Indonesia’s Unequal Higher Education

When Indonesia’s Directorate of Research, Technology and Higher Education released its 2017 list of the country’s 100 top universities, it found that 71 of them are located on the island of Java.

That points up what is a bigger problem: the geographical imbalances that are skewed towards Java, the home of Jakarta, the country’s capital and biggest city by far. The problem of distributing resources to other regions of the country so far has been insurmountable.

President Joko Widodo is seeking to divert the country’s economy at least partly in new directions, often referring to the “knowledge-based economy.” In 2015, he established an “agency for creative economy” to promote foreign investment in sunrise sectors like entertainment, fashion textiles and packaged food. The government’s move to allow foreign investment in films, movie distribution and exhibition has lured some foreign investors. Finding a work force capable of managing those fields is crucial.

It is somewhat an uphill battle. With Indonesia projected by the Asian Development Bank to be the world’s seventh largest economy by 2030, sustaining its economic gains will require a transformation of its current resource-based growth model to focus on high-end technologies and skills. However, the World Bank’s Knowledge Economy Index ranked Indonesia 107th of 145 countries covered in 2012 in terms of knowledge resources.

The problem is at least partly systemic. The New Order, the regime led by the strongman Suharto that ruled the country from 1965 to 1998, centralized the system, with the most important government agency with responsibility for education policy the Ministry of Religious Affairs, which was targeted to fund state Islamic schools and higher education institutes.

In 2001, the central government belatedly transferred authority over education policy and management to district-level governments in line with decentralization, although this shift did not extend to higher education, according to a 2018 study by the Lowy Institute. The Directorate-General of Higher Education within the Ministry of Education and Culture continued to coordinate, supervise, and direct all state and private higher education institutions while the Ministry of Religious Affairs maintained close oversight of the network of religious such instittuions.

With higher education to some extent in the grip of the religious affairs ministry rather than the education one, only 11 Indonesian schools rank in the top 350 globally, based on the QS World University rankings for 2018. All of are in Java, including Universitas Indonesia, ITB (Institute Teknologi Bandung) and UGM (Universitas Gadjah Mada). Universitas Indonesia, the country’s top school, ranks only 277th worldwide and 54th in Asia in the QS Asia University Rankings,although the university’s library is considered the largest in Southeast Asia, with a capacity of 1.5 million books.

Not only improving the higher educational system but righting the regional higher-education imbalance is crucial. But there are only nine state universities in eastern parts of the country such as Maluku, North Maluku, Papua and West Papua. It is clear that the availability of higher education is predominantly in Java rather than in other islands and provinces.

There are particular reasons for this disparity. Indonesia’s geography, with more than 17,000 islands spread across 5,000 km of archipelago, poses a problem for efficient and low-cost infrastructure. In addition, 60 percent of the country’s 266 million people live on Java. The remaining 40 percent are scattered among about 6,000 of the other islands, which often are sparsely populated. Getting all kinds of resources – not just education – to them is a problem despite the move since Suharto’s fall via devolution to regional and provincial control.

In this sense, the development of higher education in Java appears to be the government’s priority to the disadvantage of other areas. Thus, there is a clear gap between the availability of good higher education between regions. It is not just a quality gap between universities, but there is also a gap in the availability of higher education between those in Java and other regions. SMERU Research Institute, a Jakarta-based independent institution for research and public policy studies, found that 75 percent of student enrolments in higher education are concentrated on Java.

Other problems

This disparity is also apparent in terms of government policy. In the case of accreditation, for example, many universities in Java get A accreditation, while only a few in other regions outside Java get A accreditation, most of them scoring a B or even C. The upshot is that many students who don’t live on Java, or even live in rural areas of Java, do not have access to accredited universities. Second, it is difficult to find qualified staff and faculty, especially foreign graduates, willing to work at lesser schools in undeveloped areas, obviously preferring to work in reputable and accredited universities. That contributes to the already-wide educational gap.

In a kind of negative feedback loop, these conditions have led to government incentives and research funding concentrated on accredited universities. The effort to make Indonesian universities world-class institutions has also focused on certain universities. This means that only those well-reputed schools get the government resources to carry out research and have better facilities and resources.

Resolving inequality first

This inequality in higher education needs government attention. Policy towards higher education thus needs to not only focus on achieving world-class education or providing scholarships to poor students from outside Java to study in Java.

There is a need to make sure that the provision of higher education is equally available throughout the country, which would enable students to study and access higher education regardless of their remoteness.

The government needs to prioritize and support higher education in outside Java to improve accreditation for regional schools so they can lift their rating from B and C to A. Overall, the process of improving the quality of higher education outside Java, such as Sumatra and Papua, should be hand in hand with the desire of achieving international recognition for elite universities.

Muhammad Zulfikar Rakhmat writes regularly on social issues in Indonesia. Adhimas Widjaya is a Jakarta-based education consultant.