Incentivising Indonesia’s academics

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Author: Muhammad Beni Saputra, UIN Sulthan Thaha Saifuddin Jambi

In his visit to Australia early in 2020 to ratify the Indonesia–Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (IA-CEPA), Indonesian President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo announced that Australia’s Monash University will open a branch in Indonesia. The historic initiative is intended to improve Indonesia’s human capital — Jokowi’s top priority in his second term in office. But Indonesia’s university reform must centre around incentivising its own academics to publish better research.

Testing for bacteria believed to help reduce the chances of mosquitoes passing dengue and Zika to humans in a lab at Gadjah Mada University, Yogyakarta, Indonesia, 5 February 2016 (Photo: Reuters/Darren Whiteside).

Testing for bacteria believed to help reduce the chances of mosquitoes passing dengue and Zika to humans in a lab at Gadjah Mada University, Yogyakarta, Indonesia, 5 February 2016 (Photo: Reuters/Darren Whiteside).

Despite improvements in higher education in recent years, Indonesian universities still lag far behind their Southeast Asian counterparts — such as Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand — in university rankings. And while Indonesian academics are publishing a large number of papers, they are lower in quality.

In response to these issues, the Indonesian Ministry of Education and Culture introduced a policy that lecturers have to publish papers in internationally-indexed journals to be eligible for promotion. The Ministry provides large incentives for quality research, such as research grants and paid training. In 2017 it offered up to US$2400 to lecturers whose research papers were published by an internationally recognised journal.

The Ministry of Religious Affairs also offers research grants to researchers of state Islamic universities. The Jokowi administration provides Rp 1 trillion (US$68 million) of research endowment funds, to increase to Rp 250 trillion (US$17 billion) by 2024.

But these measures have not been effective, partly because of the multiple roles Indonesian lecturers have. As mandated by the Tri Dharma (three pillars) of higher education, Indonesian lecturers have three core jobs — teaching, conducting research and undertaking community service. Lecturers need to earn at least 12 ‘SKS credits’ a semester from some or all of these tasks but this threshold is not difficult to meet and research is the lowest option in the pecking order.

So the Tri Dharma does not push lecturers to do research. It is often wrongly interpreted and can lead lecturers to be more active outside of campuses. It is not uncommon in Indonesia to see lecturers busy with non-academic activities — being consultants, serving as members of a politician’s expert team, or even running businesses — during working hours because they fall under ‘community service’.

Most state university lecturers are hired with a civil servant ‘PNS’ status that is not only permanent but also offers almost absolute job security. Discharging a PNS lecturer is a long, complex process requiring the approval of different ministries. Dismissal cases have so far been related to professionalism, extraordinary crimes, or ethics — not academic-related matters. So it is not surprising that Indonesian academics are unproductive.

As of October 2019, there were 5389 active professors in Indonesia, yet only 5138 papers have been produced in the last 15 years. It means — on average — each university professor in Indonesia has only written one paper in the last 15 years. And of 306,795 lecturers in Indonesia, each lecturer has only produced two Scopus documents in that timeframe.

As PNS status promises income stability and a clear career path in academia, most academics aspire to reach it. But the recruitment system is often highly political. Prospective PNS lecturers are hired, as seen in the Ministries’ enrolment criteria, based on multiple choice questions and their ability to teach, rather than academic reputation and research records.

They must also succeed in tackling Kewarganegaraan (civics test questions) and in the interview stage state a commitment to Pancasila (the Indonesian state ideology), as well as reject ‘radical’ groups such as the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI) or Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI).

This testing mechanism is Suharto’s legacy intended to subjugate universities and suppress academic dissent. The legacy has been revived in recent years — a law on science and technology which justifies a jail term for academics who conduct ‘harmful’ research without government approval was passed in 2019.

Academics are also subject to repression and criminalisation, and some scholars even receive death threats. A State University of Jakarta lecturer, Robertus Robet, was arrested in March 2019 because a song he sang at a protest was deemed offensive by the Indonesian military. In May 2020, an Indonesian Islamic University professor, Ni’matul Huda, was terrorised for agreeing to speak in an online discussion on presidential impeachment. The intimidation stopped when the forum was cancelled.

President Jokowi is right — Indonesian universities need to adapt to a globalised world. But these changes require political will.

Urgent reforms are needed in the recruitment of lecturers to put more emphasis on academic records and potential. The lifetime-guaranteed PNS system must be switched to performance-based employment to improve outcomes and hold lecturers accountable.

Some campuses are moving towards non-PNS lecturers (DTNP) and contract lecturers. This will not only diminish state subjugation over lecturers — DTNP and contract lecturers are paid by universities — it will also erode the complacency that may arise from secure PNS jobs.

The Jokowi administration should guarantee academic freedom by amending regulations which aim to subjugate campuses and lecturers and ensuring professorship is determined by universities, not the state.

It should also enact the discipline measures in current regulations, such as the 2017 Ministry of Research and Technology Regulation, which stipulates incentive cuts for unproductive lecturers and professors. The implementation of such cuts have been significantly delayed.

The administration should also reform the Tri Dharma. Activities in ‘community service’ need to be strictly restricted and research must be a separate, obligatory component in the SKS credits. This will incentivise lecturers to spend more time on research and other academic matters which is likely to improve their publication outputs.

These changes could help universities return to their true function as academic powerhouses that produce highly competitive human capital.

Muhammad Beni Saputra is a lecturer at State Islamic University Sulthan Thaha Saifuddin Jambi.

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