Private universities in crisis as pandemic hits enrolment

With the COVID-19 pandemic beginning to affect the Indonesian economy from mid-2020 onwards, private universities have experienced a sharp downturn in enrolments – and the number of university dropouts is rising.

This is causing a crisis in Indonesia’s private university sector, which some fear could lead to mass closures of institutions.

After the results of the national admission test for Indonesian universities, known by the Indonesian acronym SNMPTN, were announced on 22 March, school leavers not on the pass list were expected to go to private universities, as happens every year.

Some 595,094 sat the 2021 SNMPTN and 116,000 were admitted to state universities, but applications to private universities have dropped for the second year running. Last year, 101,772 or 19% of the 489,601 SNMPTN candidates were admitted to 85 state universities. The remaining 387,829 would normally apply to private universities, but applications were well down compared to 2018.

The Indonesian Private University Association (APTISI) estimates that almost half of private universities have seen a decline of at least 50% in the number of new students. Smaller universities are worst hit.

Raihan, rector of Jakarta Islamic University (UIJ) who is also secretary of the Jakarta branch of APTISI, said that with the situation unresolved, only 60% of the country’s 4,500 private universities would survive.

“The number enrolled in our university dropped by 20% over the last two years,” said Dheni Harmaen, senior lecturer and head of the Bahasa Indonesia (Indonesian language) and Indonesian literature education programme at Bandung-based Pasundan University (UNPAS).

“Colleagues at other private universities told me the percentage decrease is even higher, between 40% to 50%,” Harmaen told University World News, adding that several private universities in Bandung have gone bankrupt.

University and college closures

Private university closures in his area mirror a wider trend in the country, and have accelerated closures of institutions, including some that were already in trouble before the pandemic hit. On 6 February 2020 the Directorate of Higher Education of the Education and Culture Ministry (DIKTI) announced that 12 private universities in Jakarta had closed down due to a lack of students and other problems.

“Two of them submitted proposals for closure because they were unable to continue; seven chose mergers among themselves, and three moved out of Jakarta to other places,” DIKTI official Nizam said.

For example, Syailendra College of Economics (STIE Syailendra) and Pradita College of Economics (STIE Pradita) merged to become became Pradita University.

On 20 November 2020, the DIKTI bureau in North Sumatra announced the closure of four colleges due to a lack of students and other problems related to COVID-19. They included Swadaya Foreign Languages College (STBA Swadaya), Al-Hikmah College of Economics (STEI Al-Hikmah), Al-Hikmah College of Law (STIH Al-Hikmah) and Intelcom Computer Academy (Amik Intelkom).

In January, the DIKTI Central Java office announced that 20 universities, high schools and institutes would close down this year, mostly due to a lack of students. Head of the Central Java DIKTI office, Zainuri, would not name the universities due to ‘ethical’ considerations other than saying they were all in Central Java, according to a report by online news site Semarang Raya.

In Yogyakarta, Central Java, the number of new students in private universities is decreasing. “We don’t have exact figures yet, but we know from reports from private universities,” said Fathul Wahid, head of the Yogyakarta Private Universities Association.

Ridayati, head of public relations at Yogyakarta National Technology Institute (ITNY), said new enrolment this year is just 30% of the target of 70% enrolment, despite a 10% tuition fee cut.

Ratna Permata Sari, head of the information bureau of the private Islamic University of Indonesia (UII), said 20,700 students enrolled in the university in 2020, below the 2019 enrolment of 24,337.

Increased numbers of dropouts

At the same time the number of students dropping out of university due to financial problems has been on the rise since the pandemic spread to Indonesia in March 2020. Abdul Kahar, head of the Education Financing Service Centre of the Ministry of Education and Culture, said the number of dropouts had reached 50% of the total student body, mostly in private universities.

“Private university students are more vulnerable to drop out because the fees are much higher,” he said. At the same time parents’ incomes are decreasing. Many even lost their jobs during the pandemic.

UNPAS’ Harmaen said students have also become more selective in choosing a programme. “Almost all study programmes have seen declining enthusiasm [among students],” though he added that his course in Bahasa Indonesia and literature has been an exception, in part due to a need for teachers of Indonesian language and literature in schools of all level, from kindergarten to university.

University face-to-face classes at all universities were suspended from 15 March 2020 and students’ reaction to online learning was mixed, with a majority citing shortcomings in online classes.

Face-to-face classes are not expected to resume before the new academic year this coming July. But economic factors have played a bigger role for private university enrolments and decisions to drop out.

Fauzan Fathurrohmnan was in the middle of his course at Unikom University, Bogor, West Java, when he decided to leave to find a job. “I have to relieve my parents’ financial burden,” he said.

Last week, Hilda Fauziyah Sayidah left her postgraduate studies at the Politeknik to work at the public works ministry. “Previously, I was going to university while working at the public works ministry as a part timer. But when studying got demanding, I chose to leave the university and keep my job,” she told University World News.

“In the jobs market, work experience is valued more than a university certificate,” she added, expressing widely experienced fears about job prospects in the pandemic-hit economy.

Budi Luhur University (UBL), a private university in the capital Jakarta, extended payment terms and provided tuition-fee free studies for one semester. “We are struggling to keep our students, but some operational expenses are unavoidable. We have to keep our server working for online classes, pay lecturers and workers’ salaries,” said UBL rector Wendi Usino.

The private Pancasila University in Jakarta is experiencing a similar downturn. Last year 150 students enrolled. This year it was only 114. “We assume that middle- to low-income families are heavily affected by COVID-19 related policies, such as social distancing, crowd bans and health measures now being imposed,” said Wahono Sumaryono, rector of Pancasila University.

“We are aware of the situation. That’s why we have set a more affordable fee with flexible payment terms and we have opened up enrolment [dates] so students can enrol any time in the year,” he said.

Long-term solution needed

“It is time for private universities not to rely on student fees to finance their operations. They should set up business enterprises that can generate money,” said APTISI’s Raihan. “We need a long-term solution.”

Ubaid Matraji, coordinator of the Network for Education Watch Indonesia (JPPI), a coalition of civil society organisations working to improve education access, said recent government tuition fee dispensations do not help much. “Studying at universities is not merely about attending classes. You have to pay accommodation rent, buy food, top up your mobile phone and other needs.”

According to Matraji, the economic impact of the pandemic on education will be long-lasting. “Even after the pandemic is over, the dropouts will not be able to go back to universities immediately because economic recovery will take much longer,” he said.

“It will no longer be enough to cut tuition fees or loosen payment terms. Perhaps we need totally free education. And it would mean implementing the constitution, because it guarantees all citizens the right to education,” he said.

Note: Several individuals quoted in this article have just one name, in accordance with Indonesian convention.