Education | Southeast Asia

9 November 2022

If Indonesia hopes to have a world-class university sector, it must provide a supportive environment for the next generation of scholars to develop their research skills, Aristyo Rizka Darmawan writes.

In June this year, the QS World University Rankings released its annual list of the world’s best universities. As usual, no Indonesian institutions were in the top 100, nor were there any among the top 50 in Asia.

The low quality of Indonesian higher education institutions, especially in regards to research, has long been a concern for policymakers and those working in the sector. However, positive change in the university sector has been difficult to achieve so far.

To create world-class research universities, Indonesia should focus on developing world-class scholars. There is no instant recipe for this, but policymakers can draw lessons from examples elsewhere in Asia.

Professor Wang Gang Wu, a renowned sinologist and former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Hong Kong (HKU), once shared his experience of helping to turn the university into one of the world’s best.

When Professor Wang was elected as Vice-Chancellor in the mid-1980s, he realised that to create a world-class research university, there should be a focus on world-class scholarship and publishing in international journals, which are important for global rankings. However, this was easier said than done.

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He found that the older generations of academics at HKU were not familiar with writing for international publications, even though many were great teachers.

As many who’ve worked in universities know, rapid institutional and cultural change can be extremely difficult to achieve, so he made a long-term investment in a new generation of scholars, most of whom were educated abroad.

As a result of his efforts and those of many others, HKU made major strides, and in 2022 the university ranked number 21 in the world and third in Asia by QS.

Indonesia can learn from this story.

Indeed, in the last several years, Indonesian policymakers have started to recognise the importance of high quality research and publishing in international journals to their universities’ global rankings. In an attempt to promote behavioural change, the government decided to require lecturers to publish in reputable international journals that are indexed in Scopus – a major academic abstract and citation database – in order to become a full professor.

However, unlike in the HKU example, the government failed to grasp that these changes cannot happen overnight. Indonesian scholars face a number of barriers to publishing in international journals, including limited English-language skills, poor institutional knowledge of funding and other processes, and, perhaps more importantly, an academic culture that takes time to change.

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As a result of the government’s failure to account for these challenges, the policy has become a major burden for Indonesian scholars and unintentionally created a number of academic integrity issues. In order to publish in international journals, some scholars have allegedly turned to plagiarism or enlisted ‘ghost writers’.

But there is a better way to change things.

Learning from what has been done by Professor Wang and others at HKU, Indonesian policymakers and university leaders should focus on nurturing a new generation of scholars whose research skills can be developed over time.

Currently, however, most Indonesian universities do not provide a good environment for scholars to develop. In order to facilitate this, the culture of Indonesian universities needs to change.

Excessive teaching requirements is one issue that needs attention. Teaching requirements in Indonesian universities often exceed those abroad, particularly in developed countries. For example, many faculty in the United States only teach one or two courses semester, while Indonesia academics often co-teach more than five courses.

In some universities with a limited number of academic staff, scholars are forced to teach subjects that are outside of their area of expertise. This does no favours to students, who deserve a quality education delivered by experts in their field, and robs scholars the opportunity to really think, research, and produce high-quality work.

In many universities in developed countries, selected staff are even able to take a paid ‘research sabbatical’ from teaching for six months to a year in order to produce a major publication. This sort of opportunity is rarely afforded to Indonesian scholars.

In addition to a large amount of teaching, Indonesian academics are also expected to undertake a significant amount of administrative work for their university. This can include sourcing grant money, accreditation administration, and other administrative tasks. These are jobs that would be undertaken – or at least supported – by skilled non-academic staff in many universities in developed countries.

Given the huge amount of non-research work Indonesian scholars are saddled with, it is little wonder that progress on improving the country’s research output has been extremely slow.

What’s clear is that the current system isn’t working. Indonesian scholars often aren’t able to devote the time that’s necessary to produce world-class research and attempts to change this through policy have fallen flat. Change in the sector can be hard, but without it, Indonesia’s dream of having world-class universities will remain an illusion.

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