Thursday, November 30, 2023

Indonesian Universities: World-Class or Removed From Reality?

Indonesian universities are striving to be recognized as world-class universities. To reach that appellation, higher education institutions must excel in at least three aspects: academic reputation, international reputation and research quality.

Yet, despite so many resources – many of them paid for by taxpayers’ money – only a handful of Indonesian universities can now be considered world-class.

The rest are not even close. Many programs undertaken by universities to achieve the coveted status seem to have hit the wrong targets.

One example is a program to increase the number of international scientific publications by their researchers.

For the past 10 years, it’s true that Indonesian academics have published more articles in international journals than their counterparts in neighboring countries.

However, almost no one has paid much attention to the quality of those publications.

The fact is, according to Scopus, the world’s largest bibliographic database, the number of articles published by Indonesian academics in top journals has also dropped quite significantly over the same period.

Since the research-metrics to assess whether or not a university is world-class are qualitative, not quantitative, the benefit – for the universities – of publishing so many international articles could, and should, be questioned.

The obsession with obtaining world-class status seems to have focused the universities’ attention on improving their international reputation at all costs to the detriment of everything else. 

This is when there is still a strategic role that universities can and should play in contemporary Indonesia: to be the guardian of public policy reforms.

Indonesia entered a very important era in its history in the early 2000s: democratization. With its one-man, one-vote system, the country now has the kind of democracy where public voices and opinions not only matter but should always be taken into account in any policy reforms.

Indonesia needs reforms in many aspects of its public policy and governance – from its social policies, economic policies and regulations to institutional and administrative reforms.

Implementing reforms need legislations, and legislations need public support.

That’s how, at least ideally, democracy works.

As the fourth-largest country in the world in terms of population, or arguably the third-largest democracy – and without a doubt the largest Muslim democracy – the eyes of the world are on us to translate this process of democratization into actual improvement in public policies.

One particular question is of utmost importance, how would the voice and opinion of the public and their increased participation in politics shape policy-making processes?

In this context, the role of public opinion in policy reforms can be a blessing and a curse at the same time.

On the one hand, it may help make reforms more relevant since any reform must be made in the interest of the public at large.

On the other hand, the public is not always best-informed about the urgency and, especially, the rationales of such reforms.

The best example, in the Indonesian context, is the fuel subsidy reform. Without a doubt, phasing out fuel subsidy is a necessary reform, but because its rationales were never communicated optimally to the public, it has been met with strong resistance everywhere.

One necessary, yet often neglected, aspect of policy reform initiatives, is credibility – especially in the eyes of the public. As Indonesians are becoming more educated, and more engaged in public debate – especially on social media, this credibility is essential.

Recent political development – such as the outcome of the elections in 2014 and 2019 –has sharply divided the Indonesian public into two highly political sides. Reforms initiated by the side that won the election instantly come under suspicion and intense scrutiny: “Are they being made in the interest of the people, or in the interest of the ruling oligarchy or even foreign powers?”

Government agencies that initiate reforms are facing this dilemma and have been finding it very challenging to improve the credibility of their policy reform initiatives.

Indonesian universities – supposedly some of the country’s most credible institutions – should be able to help them on that front. 

Universities can engage the government, and vice versa, in developing science-based or evidence-based policy reforms from conception down to design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation. This will greatly improve the credibility of any policy reform initiatives.

Universities are still seen by the public as possessing twin credentials: authority and independence. Many non-university organizations, despite maintaining rigor in their studies, are often wrongly accused of having certain “agendas.” People feel they have the right to question their independence.

Many NGOs, though trusted by the public, are often seen as lacking scientific authority. People question the rigor of their opinions.

Universities, on the other hand, represent the best of both worlds. They are normally large organizations, full of talents, from natural scientists and health specialists to social scientists – and many of them with good records of publications.

Where else we can expect rigor in evaluating public policies?

Universities need to capitalize on this uniqueness for the greater good.

Being a world-class university is only a means, not an end. Researchers need to publish in good quality scientific journals as part of – however small – the advancement of human civilization.

They also need to be aware that strategic engagement in contemporary public policies and reforms has direct consequences on the current and future wellbeing of all Indonesians.

We need both, and we need them now.

Arief Anshory Yusuf is a professor of economics at Padjadjaran University in Bandung.