Over the past 20 years the number of international branch campuses (IBCs) have grown like “mushrooms in the rain”. Will their entry be beneficial to Indonesians? Shutterstock

Welcoming foreign universities: is it a good deal for Indonesians?

Scholars say that establishing foreign universities in Indonesia can provide quality education at home while also opening more avenues for international research. However, initiatives must be put in place to make sure they are accessible to all Indonesians.

Talk of “globalising” Indonesia’s higher education has resurfaced this year, including the prospects of opening up international branch campuses.

To support the idea, the government passed a 2018 law allowing foreign entities to establish universities in Indonesia. Some universities have reportedly expressed interest, including the University of Queensland and the University of Melbourne.

Andrew MacIntyre, senior pro vice-chancellor of Monash University, says that although branch campuses are risky endeavours, if managed successfully they can bring innovative technologies, education and pedagogies that are not provided by Indonesian universities.

“I think the first benefit is for the local population who have access to a wider range of choices for education. It expands the education capacity that’s available in the country,” he said.

Inaya Rakhmani, assistant professor in the Department of Communication at Universitas Indonesia, remains sceptical. She warns that those institutions will be accessible to only the wealthy few.

“They [international branch campuses] will not reduce the inequality of access to education, because the main motivation of opening up campuses here is to tap into the student market,” she said.

The flight of quality students

One of the strongest drivers for opening foreign universities in Indonesia is the lack of quality education accessible to Indonesians.

The main indicator, according to scholars, is the high number of students who choose to study abroad instead of at home.

UNESCO recorded that more than 47,000 Indonesians studied abroad in 2017. The number is projected to increase as scholarship funds from Indonesia’s Endowment Fund for Education (LPDP) skyrocketed to US$3.2 billion in 2019. The fund more than doubled in the last three years.

The unmet needs for world-quality education are reflected by the latest QS World University Rankings by rating agency Quacquarelli Symonds. None of Indonesia’s universities crack the top 200. Universitas Indonesia ranks only 296th.

Chairil Abdini, a lecturer in public policy at Universitas Indonesia, is among those concerned by the flight of quality students abroad.

“Higher education is a service. Sending our students abroad means that we are importing the service of education. To the US, for example, we partially contribute to the US$42 billion and 450,000 jobs that they create from foreign students,” he said.

An example closer to home can be seen in Malaysia. An American study highlighted how, in 1995, around 20% of Malaysia’s outbound students resulted in an estimated monetary outflow of US$800 million and “an untold loss” of talent as many students did not return.

In the same year, Malaysia enacted the Private Higher Education Institution Act allowing foreign universities to establish branches there. Within six years, Monash, Swinburne and Nottingham universities were operational in Malaysia.

Providing ‘international’ education at home

MacIntyre argues that branch campuses can reduce the flight of quality students abroad as they provide the prestigious brand and quality assets of their home campuses while being able to adapt to local conditions.

“If we look in this region, Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, China, all of these countries in different ways have invited foreign institutions to come in. These countries do it in a way that fits with their needs and priorities. I think it’s a smart move,” he said.

A study from Abu Dhabi University seems to support this notion. It highlights specific reasons given by Asian students for studying in branch campuses in their home countries. Their reasons include closeness to their culture and religion, and even freedom from discrimination.

However, the most important reasons for students are perhaps related to cost and convenience, as highlighted in a meta-study by Spanish researchers.

Aside from being able to keep their current job and live with their family, students could also enjoy the prestige of a high-ranking university at a fraction of the cost.

A stimulus for scientific expansion

MacIntyre argues that branch campuses can bring their network and funding opportunities to support research in host countries.

“They [branch campuses] can easily collaborate with their colleagues in Monash Australia, and pursue funding or projects somewhere else. It really helps with internationalisation, and that is important in several ways.”

A recent study from Sweden suggests that branch campuses can act as bridges between the network of partners possessed by its home institution and local universities where the branch campus resides.

The research found that consistently across Qatar, China, Malaysia and the UAE branch campuses increased global collaboration, which contributed significantly to the overall citation impact of research produced by a country.

Ensuring access not only to the elite

Contrasting with MacIntyre‘s optimism, Inaya warns that branch campuses may do little to improve access to education for most Indonesians. She took the example of Malaysian branch campuses.

“Institutions like Nottingham University or Monash University only absorb cosmopolitan upper-middle-class Malaysians to their franchise universities,” she said.

Although branch campuses in Malaysia charge lower tuition fees than their parent institutions – around half, research suggests – they are still more expensive than fees in local universities.

To get an engineering degree, for example, Monash Malaysia charges an annual tuition fee of US$11,000, while renowned Malaysian universities such as Universiti Malaya charge around US$5000.

Responding to Inaya’s concerns, MacIntyre reiterated his optimism that branch campuses can provide options for students. He said scholarships could help students who need financial support.

“Currently only the very wealthy can afford to study overseas, but studying with a foreign university inside Indonesia would be much more economical,” he said.

“It is likely that a foreign branch campus operating in Indonesia would want to offer scholarships. This would make an international degree accessible to an even wider range of Indonesian students.”

Chairil agrees with MacIntyre‘s proposal, but remains cautious about which institutions can fulfil the needs of Indonesians.

“We can leverage the Endowment Fund for Education (LPDP) for scholarships to branch campuses in Indonesia. But the question remains whether they would be a better prospect than local institutions such as Universitas Indonesia and Universitas Gadjah Mada,” he said.


The Indonesian Academy of Sciences supports The Conversation Indonesia as host partner.