Higher education bill: Too much on our plate

Setiono Sugiharto, Jakarta | Opinion | Sat, July 14 2012, 9:19 AM

Paper Edition | Page: 7

A recent brouhaha over the deliberation of the higher education bill in the House of Representatives adds a large burden to the country’s educational practices, which are already plagued with protracted, unresolved quagmires.

Deemed unfit and even counterproductive with the mission and vision of higher education, the proposed bill will soon face a lawsuit, as concerned parties, most notably educational practitioners and pundits, have pledged to bring the issue to the Constitutional Court for a review.

The objections to the bill spring essentially from at least two interlocking reasons. First, it is seen as the product of a state’s lackadaisical intervention in academia, with both government and minister regulations dominating the content of the bill.

Second, most of the articles in the bill have the potential to restrict the autonomy of the operating local higher educational institutions. One of the articles regarding the control of school curricula by the Education and Culture Ministry, for example, is susceptible to curtail the school’s authority to include and to exclude what school subjects are deemed necessary by the school in the curricula.

Also, it is feared that the regulation on research and society services (through either government or ministerial regulations) — parts of the university’s Tri Dharma (three basic acts a university’s employee must carry out) — will speak to the interests of the government, rather than to the interests of society at large.

Although the Education and Culture Minister Mohammad Nuh maintains that the bill has accommodated the interests of all related parties and provides “protection” to society, it remains unclear in which articles of the bill these have been translated and unambiguously delineated.

The bill currently under consideration therefore seems to augur ill with not only the Humboldian spirit of intellectual traditions long preserved in academia, but also with the standing of higher educational institutions as the manufacturer of knowledge.

One of the serious implications of the imminent endorsement of the bill into the higher education law will be that long-practiced intellectual activities such as free speech or talks on controversial issues commonly held on campus sites are subject to the government’s approval and monitoring.

As such, campuses and other higher educational institutions will lose their independence and credibility as centers of intellectual excellent, which are free from outside influence and pressure.

While any law regulating higher educational institutions is arguably important for creating the means through which a policy is made, the law should by no means take over the autonomy of the institutions, rendering higher educational institutions blithely subservient to the interests and agendas of the government.

Rather than functioning as a regulation that directly intervenes in common activities in academia such as research, curriculum designs and society services, the bill should regulate such systems as the management of finances from governmental educational aid, quality control of each institution, the policy on tuition fees for the disadvantaged, and, probably more opportune today, the policy on the operation of foreign universities in the countries.

All these systems have to be attended to if the bill that would amend the higher education law is enacted to overhaul and boost the total scheme of educational system in the country, and if the Education and Culture Ministry is to play its role constructively for the common good of society at large.

The squabbles between government (i.e., the Education and Culture Ministry) and those who express their concerns over and care for the enhancement of quality education should not have taken place, provided that the debated higher education bill addresses more pressing issues which not only increase the quality of national education, but more importantly, benefit societies from all walks of life.

We don’t wish to add more hurdles to our education system that has been riddled with myriad unsettled problems. We’ve already had too much on our plate in dealing with these problems.

Thus, ruminating over the costs and benefits of the bill by listening to the critical voices of education experts is a judicious decision we can make for the time being, before such a bill will be endorsed into a binding law.

The writer is an associate professor at Atma Jaya Catholic University and chief editor of Indonesian Journal of English Language Teaching.

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