New education bill: A blank check?

Bambang Soemarwoto ,  AMSTERDAM   |  Sat, 01/17/2009 5:25 PM  |  Opinion

Many suspect that to a large extent the students (parents) will have to share this burden through higher tuition fees. One of the significant debates surrounding the new bill relates to two opposite views toward this burden.

The government sees the one-third proportion as a limit that cannot be exceeded by the institution in charging fees, thus ensuring fraud will not occur. Along with the rule stating that at least 20 percent of an institution’s enrollment must be from the economically underprivileged, the government claims that justice is maintained.

On the other hand, critics say that these tuition fees will predetermine that a significant percentage of the country’s academically eligible candidates will unfairly be prevented from following a higher education. In turn, the nation will risk eliminating bright potential students who would otherwise be able to lead the nation toward a better future.

Let’s assume that being a country with an exceptionally low education budget is a given condition. The above arguments from both the government and the critics are relevant, as higher education will continue to exist. Sadly though, the country’s higher education institutions would then continue to operate as they have been operating throughout the past decades — inadequately. So what is missing in the debates?

The debates have failed to address a standard for a decent operational budget. Ask university academics about the electricity, water, floor space, internet bandwidth, computers, lab equipment and consumables, library collection or the campus infrastructure they need to adequately conduct their day-to-day academic and scientific tasks.

Ask them how many students they need to have in a specific field of study. Ask them how much, and in what way, they should earn a decent standard of living.

Ask the same questions to government officials at the Education Ministry. One should not be surprised with the large variety of answers from each individual, reflecting a situation with no consensus, no standard.

A decent budget should be the result of detailed calculations, in terms of infrastructure and resources, including academics as human resources, which constitute a decent higher education. It must be expressed in hard figures which reflect the challenges Indonesia faces. Of course, the figures will vary due to different local conditions in the different regions.

Let us forget jargons such as “World Class University”,University” and “Entrepreneur University”. Let’s also ignore the rankings of world universities by the Times, Webometrics and Shanghai Jiao Tong.

Indonesia’s higher education institutions should first focus on clearly defining a standard of a decent operational budget which will enable the academics to scientifically address various problems in Indonesia. In any field of study, there should be more than enough scientific challenges originating from Indonesian local conditions.

If these are dealt with following sound academic and scientific principles, these institutions will build a world reputation without having to look over their shoulders.

A decent operational budget, although appearing to be unrealistic now, will allow one to determine a budget deficit. One may then imagine various ways to cover the deficit.

For example, the population of about 80 state universities with about 60.000 teaching and 40.000 nonteaching staff members constitutes a large customer base for a commercial provider. Collective agreements can be signed with various providers to reduce the cost for a decent standard of living.

An adequate operational budget will also allow one to determine a reasonable institutional fee. The fee specification may range from man-hours to scientific use of the campus facility. As it has been rigorously determined by means of well-founded calculations, the institutional fee is easily defendable in any negotiation with foreign parties.

Because of its unique geographical characteristics, Indonesia will remain an attractive field of research by foreign institutions. Indonesian scientists would then be able to conduct research in collaboration with their foreign colleagues on equal terms, scientifically and financially.

As a business incubator for an innovative product and using a decent operational budget, the institution will also be able to provide an essential contribution to a sound business plan. The business plan will appear credible in front of potential venture investors.

Last but not least, the standard for a decent operational budget will serve as a reference, allowing one to measure the current status of higher education in Indonesia. Without it, the two-thirds/one-third distribution stated in the bill is meaningless, and endorsing the bill will be equivalent to signing a blank check.

The writer is a senior scientist at a national research institute in the Netherlands

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