Lost in translation: Imported rectors

The administration’s recent initiative to recruit foreigners as heads of universities unrealistically places too large a burden on the shoulders of one man while neglecting pervasive and persistent institutional cracks.

Lost in translation: Imported rectors AFP Photo/STOCK4B GMBH / Image Source

There has been much discussion of the government’s plan to recruit foreign academics as presidents, or rectors, of Indonesian universities. While the intention is worthwhile, to improve the international standing of local universities, the policy is only one of many actions that can be taken. Universities’ pursuit of improved rankings will necessitate a major revamp and a multipronged approach to addressing issues that have long lingered in Indonesian universities.

Silver bullet?

The administration of President Joko Widodo has carried out a trial run of the policy by placing a foreign rector at Universitas Siber Asia. From the outset, the efficacy of the policy has been questioned. Having a foreign rector can certainly be worthwhile, but only if they are given adequate resources and funding. Otherwise, internal reforms should supersede foreign appointments.

Underpinning the supposed inefficacy is the very nature of the rector position. The administration’s underlying belief is that appointing foreigners as rectors will be akin to installing new heads of companies. Despite the same underlying task of performing a turnaround of their respective institutions, it must be noted that the authority of a university rector is significantly less than that of a corporate executive. Rectors are appointed by university boards that receive their mandates from other relevant stakeholders – primarily the government. The positions they are conferred do not have tenure, a category of ad infinitum appointments, and yet many of the faculty members whom they direct and heavily depend on for strategic execution do. As such, rectors, and especially foreign ones, given their lack of political capital and cultural cohesion, must be able build coalitions and persuade faculty to buy in to a proposed common vision.

The supposed benefits of recruiting a foreign rector, such as the possibility of collaboration with foreign institutions, are only feasible if institutions can properly sort their houses. Because for as much as foreign rectors are able to open doors to academic collaboration with foreign institutions, these foreign institutions will remain reticent to engage in such partnership if they see no benefit. This is especially true when two differently abled institutions have diverging views on knowledge as a resource. Established foreign universities view knowledge as something that must be protected as a source of competitive advantage, whereas emerging universities are of the view that knowledge from any partnership with a foreign university must be first assessed and then replicated, if applicable – differing views that are sure to drive a wedge between further collaboration.

At the heart of it, the intention of the administration’s policy is to make the Indonesian labor force competitive. Labor market outcomes from the Indonesian higher education system are dismal when compared to developed countries. According to the Survey of Adult Skills by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a group of mostly rich countries, the average university graduate residing in Jakarta is almost as capable as a seventh grade or eighth grade student in the developed world. One of the vectors to achieve better labor market outcomes is to push Indonesian universities to become more internationally competitive.

However, what does it truly mean for an educational institution to be international? Any university’s ranking turnaround strategy must have the term “international” redefined and its current situation recontextualized to said redefinition.

It would be best to explore further what criteria are used to assess a university’s global ranking. Top ranking resources, such as the Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings and the QS World University Rankings, place a heavy emphasis, approximately 60 percent of the weighting, on academic reputation and the number of international-standard publications a university publishes. The rest is comprised of measures of the learning environment, labor market outcomes and international exposure. Research and teaching are key themes.

According to QS, usual suspects the University of Indonesia, the Bandung Institute of Technology and Gadjah Mada University were the only three universities in Indonesia that ranked in the global top 450. In the THE rankings, the University of Indonesia was the sole higher education institution in the country to crack the global top 1,000.

University institutional reforms

Having defined the themes of the criteria as laid out by ranking resources, universities must implement the first step of improving their international rankings by bridging the gap between Indonesian and international institutions. This would crucially depend on overhauling the existing talent pool and processes related to it, via internal and external methods. The latter could take the form of universities spending to matriculate young professors to top international institutions on condition that they return, and possibly tapping into the Indonesian diaspora to repatriate and build centers of excellence here, provided they are given adequate funding and support.

Internal methods of overhauling the talent pool require universities to create and foster a meritocratic system: a system of “publish or perish” will increase the quantity of research, promote a healthy sense of competition and foster faculty entrepreneurialism within institutions. Additionally, reducing some benefits conferred upon those with tenure and opting to instead financially reward via incentive schemes will be a step toward a meritocracy. The value of tenure, as University of Chicago economics professor Steven Levitt, of “Freakonomics” fame, claims, is inversely related to the capability of the professor. If a person is exceptional at their job and research, then they face almost no risk if the tenure system is abolished. Doing so could help better allocate resources from the high wages of incompetent tenure holders to productive junior faculty members. Another, and much less discussed, benefit of abolishing tenure is that it further reduces the chance of groupthink, which tarnishes the recruitment to senior positions and leads to academic inbreeding.

The underlying motive for removing some of the benefits of a hierarchy is not so much to increase the quantity of research, but to unleash the quasi-entrepreneurial inclinations of motivated faculty members to take on innovative initiatives. This will aid the university in maintaining its decentralized nature while being able to capitalize on the creativity of the faculty. “Publish or perish,” as a strategy, is of course not free of issues. An uptick of research does not necessarily improve its quality or the overall quality of an institution. A strict adherence to this mentality may lead to a decline in the quality of teaching as professors and lecturers face a tradeoff between publishing research and instructing students, thereby adversely impacting the learning environment scores as set out by the international ranking criteria. Altering the pedagogical approach of instruction in institutions can mitigate this; achieving such would entail enhancing the links between researching and teaching as per the recommendations of Richard Reis, former associate dean at Stanford University’s School of Engineering.

A benefit of a pedagogical approach with research-teaching integration that introduces students to research outputs by the department is that it can lead to an increase in their understanding of the subject. However, according to a 2012 paper by British researchers Philippa Levy and Robert Petrulis, despite possible increases in interest, students are prone to learning via memorization when they are exposed to research as passive observers. Therefore, for students to fully develop their ability to undertake independent enquiry, and thereby improve not only the quality of research but student outcomes, curricula must utilize more assignment formats that elevate the role of students in research beyond that of mere passive observer. An integrated curriculum is needed with learning activities such as small-scale independent research assignments, participating in research placements and performing peer review on the research topics and processes of published papers. Researchers, additionally, would have to be protean as qualified teachers, and would need to act as mentors and partners to their students in this endeavor.

Institutional quality assurance

At a national level, responsible ministries and stakeholders must recognize the importance and need
for Indonesian universities to attain international accreditation. As things stand, the current quality assurance mechanism employed by the Indonesian central government via the National Accreditation Board for Higher Education (BAN-PT) is suboptimal. This is partially because the accreditation process and the institutional quasi-mentoring are subject to the ethics and quality of individual assessors. The quality assurance mechanism within BANPT aims to mitigate the disparate levels of quality is a system of quasi-institution-toinstitution mentoring in which A-ranked institutions nurture C-ranked institutions. However, such a system does not seem to lend itself to sustainable increases in quality. Under the current system, accreditation reviews only take two days, have little follow-up and lack fresh perspectives from those that operate in an internationally accredited institution.

A possible solution to this is a mixed method of accreditation such as Indonesia’s newly formed independent accreditation agencies, also known as Lembaga Akreditasi Mandiri, which are noteworthy in that they aim to integrate international standards and seek international recognition for their
processes. However, that is not to say the system is free from the possibility of errors. These agencies can very much suffer from the same issues as the existing apparatus of BAN-PT: a lack of proper and fair execution undertaken by those who are not fully aware of international standards.

International accreditation bodies, such as the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, present a framework for universities to implement continuous improvement. The growth trajectory for universities under accreditation regimes such as that of the AACSB makes for more organic and sustainable improvement, simply by the rigorous nature of the process: Gadjah Mada University’s Faculty of Economy and Business took a little more than eight years.

To simply begin the application process, each university must not only demonstrate how it aligns with AACSB standards, but it must also understand its deficiencies and describe plans to address those gaps. It does so through an organic process via curriculum development or structural reforms. This internal assessment is then validated by a committee of international accreditation assessors who hold the university responsible for annual progress updates for three years. Until the accreditation visit, mentors from the accrediting agency will provide strategic and executional guidance. The whole process is quite systematic and aligns development with a clear goal that is monitored by independent international assessors who are of a collaborative spirit.

This is especially true as those seeking AACSB accreditation must define comparison groups of universities oriented around several key questions that universities should ask: in order to have a yardstick upon which we, the requesting institution, will be judged, who are our most similar international peers? And which institution do we want to emulate? In the AACSB, assessors will come from these two groups to better provide universities a clearer picture of where they are now and how much further they have left in the quest to be on par with their aspirational peers.

While the AACSB may be pertinent to schools and faculties of business administration, finance and management, which are just some of the many fields of study that an institution has to offer, there are key takeaways regarding the quality assurance model implemented internationally for the Indonesian context. National pride disguised as institutional pride must be put aside for tangible and sustainable institutional growth and development.

Achieving international accreditation in tandem with performing internal structural reforms and inbound international recruitment tactics will further open up the possibility for universities to pursue an equally outbound, outwardlooking international mind-set – although this comes much later on the strategic horizon of any Indonesian university. Indonesian universities must seek to establish beachheads in countries abroad.

This is predicated on the universities having their respective houses in order and a stellar reputation based on their research portfolios and the quality of their professors.

The implications of outbound internationalization, while coming at a later stage, are plentiful. One distinct benefit of establishing beachheads abroad, which could take the shape of an educational, research or joint venture institutional model, is that Indonesian universities will be able to add foreign students to their student bodies via enrollment and/or research projects. Such additions would be
welcome, especially as Mohamad Nasir, the former minister of research, technology and higher education, explicitly said this was a key performance indicator, as foreign students increase diversity, which if supported by a conducive environment, fosters healthy debate and provides novel
ways of thinking about problems. Think Hegelian dialectic: the tension between thesis and antithesis from a diverse range of opinions and understandings to form a stronger synthesis.

Looking forward

Indonesia is at a fork in the road. Education and skills development have found their way into the national zeitgeist via national debates and the 74th Independence Day slogan. The policy of recruiting foreign rectors smacks as a bit too reactive – it is not clear what the expected outcomes are from this policy. The government must adopt a mind-set that institutional reforms at both the university and national levels are of the utmost priority. It would be extremely unrealistic and unfair to pin the hopes of institutional turnaround on one person. However, with future paths remaining unclear regarding the next stage of the policy, one can only give the Joko administration the benefit of the doubt and hope the policy is implemented to its fullest and foreign rectors are given carte blanche to achieve
the goal of not only constructing and executing a growth narrative for Indonesia’s educational institutions, but building the capabilities of local talent and ensuring their sustainability.



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Giovanni Ugut is a senior associate at the Jakarta offices of a prominent global financial advisory firm. He completed a double degree in mathematics and economics at the University of California, San Diego.

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