Indonesia has recently seen an influx of foreign universities establishing branch campuses locally. Monash University was the first to enter in 2021, prompting others like King’s College London and Curtin University to do the same across a number of cities like Bandung, Denpasar and the soon-to-be Indonesian capital city of Nusantara in the coming years.
While only offering only a few postgraduate degrees currently, these institutions aspire to tap into the country’s young population by eventually establishing undergraduate programs.
The trend of internationalizing higher education has gone for quite some time particularly with the red carpet that is provided by Indonesia’s Omnibus law. Previously, foreign universities were allowed to establish their branches in Indonesia under the condition that it works in cooperation with Indonesian universities and prioritizing Indonesian lecturer and manpower. With the existence of the Omnibus law, foreign universities are no longer limited by accreditation and geographical requirements.
In a more specific context, these types of education – which consists of courses/programs where the student is located in another country different from the awarding institution – is termed transnational education. The global demand for transnational education has not only been academically motivated, but also includes reasons such as migration, political and economic security, employment, and even tourism.
While modes of transnational education may vary – such as partnerships, distance or virtual education, student exchanges – a particular form of “establishing branch campus” becomes a unique challenge for Indonesia.
Despite the market driven spirit to promote multicultural, diverse and internationalized outlooks among students, the existence of foreign universities is still rife with challenges.
The most general concerns relate to the cultural and practical constraints.
The former is due to the lack of academic and intellectual cultures among the academics and students. The perspectives and theoretical approaches that are given by foreign academics undoubtedly brings novelty to the learning process of Indonesian students. However, these theories and experiences are often difficult to be translated into the context of Indonesia’s situation. There needs to be an effort to contextualize internationally-influenced study materials into the Indonesian context.
In terms of language, there is a risk of a paradoxical situation between English being used as the medium of instruction and it being a foreign language. This challenges students who do not use English as their first language but are being assessed by “native speaker” academics. This raises the question whether the use of English as a primary indicator is appropriate.
Additionally, the concern of the westernization of Indonesian culture, tradition and heritage is inseparable. This is due to the different academic and teaching norms that come from the instructor’s background. This concern correlates with the risk of the use of non-contextual curriculum, by which students are forced to learn from the lens of western-instructors.
Taking a broader view on the entire higher education landscape, there are also issues related to access and affordability which is an age-old problem not just in Indonesia but everywhere in the world. As seen in the case of the United Arab Emirates, which is the hub of foreign universities (especially American) today, a dual market may bring about problems related to the workforce. The mere existence of foreign universities – without added efforts to increase equality of access (in various forms) may – for one, result in a very divided job market and thus economic opportunities.
In order to overcome these concerns, there are a few things that could be done to optimize the benefit of transnational education for Indonesia.
The first key success component is a relevant curriculum. It has become a mainstream understanding that education needs to be contextualized in order to create a seamless transition from school to the real world. However, the question then is how should this “contextualization” take form.
Incorporating cultural values and national language into the learning process are options that comes naturally to mind. While this is a convenient answer and a good starting point, things should not stop there. The entire curriculum should be constructed in a way that benefits both the students and larger populace by bridging supply and demand, with the society’s overall condition in mind.
Being relevant in a developing country like Indonesia, for instance, means prioritizing practicality over diversity of courses. Degrees in Jewish civilization or theatrical arts may not attract many (if any) students as compared to engineering or medical sciences, especially given the high tuition cost. By extension, high-in-demand programs should also ascertain that the content delivered is not too much ahead of the nation’s capability such that the knowledge gained may not be utilized – a lesson the Indonesian government learned the hard way through its Endowment Fund (LPDP). A balance should be struck between promoting the advancement of theoretical science and ensuring that national economic and social interests are satisfied, at least in the short-term.
Second, the establishment of foreign universities in Indonesia should always support national public and economic interest. There is a need to enhance the integration of foreign universities in Indonesia with the educational policies and initiatives of local universities. This improvement should focus on increasing opportunities for both domestic students and lecturers to gain international exposure from foreign universities. This expansion should encompass not only student exchange programs and scholarships but also include lecturer exchanges, collaborative research initiatives, and fellowship programs for academics.
Finally, the entry of foreign institutions could and should be leveraged as a means of improving equity in educational accessibility. The first form of equity is that of geographical distribution. Despite having thousands of islands, Indonesia’s higher education suffers from the classical pitfall of Java-centrism, seen from the fact that all of the top 10 universities are located on the island. The government would play a crucial role in pushing new entrants to bring world-class education to more parts of the country by providing incentives and/or limiting campus establishment per city. Bearing in mind the relatively low number of tertiary education enrollment in the country, particularly in regional areas, further alignment of interest so as to balance the interests of these institutions with that of the country’s to make education accessible to as many people as possible instead of just those in the urban areas.
Inclusivity in terms of access across economic classes is also something that should be deeply considered and systematically addressed. Foreign universities are almost always associated with expensive fees. Tuition is largely unaffordable for most, even in opulent cities like Jakarta. That said, imposing set quotas for high-potential, underprivileged students would be instrumental in increasing intra-area inclusivity. With LPDP, the government could also engage in co-funding schemes with the universities directly. Doing so would also help ensure that bright, well-educated talents would tangibly contribute to the country.
Generally speaking, as a policy or its guiding principle, the government should be very cautious on where they should draw the lines between foreign and domestic universities. For example, differentiated treatments with regard to administration and financing should be formulated such that there is enough incentive for foreign institutions to support the aims of equitable opportunities for all Indonesian citizens, but not excessive that it becomes predatory to its own public and private institutions that have long contributed to the nation’s development.
Depending on the lens used, the existence of universities from abroad can be both a challenge and an opportunity. On the one hand, there are problems that our own institutions have not been able to address, but on the other, these institutions can help alleviate the burden by bringing best practices and facilities to more people nationwide. The government now stands amid the situation as the deciding factor and architect.