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Insularity leaves Indonesia trailing behind in the world of social research

Indonesian academic institutions produce few evidence-based analyses on social issues. www.shutterstock.com

Insularity leaves Indonesia trailing behind in the world of social research

Indonesia is the world’s fourth most populous country and southeast Asia’s biggest economy – yet when it comes to research and peer-reviewed publications on pressing topics such as finding innovative ways to empower impoverished communities, we trail behind countries with lower GDP including Bangladesh, Kenya and Nigeria.

Having evidence-based analyses of history, politics, social systems, and human behaviour is essential to prevent bad policy-making. It’s also important for informing ourselves and the world about Indonesia. Currently, articles about Indonesia in international journals are mostly written by scholars from outside Indonesia, suggesting local institutions are not effective in producing social scholarship.

Meanwhile, nearly 80% of social research by Indonesian state universities is commissioned applied research that does not focus on fundamental understanding of social changes.

What caused this and what should be done to address the problem?

I led a joint research project by University of Indonesia’s Communication Research Centre, the Centre for Innovation Policy and Governance and Murdoch University’s Asia Research Centre to answer these questions.

Our findings show that in the field of social studies, marketisation of state universities, aimed to give them freedom to seek and manage funds, has failed to increase research activities.

Additionally, state universities’ bureaucracy does not support research excellence. Their closed recruitment system has caused insularity which has stymied efforts to push for more collaborative research in Indonesia.

Marketisation of state universities

Since 2000, the Indonesian government has allowed state universities to seek and manage external funding to support academic activities, including research.

This, as well as providing scholarships and increasing research budgets for higher education institutions, are part of an attempt to encourage scientific research and publication, neglected during the authoritarian Suharto regime.

Under Suharto, universities’ role were limited to serve the government. Researchers between 1970s and 1990s acted more as technocrats than scientists, producing government commissioned studies for policy recommendations. Basic research and publication in scientific journals were not prioritised.

The new policies, however, have failed to bring about cross-pollination in sciences and research. Instead, universities use their autonomy to increase tuition fees and student intake, as well as engaging in business research and training.

Indonesian academics from state universities have been reduced to service workers under an increasingly liberal system. They are forced to take on many teaching hours due to the large number of students. State universities comprise only 74 of the 539 higher education institutions registered with the state (14%), yet they account for 40% of the total university students enrolled.

Academics are also encouraged to carry out research projects to generate income for the institutions they work for. Universities, however, are not required to publicly disclose how they manage the funds from these commercial projects.

Bureaucracy and insularity

While state universities are now open to seek external funding, their recruitment and administrative system are still part of the government bureaucracy. This system gives little incentive for scientific achievements.

Most Indonesian academics are civil servants. Their promotion depends on performance appraisals, subjected to all government employees, that do not co-relate with research productivity. They are also subjected to a complex academic credit system that measures promotion based on administrative requirements, not academic merit.

Most active Indonesian researchers in state universities are over 50 years old, who were recruited through a closed system. State universities mostly hire their own graduates. Those graduates usually continue their higher education within the same university.

Hence, faculty members are often more concerned in pursuing their institution’s research interests, which are more income-generating applied research, rather than engaging with international peers for academic excellence.

As a result, out of 354 of lecturers surveyed in our research, only 28 are published in peer-reviewed journals indexed by the bibliometric database Scopus.

Out of the 28, 90% are based in the more developed island of Java. Only 8% have taken sabbatical leave, and 55% do not know how their findings have been quoted by other scholars.

Most hold multiple structural managerial positions on campus, which they perceive as helping to expand their research network.

Our findings show that Indonesian scholars lack academic mobility between institutions and countries. This shapes a culture of insularity that worsens the already low presence of Indonesians in the global academia.

Building alliances and peer culture

Indonesia needs a network of scholars, in different stages of their careers, from various universities and research organisations in Indonesia and beyond, to deepen intellectual engagement among academics.

Alliances must be built in order to reform the poor social research culture in Indonesia. The Indonesian Academy of Sciences (AIPI) and the Indonesian Young Academy of Sciences (ALMI), have initiated this.

These organisations aim to equip Indonesian social scholars with the necessary skills and networks to gain academic mobility required to support institutional research development.

However, for real change to happen, policies and the disbursement of funding must support universities in cultivating a culture of peer-review in order to reform basic social research in Indonesia.