Does Indonesia Need World-Class Universities?

Written by C W Watson, Bandung | Sat, 03/03/2012 8:31 PM |

To the question “Does Indonesia need world-class universities?” the answer is no; to the question “Does Indonesia need an excellent system of higher education?” the answer is yes, most emphatically. This seems paradoxical: excellent but not world class, but doesn’t world class mean excellent? The paradox, however, is easily resolved.

World class does not mean excellent. World class means, in fact, performing well according to certain criteria established by the Times Higher Education (THE) magazine and QS, an educational consultancy company, which between them annually publish a list of the top ranking universities in the world.

But there is a major problem with the way in which the listings are carried out, namely the selection of criteria, the standards by which the ranking is established. One criterion is for example the spending per student: The more money a university spends on each student for education and extracurricular opportunities, the higher its score on that criterion.

Consequently, universities with very rich foundations, such as Harvard, score very highly. But is this a good measure of the quality of education? Is it the amount of money that should count or the quality of learning and teaching?

Another criterion is the amount of foreign staff and foreign students in the university. Again one wonders about the criterion: Why do such numbers matter? Is the quality of education really affected by the number of foreign staff and students? And is this criterion not inevitably biased toward Anglophone universities: After all, the transfer of students and staff globally can only be facilitated by the availability of a universal academic language, namely English?

Does this mean, then, that universities in other parts of the world, say China, where the medium of instruction is Chinese, and where ipso facto there are fewer foreign staff and students, are not as good as Anglophone universities? This seems to smack of an attempt at postcolonial intellectual hegemony.

A further criterion, one which is currently much exercising the directorate general of higher education, is the amount of publications being produced from within universities. Indonesian institutions of higher education perform abysmally on this criterion; hence the recent attempt to solve the problem by fiat: All university graduates will be required to have had work published before they can graduate.

But, of course, that does not resolve the problem. That research output should be a criterion for distinguishing between institutions of higher education which are good at research and those which are not is of course straightforward and logical. However, it should in the first place be the quality rather than the quantity of research which is evaluated.

And in the second place, we should remember that this evaluation of research is a measure not of how good a university is, but of how good a research institution it is. Universities are much more than research institutions: They are places for the dissemination of knowledge and the training of students in specialist skills and abilities.

If the directorate general of higher education wants to improve the quality of research, then it must go about it by doing what many other countries do: provide support for individuals and teams through a system of research councils and offering appropriate incentives.

At the same time, it should consider establishing centers of research excellence at particular universities, the purpose of which would be to concentrate resources and promote research of the highest quality. But to repeat: the outcome would be to raise standards of research in the country — something which we all agree needs to be done with some urgency — but not necessarily to raise the quality of university education.

Just to return for a moment to why it is that Indonesia and other countries not performing so well in the world league table of universities feel it is so necessary to improve their ranking and position, the reason is surely that it is a matter of national prestige and national pride. Indonesia by population is the fourth-largest country in the world and yet it is way down in the ranking. But does this matter, any more than it matters whether the national soccer team is in the top 20 teams in the world?

No, the nature of a national higher education system should not be determined by a strategy of trying to improve ratings for the sake of national pride. It should be determined, rather, by the needs of the country and the availability of resources. The needs of Indonesia are clear; it needs an educated work-force in order to develop its natural resources and expand its economy in order to raise standards of welfare and improve the quality of life of all its citizens.

Furthermore, the quality of life of its citizens, irrespective of the economic benefit, will be improved directly by the opportunities for self-fulfilment offered by access to a good education.

How does university education help in these respects? Clearly by providing a higher level of education which by qualifying professionals such as engineers, teachers and doctors and civil servants has a trickle down effect in raising general standards of education.

The question that remains then in all the discussion about excellence in higher education is how to ensure appropriate standards in Indonesian universities, appropriate in terms of matching needs with resources. Part of the answer lies in a systematic audit of quality assurance, ensuring through regular inspections of institutions that teaching standards are high and in line with the dissemination of the latest specialist knowledge and the training of students in critical and creative skills.

The work of the National Accreditation Agency (BAN) is certainly moving in that direction but there is a long way to go. Above all, what needs to be done is a thorough overhaul of the teaching and learning systems in the country.

It is no secret that the present system with its reliance on an antiquated credit system, an overemphasis on lectures, and much flawed methods of examination is the major obstacle to raising standards of independent critical thinking among students.

It is to the whole scale reorganization of the system that the directorate general of higher education’s full attention should be directed, and it should not let itself be distracted through paying undue regard to irrelevant world-class ranking.

The writer, professor of the School of Business and Management at the Bandung Institute of Technology (ITB), is an emeritus professor of the School of Anthropology and Administration at the University of Kent, UK.


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