In much of South East Asia, higher education systems traditionally sat firmly under the control of the national Ministry of Education, or its equivalent. But universities need autonomy to flourish – without the oxygen of academic freedom, they are starved of the capacity to innovate and develop.
So, several ASEAN member states are experimenting with attempts to set universities free from the strictures of detailed control. With proper safeguards in place, various pilot programmes are being introduced, that allow at least some of the strongest universities to exercise greater control over their own destiny.Indonesia was one of the first to give significant autonomy to a select group of its universities. In the first years of post-1998 democracy, which included significant moves to decentralise education, Indonesia introduced a significant scheme to reform its higher education system. Of more than 3,000 higher education institutions across the archipelago, four were selected for a pilot programme that gave greater academic freedom and financial autonomy. Universitas Indonesia (UI), Institut Teknologi Bandung (ITB), Institut Pertanian Bogor (IPB), and Universitas Gadjah Mada (UGM) were accorded the status of Badan Hukum Milik Negera (BHMN), or ‘state-owned legal institution’. The system proved robust enough for two further institutions to be added in 2004: Universitas Sumatera Utara (USU) and Universitas Perdidikan Indonesia, (UPI), Bandung. Later in 2006, Universitas Airlangga in Surabaya became the seventh institution to be granted BHMN status.
Under the new regime, universities had greater power to decide on academic programmes, including curriculum, academic programmes, and staffing matters, including promotion of academics as well as the autonomy to elect university leaders, from the Rector to heads of departments. They also gained greater control over their finances, including both the capacity to diversify income sources, and to use this income for innovative academic developments.This had great potential for the Ministry of Education and Culture (MoEC) too, which, like other governments in the region, was battling to cope with the financial demands of spiralling enrolments. Indonesia’s population is approaching 250 million, of whom at least 30 per cent are under the age of 15. This alone creates significant pent-up demand for higher education, but aspiration levels are increasing too, and, as greater proportions of the populations are able to afford higher education, demand is only set to increase.
And the government wants more of its young population in higher education, as part of an agenda to develop Indonesia into a more innovative, high-skilled economy. So allowing selected universities to diversify their income sources, for which they were accountable via annual public audit, relieved the government of some responsibility for funding. BHMN universities now raise significant funds from a range of community sources, Some of the seven BHMN universities have been more entrepreneurial than others, with at least one now sourcing half of its budget from community sources, including offering training programmes to local and international businesses, and local government, as well as instituting ‘Executive’ programmes that provide degree-level programmes on weekends and at evenings, for high fees, and using Jalur Khusus to offer a proportion of places in high-demand courses to those with the capacity to pay higher fees.So why has the MoEC now proposed to withdraw the autonomy granted to chosen universities little more than a decade ago, with the view that, if the pilot programme was successful, it might then be extended to more and more institutions? Government Regulation no. 66/2010, proposed that all seven BHMN institutions would effectively revert to the pre-2000 status of Perguruan Tinggi yang Diselenggarakan Pemerintah (PTP), or Government-Administered Universities. A clue to understanding the rationale for the proposed reform lies in the fact that, in addition to withdrawing the authority for institutions to control their academic affairs, the regulation would force institutions to send the substantial funds raised from community sources to the Ministry of Finance, without any assurance that it would be remitted back to the universities for academic purposes. Significant concerns have been expressed by the universities that the Ministry is not merely interested in wresting control over academic affairs back from the universities, but that they are also interested in gaining access to the considerable funds raised by the BHMN institutions from various sources over the past decade.
The regulation is scheduled to come into effect as early as July this year. Already, considerable opposition has been expressed, and there is a very real prospect that, if an effective solution to the contentious proposals cannot be found, that academics will hold a series of road-shows to universities to campaign through all possible media to “gain their autonomy back”. Taking to the streets, in public demonstrations that will take the dispute into the open, is also an open possibility. Will the Ministry relent and allow the pilot programme to continue? Time is running out to find a solution, but the international trend towards loosening the state’s tight controls over university’s operations may well prove irresistible.
Anthony Welch is Professor of Education at the University of Sydney, specialising in higher education reforms in East and South East Asia. His book Higher Education in South East Asia. Blurring Borders, Changing Balance was published in 2011.
E. Aminudin Aziz is Vice-Rector for Institutional Planning, Research, and Development, Universitas Pendidikan Indonesia, Bandung. His research focuses on Linguistics. Both authors participated in the recent forum on Higher Education in South East Asia, held in Jakarta.