New Challenges to the Social Mission of Indonesian Higher Education

New Challenges to the Social Mission of Indonesian Higher Education

This post is based on a recent article published in the Asian Studies Review. The article can be read here and is currently available open access to all readers.

Internationally standardized indicators of performance have put Indonesian Higher Education (IHE) in a crisis of mission. Focusing mainly on teaching, research, scholarly publication and international collaboration, the indicators have redefined the concept of social impact by which IHE institutions are to be evaluated. While IHE already developed a standard social mission through “community service”, today’s international indicators have asserted that the impact of a scholarly work should be assessed by its virtual visibility.

My recent article in the Asian Studies Review argued that the community service program served as an instrument of decolonisation in IHE between 1950 and 1969. In this post, I explore the challenges that arise from the current trend of internationalization to the community service mission of IHE. The aim is to invite a further discussion about whether community service should be made compatible with the current trend of internationalization and whether mission differentiation of IHE is a solution.

A neglected social mission

While inheriting teaching and research traditions from the colonial style of higher education, IHE developed during the tumultuous war years of the 1940s a social mission that aimed to make it “Indonesian” in character. This social mission is called pengabdian kepada masyarakat or community service. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s the government developed various programs of student mobilization under the umbrella of community service. My article in the Asian Studies Review explores the varieties and categories of the community service programs during the period. Students and lecturers were to work with members of a designated community in order to help community members solve their collective problems, for example illiteracy, malnutrition and poor infrastructure including destroyed roads and bridges. The programs were also aimed to respond to calamities and humanitarian crises caused by natural disasters, such as volcano eruption, flood, landslide and earthquake.

I argue that “community service” was enacted in IHE in order to decolonize it from any colonial vestige. Community service was meant for IHE to be aware of its “situatedness”, to get engaged with its social context and hence to prevent it from being liberalized in the global free market of education. Since the enactment of community service, the IHE mission has no longer been two-fold, but three-fold: teaching, research and community service. The three-fold mission has created a triple helix style in IHE strategic management, providing an alternative to the traditional relation of university, business enterprise and the government.

Today, there are about 4,593 HE institutions in Indonesia in different forms of university, institute, academic, and higher learning. The student body is 6,349,941, or 2.3 per cent of the total population of the country. The number of lecturers is 296,040, thus making a proportion of 16 students per lecturer. This is an ideal proportion for running a learning process effectively. In addition, although the total number of students and lecturers is very small compared to the total population of Indonesia, their role as the educated elite is crucial in promoting the social and economic development of the country. Community service is a programmatic opportunity that bridges academia and society. However, this social mission has been virtually neglected in today’s policy and practice of higher education. The ambition of the Indonesian government to meet the higher education criteria in the country members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has consumed much of the resources, financial and non-financial alike, that could otherwise have been used to bolster the social mission of IHE.

New challenges

Since at least a decade ago, the government has focused on achieving international standards of university performance. To do so, the government designed a set of performance indicators for higher education. Two of the indicators are to be at the top-500 position of a global university rank and to have more scholarly publications in internationally indexed journals. The umbrella for the regulations is “internationalization” for the making of “world class university”. To this end, the government allocated about USD $66.7 million in 2019 alone, to improve the number of scholarly publications and to invite international professors and students.

Two evaluating agencies has been used in particular by the government for ranking IHE: Times Higher Education and QS. These agencies develop globally standardized indicators to measure HE performance. The indicators include several variables such as student body per faculty, international exposure, teaching quality, peer citation of scholarly publications, and industry-driven research. These indicators supply data by which to generate an ordinal list of HE rank at the global level. The Indonesian government has been very keen in pushing IHE leaders to follow the standards set by these agencies, for example by inviting a representative of the agencies to give lectures to university presidents and deans.

In addition to inviting a representative of the evaluating agencies, the Indonesian government has pushed scholarly publication in internationally indexed journals. Two index agencies in particular are used to assess the international reputability of a scholarly publication: Scopus by Elsevier and the Web of Science by Clarivate. A good record of publications in the journals that are indexed by one of the two agencies is a prerequisite for an academic in Indonesia to be eligible for government’s grants and for tenured positions.

Existing literature show different opinions about the government’s internationalization policy of IHE. Some believe that HE ranking effectively improves the competitiveness of IHE at the international level. On the other hand, some argue that ranking agencies employ a measurement standard that is based solely on neo-liberal rationale, which demoralizes the nature of IHE. The government has taken the first path. However, grassroots academics have increasingly favoured the second path. There has been a question to which extent the performance indicators set by global evaluation systems can fit the higher education in developing countries, such as Indonesia.

An attempt to overcome the gap between decolonization and a neoliberal push has caused ambivalence in the social mission of IHE. While community engagement was central in the state’s project of decolonization, recent policies that favour digitally indexed performances set aside the IHE social mission. In the Indonesian case, “community service” has made HE unique in its mission. However, the social impact of a scholarly work prompted by the global ranking systems and used by the Indonesian government, hardly comes within the same definition as “community service” by which IHE has been characterized. Finally, “community service” has stimulated a new trajectory of knowledge production which is different from colonial HE. Regardless of all these favourable points, the process of its development represents a top-down modernity project of the state.

Photo by Galuh Hari Setiawan on Unsplash

Agus Suwignyo is an associate professor in Indonesian history at the History Department, Gadjah Mada University. His research interests include social and education history focusing on knowledge production, citizenship and state formation.

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