emergency measures for universities to implement to help alleviate the financial burden on students during the COVID-19 pandemic and to help prevent students, particularly the poorest, from dropping out of higher education.

These include allowing students to postpone university tuition fee payments, particularly if they are on leave or not taking courses, paying fees in instalments, lowering the tuition fee rate or providing tuition free in the case of some universities, and charging only half the fee for final-year students.

While public universities are required to implement the measures, private universities are free to choose whether they do so or not. But students fear many universities, particularly private institutions, will not comply and are demanding an across-the-board 50% reduction in tuition fees.

The government’s package allows for aid for students whose parents’ livelihoods are severely affected by the pandemic. They will be entitled to receive IDR400,000 (US$28) for the year. This is equivalent to the average tuition fee rate for a semester which can be used to pay fees or for other needs.

Education and Culture Minister Nadiem Makarim said the burden-alleviation policy for students is effective for both state and private universities.

“We have even allocated one trillion rupiah (US$68.8 million) in assistance, to lighten their burden,” Makarim added. That funding available from early July is intended to help 410,000 students, mainly in private universities, to cover tuition fees and prevent them from dropping out before completing their courses.

While the minister said, “the implementation of policies is left to the universities concerned”, experts have said while the policies look good on the surface, not all universities are prepared to implement them.

And some private universities have said the government’s assistance package is inadequate to meet students’ and teachers’ concerns during the pandemic.

Universities under the Ministry of Religious Affairs run a similar scheme allowing postponement and payment by instalment for tuition fee payments and a lowering of the fee rate.

So far 487,000 students, mostly at private universities, receive subsidies under the country’s existing Program Indonesia Pintar (Indonesia Smart) scheme to improve education access for students from poor- or low-income families who have a good academic record.

Indonesia has 57,770 confirmed COVID-19 cases, and some 2,934 deaths as of 1 July. The country imposed restrictions including campus closures from early March. Although the new academic year is due to begin mid-July with a semester without face-to-face teaching, the government has said it is unlikely that universities will open for face-to-face classes before the end of this year.

Agus Sartono, deputy minister for education and religion coordination at the Ministry for Human Development and Cultural Affairs, said the government is preparing online programmes for school and university students while the shutdown of institutions is extended to the end of the year.

Indonesia wanted to avoid the situation in countries like France and South Korea “which reopened schools only to expose many students (to COVID-19)”, Sartono said in a press conference in Jakarta on 2 June as Indonesia was preparing to lift the large-scale social restrictions all over the country.

Student protests

Ignoring physical distancing rules, only three days after Makarim’s announcement, hundreds of university students in Jakarta calling themselves GMJB (Jakarta Student Movement United), marched to the education and culture ministry offices to demand a 50% reduction in tuition fees due to the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown of campuses.

“The government ruling on the COVID-19 pandemic does not touch on the problem of learning costs, particularly in private universities,” said student spokesman Donny Manurung, speaking in front of the ministry’s offices on 22 June, adding social distancing and lockdown rules had affected teaching.

“During the pandemic, we learn at home through online classes. We don’t use campus facilities. But we have to pay tuition fees at the same rate. This is unfair,” he added, demanding the minister take measures against university officials who do not comply with the alleviation policy.

The students denounced some private universities for even increasing tuition fees after the pandemic began, saying they treat education as a business enterprise.

The student organisation said without across-the-board fee reductions, more students would drop out of universities and new students could be discouraged from enrolling.

A survey during May by the National Association of University Students’ Executive Bodies, known by its Indonesian acronym BEM-SI, found that 83% of student respondents said their parents’ income had declined as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak. Around 77% said they did not know if they could pay the following semester’s tuition fees.

At the implementation level, the alleviation policy has been frustrating for students. At Bandung-based Padjadjaran University, students are required to submit photos of their home, cars and other documents to apply for fee dispensations, even though 90% of students’ families are affected by the pandemic.

Many of the tuition fee adjustments already existed before the pandemic but students’ applications were often rejected after a long bureaucratic process.

Postgraduates affected

The pandemic has also been a heavy blow for postgraduate students. Universitas Indonesia postgraduate students’ alliance spokesman Petrus Putut Pradhono said: “During online classes, we use our personal facilities, more than what the university provides, at a time when our financial resources are falling short.

“We are even required to pay the so-called BOP which amounts to IDR20 million (US$1,400) for one semester. But we don’t use campus facilities.”

BOP is the Indonesian acronym for ‘education operational expenses’, the postgraduate fees for one semester. The student alliance demanded that the BOP be returned because they were not able to make use of campus facilities.

In Yogyakarta, Central Java, the Gadjah Mada University postgraduate students’ alliance also demanded dispensation from tuition fees and BOP for postgraduates. Alliance spokesman Ramaditya said “with online classes from six months ago, university expenditure has become very efficient, but we still paid our tuition fees in full”.

Universities under the religious affairs ministry

“Efforts are being made by the government to keep education on track, but further, clearer and more detailed information is needed,” said Aep Syaefudin Firdaus, head of the finance department at Bandung State Islamic University (UIN Bandung), told University World News.

Firdaus said the university had lowered tuition fees for all students by 10%, under the alleviation scheme run by the Religious Affairs Ministry which oversees the institution. Students would get another 10% cut in fees – amounting to a 20% reduction overall – with these further dispensations based on student applications providing information on students’ circumstances. These would have to be verified by the university, he said.

The university has also delivered a high speed internet quota to each student. The UIN Bandung has 24,000 students.