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Private Universities

A private view from Minta Ampun.

When I was first offered a lecturing post at a university here in Jakarta, I was excited. I remembered my own university experiences as an undergraduate and later as a grad student, and eventually as a teacher. I remembered those times because, while they were tough and I'm not sure I'd want to go through them again, they were times that I wouldn't trade for anything. I also remembered the deep satisfaction I got as a teacher from passing on the torch to another generation.

As undergraduates, we were sometimes overwhelmed with work; we were given reading lists at the beginning of the semester that included some of the greatest works ever written and we were expected to be familiar with them before classes started. Lectures were given with the presupposition that we had read the material and were in a position to incorporate that knowledge into the additional information and new perspectives offered in class. Sometimes the reading material for a given course comprised more than we had read the entire time we were in high school.

We attended lectures knowing that what was ahead of us would be challenging, would require attention, focus, and hard work if it was to have any value. While there was always a minority of slackers who attended just to kill time and avoid the real world, they were soon eliminated by attrition or by flunking or dropping out. Most of us screwed up from time to time, stumbled occasionally, but continued to work away and do what was necessary to succeed. We were, for the first time in our lives, responsible for our own education.

Our lecturers were not there to nag us about attendance, arriving on time, turning in assignments or to remind us daily that intellectual integrity was a non-negotiable requirement. They were there to facilitate our learning. They were an available resource to enhance our understanding of the readings and to guide us in our studies. If we didn't want to work, it was assumed that we'd just leave and not interfere with those who intended to get something out of their university experience. While we all wanted that degree, we also wanted to learn.

In universities I have attended both as a student and as a teacher, the atmosphere was a rich blend of boisterousness, passion and intellectual fascination.

Intellectual muscle

Students, being in their immediate post-adolescent years, are expected to be impetuous, enthusiastic, occasionally over-the-top; university is a great forum for learning to channel that energy into acceptable behavior. In fact, university is a forum for the development and expression of passion. When I was a student we were passionate about concepts like human rights, politics, justice, law and freedom. Later on, my own students were passionate about the same or similar concepts, but with several additional years of history to bring to the discussions.

Students spend hours in deep discussions of those concepts, exploring them with their developing intellectual muscles, testing their newly acquired skills at thinking, reasoning, advocating and arguing. Entire nights were and continue to be spent in residence rooms, teachers' homes, and campus pubs all over the world, arguing over abstractions and real-life issues with sincerity and increasing intellectual rigor. The university years are when students challenge their own presuppositions and test the precepts by which they have always lived.

Undergraduates are physically adults when they enroll; they become emotional adults through their fledgling attempts at intellectual discourse and independent thought. The all-night discussions of newly discovered knowledge, the passionate devotion to a cause, the fervent examination of principles... all are exhilarating parts of the process of maturation. These undergraduate traditions may seem a little precious in their earnest naiveté, but they are rites of passage and they are supported and encouraged by all enlightened faculty.

Ludicrously minimal

Unfortunately, higher education here in Indonesia is not held in the same regard as it is elsewhere. In the years I have been on the faculties of a number of private Indonesian tertiary educational institutions and of the hundreds of students I have taught, I can count on the fingers of one hand the students who demonstrated any inclination to go beyond the basic requirements; I can't think of any who pursued any genuine intellectual inquiry into their own preconceptions.

Because the effort bar is so low, even the basic requirements are ludicrously minimal. A typical course in an Indonesian syllabus, even in the most respected private university, has a single textbook, with recommended outside reading. I have checked with the school libraries many times, and never, not once, has one of the recommended texts been taken out by a student. Even the required texts seem to be an onerous burden for the students. When we discuss our understanding of the material, "Which chapters do we have to read?" and "Will it be on the exam?" are the usual questions.

Here, a private-sector university teacher spends far too much time taking attendance, asking students to refrain from playing with their mobile phones and video games during lectures, and pleading with them to keep the noise level down during the time they are supposed to be working on assignments. The bright side to the callous disregard most students have for disturbing other students is that none of the other students are actually trying to learn anyway.

Online gaming majors

In no university anywhere else the world have I routinely had to pause and step outside the classroom to request that the students outside the door refrain from screaming so loudly that my lecture can't be heard. The screaming, of course, is not indicative of intellectual dispute; it emanates from students who spend their time at school playing computer games. Faculty members constantly complain of slow Internet access for their intellectual pursuits; the response is that the students use up the available bandwidth for online gaming. These same students cannot find the time to research a simple essay beyond the occasional glance at and quote from Wikipedia. The administrations feel that ensuring students' entertainment is a higher priority than teaching them; students pay fees and those fees are the Holy Grail. Learning, if it occurs, is a by-product.

The tradition of intellectual integrity has yet to make any apparent inroads in the business of Indonesian higher education. I have recently graded essays, of which 25 percent - one in four - were cut-and-paste exercises in stealing from Internet sites. These cases of academic dishonesty were submitted for a class focusing on academic integrity; one of the essays was a plagiarized paper on the reasons plagiarism is unacceptable. This is far from exceptional; every other lecturer I know has had similar experiences, and most have given up worrying about it or even bothering to do anything other than mark the student down. When confronted, the student's reaction is usually a smirk, a shrug and a laugh.

In my undergraduate years, I remember one student having been caught plagiarizing; it was a campus-wide scandal, and the student was suspended in disgrace for the year. A second offense would have seen her expelled.

The students here, of course, come from wealthy families. There simply are no poor students in private universities. As a result, the students are completely convinced that there is nothing they can't have by having their parents pay for it. Unfortunately, that belief extends to dispensations for cheating. Even more unfortunately, they are all too often right.

Encouraging venality

When university students are asked for feedback on the teaching they encounter in their institutions, the most common response is some variation on 'more games in the classroom, less lecturing; they expect to be entertained.' Nevertheless, they expect to graduate and have a degree conferred upon them exactly as though they had acquired an education.

All the students want to have a degree. Few actually want to learn. In Indonesia, it seems, being able to say you have a university degree is far more desirable than knowing anything - even how to think. Private-sector higher education here is little more than the business of selling yet another status symbol to overindulged, spoiled children.

Much of the blame can be laid at the door of the corporate nature of advanced education in Indonesia. The private universities themselves are so focused on short-term profit that they are loath to expel or even sanction students who are caught cheating. Rather than demanding intellectual integrity and high standards of the students, an approach that would cost them enrollment at first, the universities encourage venality and laziness in their students. To grab and keep this semester's tuition fees, the administrations are happy to ignore low entrance grades and forgive cheating; that this lowers the value of their own institution's degrees and devalues the currency of all Indonesian education is not even considered.

Students here come to universities under the impression that their wealth and privilege eliminates the need for personal accountability and entitles them to benefits they haven't earned. The universities confirm that impression by giving them exactly what their parents are willing to pay for: a degree. What they don't get, but they don't really want anyway, is an education.

Betrayed by the system

It is with wistful sadness that I have to confess that I see no likelihood of substantive change. I and a number of other once-enthusiastic educators look at the students with pity, knowing that they have been betrayed by a system that demands nothing of them but their parents' money. But we look at the society that these spoiled and unprepared, overgrown children will one day lead and we despair. Our experience, our skills and our passion for learning are wasted in the educational field here. We have wearied of our efforts to assault the citadel. Until a paradigm shift occurs, this veteran university educator, for one, will abandon any idealistic thought of contributing to the enhancement of the intellectual climate, and accept work that provides some degree of satisfaction and has some hope of making a real difference in the world.


"Minta Ampun" is the pseudonym of an expatriate long-time university lecturer, who wishes to remain anonymous because he chooses to live and probably retire in this region. Before teaching at several well-known and respected institutions of "higher learning" here in Jakarta, he taught at colleges and universities in North and South America, Europe and elsewhere in Asia.

Contributor: Minta Ampun


  RobertGottlieb   10 Oct 08 10:37

This had me thinking: Is this just an Indonesia problem? OR does it occur elsewhere, like, in other Asian or Western countries. I've been around a bit, not necessarily inside the uni milieu in other places, except my home country, and from my limited observation, it doesn't seem to be a problem anywhere else. So The question is, what cultural or other issue is at its heart? Why is this going on in Indonesia? Are there any measures afoot to fix the problem?

  patrick   05 Nov 08 06:41

My experience would suggest that the plans afoot are not to fix the problem but rather to disguise it. The universities all want international accreditation, but they expect to get it because they would be affronted if it were refused. They would expect accreditation simply as a courtesy; certainly the idea of actually imposing higher standards, requiring the students and local faculty to perform at world-class academic levels, and striving for exellence would never occur to them. That's far too much expenditure of effort and would be a short-term cost. Why go through all that trouble of actually becoming a world class institution, when there is undoubtedly a quicker way to whine, bribe, or demand recognition as a world class institution?

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