Tuesday, January 21, 2014

I would like to thank Indonesian students and alumni from US top schools such as Stanford, MIT, Harvard and UC Berkeley share their study-abroad tips and experience.

IOpening top tier American universities in Asia is a fascinating idea. Singapore has initiated a Yale-National University of Singapore (NUS) pact this year. A number of other ventures followed: John Hopkins-Nanjing, NYU-Abu Dhabi and Princeton in Beijing.

Harvard, MIT, Yale and UCLA are among the most popular names for many, just like Lamborghini for a car or Louis Vuitton for a purse. We love to shop for a brand and feel good wearing the brand name that makes everyone’s head turns.

We enjoy it because it works for attention. But, I do not know if we can get around this attention-grabber aspect of it and are willing to stick our heads out beyond this silhouette to see the bottom line for a better deal. That’s a million dollar question.

Opening a top-tier US university in Indonesia is purely a market-driven decision. It is nothing less than a typical business decision between the economic elite and the target university. Academically, there is no way that Harvard or MIT will be able to make Harvard-Jakarta or MIT-Jakarta even similar to Harvard of Cambridge or MIT of Cambridge, respectively, in that matter.

The academic platform that sits on the basic principles and values that drive these universities to excellence will not be the same. Academic freedom and core values underlining the principles of these universities will definitely differ from what will be in their replicas in different countries.

The freedom of expression and the liberty to think provide the US university system with unfettered freedom, the right to think the unthinkable, discuss the unmentionable and challenge the impossible. These values will be severely impeded due to local problems, such as a repressive government in Singapore in a Yale-NUS case or chronic corruption mentality in Indonesia.

Because of that, instead of getting Harvard University of Cambridge, what Indonesians will end up with is the Indonesian version of Harvard. We have seen these values tweaked for marketing purposes, although this action has created some concerns and generated fiery debates among the faculty members within the host universities.

Many American academics worry they will not be able to get the freedom of expression that is guaranteed in their original institution. To what extent the chronic corruption mentality will affect university management, faculty members, students and their interactions remain to be determined.

The superiority of US top universities is built on freedom of expression under competitive academic atmosphere. How will these core principles survive under the cloud of chronic corruption mentality?

It will require a plethora of change to nourish these necessary conditions. It is certainly a complicated process. If that is the case, why not concentrate on improving national universities, such as Bandung Institute of Technology (ITB), Bogor Institute of Agriculture (IPB), Gadjah Mada University (UGM) and others?

Higher education problems in Indonesia are due to inefficient bureaucracy and management, strong governmental control over staffs and faculty members, low teaching and research quality, poor competition rate, weak student selection system, inadequate funding, inefficiency in academic development for faculty members, low control in protecting academic transcripts over the counterfeits, low discipline and motivation, and lack of innovation.

The intertwining nature of these factors clouded with a systemic corrupt atmosphere leads to beliefs that small incremental changes may not yield any significant effects on overhauling the university system. Politicians who want to make a quick fix to these multiple decades-long problems are looking for a potentially easier way.

This is one of the reasons why the idea of opening a western university surfaced recently. If the deal can go through, it will be a high case attracting national attention, important for his/her political gain. But as of now, it lacks detailed preparations and studies.

In addition to the expectation of producing high quality graduates, the hope is that this model university will spur up the competitions among the top native Indonesian universities. If the top native universities are expected to respond to such stimuli, however, they have to be of the same nature, or at least in the same direction. That means certain basic elements on how these universities are operating will need to be changed.

Without major policy changes, such expectation is purely delusional. Without a clear framework on how this world class university will stimulate widespread changes, this idea will only be viewed as a tool to seek a short-term gain and class legitimacy.

The question becomes: Is this the only alternative to make a big change that could define a new Indonesian generation?

If policymakers are willing to go that far, i.e. bringing in and adopting the entire operating system of the top tier US universities home, then they need to re-program the way they think toward the Indonesian native university system.

There are fundamental differences between the US and Indonesian universities on how they operate. Let’s bring up one trivial aspect as a start. Most of us know that in the US, each faculty member or professor has the liberty to pursue his/her academic career virtually in any universities anywhere in the country as he feels fit based on his credential tracts in a competitive process. Regulations, such as “equal opportunity policy,” are put in place to guarantee that the process is fair and sound. Since only the most talented professor in the field will be selected in this process, the university will consequently be composed of combinations of highly skill professors. As a result, university competitiveness increases.

In the Indonesian state university system, only a few are capable of moving to other universities to pursue their academic dream if they can successfully attain the release letter from the university president or rector (known as “lolos butuh”). This letter is an effective tool to keep lecturers locked in place, but diminished the flow of change and opportunity and minimized potential contributions for the formation of highly competitive universities. This policy was an instrument adopted by the New Order regime to establish state universities across the nation and is practically unchanged for 40-50 years. In many cases, this letter has often been severely abused for various purposes by top university administrators.

If everything associated with Harvard (i.e. American system) will be fully adopted, why are small adjustments like the one we just discussed not possible? This is only an example that through small changes, Indonesian universities can be jump-started to become more competitive.

This is not to suggest that every principle of Western universities must be adopted unconditionally into the Indonesian system, but it is also unnecessary to re-invent the wheel. The authority should be open-minded to any possibility that can help the native universities, ready to strike a balance between the core principles introduced by developed countries and local values.

Opening a top-tier US university in Jakarta, therefore, should not be viewed as the only option available to create a significant change in the Indonesian education system. Whether or not the idea of opening Harvard or other top universities in Jakarta is a viable option, it is clear that now is the time for Indonesia to overhaul its current higher education system to meet the need for this generation for a newer and brighter Indonesia.

Native of Malang, East Java, Herry Utomo earned his PhD degree from Louisiana State University and currently is an associate Professor in LSU. His formal expertise is in Plant Biotechnology, Molecular Genetics, and Breeding. He has published more than 120 scientific publications in various journals.

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