New capital’s universities plan faces academic pushback

The establishment of Indonesia’s new capital city in East Kalimantan includes plans to build new universities and improve existing ones, but faces resistance from some academics who have called for a judicial review of the legislation that makes the changes possible.

The new capital, Nusantara, situated on the island of Borneo, will replace Jakarta, the largest city in South East Asia, as capital. The move is now a reality after a bill was passed by the House of Representatives, the lower house of parliament, last month and was signed into law by President Joko Widodo on 15 February.

The new city is to be situated in a region of palm oil plantations with some former mining sites in some areas and villages surrounded by green hills and valleys, crisscrossed by small roads and tracks. There has so far been no activity related to the construction of the new capital set to be inaugurated in 2024, although the movement of government offices could take a decade.

The area is considered relatively free of earthquakes and volcanoes. Jakarta is also prone to flooding in some areas, which could become worse with climate change, experts say.

Centre of research and innovation

“We want our new capital city to become the centre of research and innovation at international level. So we need to build world-class universities here,” Widodo, popularly known as Jokowi, told media, although a detailed budget has not yet been revealed.

Jokowi first announced the plan to move the capital in August 2019.

He said the university planned for the city should be different from other universities in Indonesia, hinting at the inclusion of high-tech research to international standards, including robot technology, artificial intelligence, e-commerce and green technologies.

Straddling two districts of Kutai Karta Negara and Penajam Paser Utara in East Kalimantan covering 256,000 hectares, the first phase is scheduled to kick off this year and run until 2024, with development extending to 2045. The whole project will cost US$32.7 billion (IDR470 trillion). Around 20% of the funds will come from the state budget and the rest from joint public-private initiatives between the government and corporations, and the private sector.

Jokowi will soon appoint a head of the new capital city as mandated by the law passed on 18 January. Nusantara will be governed by a body dubbed the State Capital Authority, with leadership appointed directly by the president for five-year terms.

Controversy over branch campus idea

A special team for the new capital has already held discussions with a number of local university rectors in East and Central Kalimantan on how to improve the capacity and quality of local universities. But the plan to attract branch campuses or outposts of big universities in the new capital city has drawn a mixed reaction.

Head of the National Development Planning body Bambang Brojonegoro has asked the University of Indonesia (UI), the country’s top institution, to build a campus in the new capital. “UI can build a sort of representative campus or move several faculties there,” Bambang told University World News this week.

He said the new capital would need universities offering programmes on future industries, technology, environmental management and spatial planning.

However, Professor H Masjaya, rector of Mulawarman University in Samarinda, East Kalimantan, called on the government not to build branch campuses of well-known Indonesian universities such as UI, Gadjah Mada University and Bandung Institute of Technology. “Improve the universities [already here] so the universities here – state-owned or private – can make a big contribution to the new capital city.”

Others questioned the need for branch campuses at all.

Digital technology

“In this era of digital technology, why do people still think it necessary to move campus buildings? Now we have online classes due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and it works,” Siti Zuhro, a senior researcher in political science at the National Research and Innovation Agency told University World News, adding that moving campuses is costly and inefficient.

“Now students can attend classes anywhere they are, on subjects [delivered] by lecturers in distant places. Students in Kalimantan can [remotely] attend classes of UI in Jakarta,” she said. “It is ironic that people talk about a futuristic vision, high technology and artificial intelligence, but want to go back to the era of our forefathers.”

Fachruddin Majeri Mangunjaya, an environmental expert and senior lecturer at National University (Universitas Nasional), a private university in Jakarta, said moving a university campus does not necessarily mean its academic culture can be transferred. Building a university “is a long-term enterprise. It could take longer than the time it will take to construct the new capital itself”, he told University World News.

Mangunjaya said it was a good thing for the government to plan a new university in the new capital but it should be genuinely new in academic culture and identity. “Our new university should be a university of ethical and environmental awareness and it should promote pluralism,” he said, referring to different traditions, cultures and faiths within the country.

Judicial review

Zuhro and a number of professors have teamed up to demand a judicial review of the legislation to set up the new capital. “We are now collecting data, information, and other materials needed to submit our demand for a judicial review to the Constitutional Assembly,” she said.

She noted that within such a short time frame – Jokowi’s presidency is due to end in 2024 after he serves his second term in office – “the project is not feasible at all. There is a lot of politicking and business dealing behind the city project”, according to Zuhro.

“He [Jokowi] only has enough time to start the project within the next two years because, by law, he cannot run for another term. Then there would be a discourse in the House to provide the legal basis for a third term for Jokowi for the sake of the new capital project,” Zuhro said.

“If his successor does not have the same commitment to the new capital project, major works would be abandoned, while the environmental cost has already been paid,” she said, pointing to hectares of forest already cleared.