Rector arrest on bribery allegations sparks wider debate

Indonesia’s anti-corruption commission (KPK) has arrested the rector of the University of Lampung (UNILA) for allegedly taking bribes from the families of students who failed the university entrance exams in exchange for admitting students to the university.

The amount allegedly amassed by the university leader, Professor Karomani, is estimated thus far to be around IDR5 billion (US$336,000). The KPK searched the university premises over several days from 22 August and secured allegedly illegal takings of IDR1.4 billion in cash in plastic bags, sheets of bank transfer information, and a gold nugget held in a safe at the rector’s residence. Karomani was arrested on 24 August.

The total figure for alleged takings will not be known until the anti-corruption body completes its investigations into past years of alleged illegal admissions.

Karomani is accused of demanding between IDR100 million (US$6,700) and IDR350 million (US$23,500) from those who failed exams, known as the autonomous admissions scheme or Jalur Mandiri, in exchange for them to be admitted in 2022, after other university officials had assessed the families’ ability to pay.

These officials, who include the university’s vice-rector Heryandi, head of the UNILA Senate Muhammad Basri, head of public communications Budi Sutomo and senior lecturer Mualimin, were also arrested last month.

Karomani’s legal team, Ahmad Handoko and Resmen Khadafi, stressed the presumption of innocence. “All parties are supposed to refrain from making slanderous judgements before the court decision,” Handoko told local media in Jakarta on 24 August, soon after Karomani appointed him as his lawyer.

At a press conference in Bandar Lampung, Lampung province, on 2 September, Khadafi said there was no proof that Karomani caused the state to suffer loss and no proof either that the rector enriched himself.

Khadafi said the billions of rupiya in cash confiscated by the KPK were not bribes for Jalur Mandiri admissions. Instead the money was donations for the construction of the university’s mosque and the Lampung Nahdiyin Center (LNC), built in Rajabasa in Bandar Lampung as a centre for the activities of the Nahdlatul Ulama, Indonesia’s largest Muslim organisation. Karomani is the chairperson of the LNC Trustees.

“The cash is purely donations for the construction of [the] mosque and LNC building in Rajabasa, Bandar Lampung. There was no obligation [to donate] at all,” Khadafi asserted. “Our client explained he kept the cash in a safe at his house to prevent himself from using it,” he added.

Increased scrutiny

Karomani’s arrest has dominated national headlines, sparking public debate and leading to increased media scrutiny of rectors and officials of other state universities in Indonesia.

Deputy Chairperson of the KPK, Nurul Ghufron, said the bribery allegations had “tarnished the world of education”, which “has a high moral responsibility to produce future generations of the nation with quality and integrity”, VOI English reported.

‘Automomous channel’ exam

According to KPK, there is one channel for university entry that is vulnerable to bribery.

The Jalur Mandiri or the ‘autonomous channel’ exam is conducted by universities, which set their own test standards. It is an option for school leavers who fail to pass the main competitive national university entrance exams – the SNMPTN and SBMPTN.

SNMPTN, the Indonesian acronym for the State University Admission National Test, is based on high school scores and other school achievements. Students take the test by enrolling in the SNMPTN committee at their schools which, along with their teachers, prepares them for the exam. If they fail, they have another chance, by sitting the SBMPTN or the ‘State University Admission Joint Selection’.

Every year, around one million Indonesian school leavers sit the SNMPTN and the SBMPTN, which are conducted online, making it virtually impossible to bypass the automatic scoring system. On average, fewer than 10% pass and are admitted to state universities.

The registration fee for the Jalur Mandiri is much higher than for the two state exams and differs between state universities. The exam takes place soon after the SBMPTN results are announced and the number recruited through this exam cannot exceed 30% of the university’s intake.

The last option is to turn to private universities, which charge high tuition fees and have lower reputations.

According to the KPK, while the SNMPTN and SBMPTN are closely monitored by the education ministry, the autonomous admission system is vulnerable to bribery because of a lack of transparency and specific guidelines from the education ministry, leaving state universities unsupervised in administering the system.

Decision in hands of rectors

Dr Ramdany, a senior lecturer at the Jakarta-based Muhammadiyah Economic High School, noted that the initial intention of the Jalur Mandiri was good, and “morally right”.

“This admission channel is mainly aimed at high school graduates with poorer education in remote areas. It would not be fair for them to compete with their fellows from good schools in cities with advanced educational facilities,” he said.

The Jalur Mandiri is managed by the universities’ admissions committee but the ultimate decision as to who passes is that of the rector and, to a limited extent, the deans. “So one can ‘secure’ his or her admission to the university by purchasing the seat. There is no price standard for that, but almost everybody knows,” Ramdany said.

That the Jalur Mandiri is more vulnerable to corruption as a more independent system is not surprising, according to Ramdany, who adds it is because “things have been wrong from the beginning. We are living in an era when universities have become corporations, where greed is no longer evil.”

The situation has become worse because state universities are now allowed to raise their own income above their allocation from the government budget.

In raising their own income, they set the target of such income, which varies among universities. This target is set by agreement, and is an open process, subject to auditing.

“But as soon as the target is met, they are free to make money – as much as they want,” Ramdany said. This does not have to be monitored.

Herdiansyah Hamzah, a researcher at the Anti-Corruption Study Centre at Mulawarman University, Samarinda, East Kilamantan, said the exam system had become subject to money mongering practices. “It becomes a hub of university business,” he told University World News.

Views on countering corruption

Experts and politicians have different views on how to curb corruption in higher education.

In a meeting with the minister of education, culture, research and technology on 23 August, Dede Yusuf, a member of the House of Representatives’ Commission 10, which oversees education and research, called for the total removal of the Jalur Mandiri and said integrating it into the national selection test “will prevent underhanded dealings and transactions”.

In response to the House member’s statement, the education minister, Nadiem Makarim, vowed that corruption cases would not occur again after the UNILA rector’s arrest. “We have made a lot of effort to prevent corruption in higher education, but improvements seem to take time,” he said.

Makarim called on universities to develop anti-corruption educational programmes. “There should be a subject [in the curriculum] and extra-curricular activities that build anti-corruption attitudes.”

According to Ramdany, changing the exam as suggested by Commission 10 will not stop deep-rooted corrupt practices in universities. “What should change is the mindset, not mainly the system”.

One way to improve would be to ensure state universities stick to their educational mission. “It would mean abolishing the universities’ authority over generating income,” he said.

KPK Spokesperson Ipi Maryati Kuding said on 23 August that her office had recommended that the education ministry reorganise the Jalur Mandiri by providing guidelines based on public accountability and transparency.

The guidelines should include information on the number of new students admitted through the Jalur Mandiri, the criteria used to determine whether students are admitted or not, and the methodology used in setting the passing grade.

“These instruments should be made public and accessible to any party,” she said