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No country develops without higher education. Universities are like a lantern in darkness — they shed light on people to traverse the otherwise dark jungle.
The technology we use and modern life we live are accomplishments of great people trained in universities. They house the best people with smart brains whose intelligence and wisdom guide the country.
At home, the newly enacted law on higher education (Law No. 12/2012) ensures that universities have autonomy to manage their own institution in executing the three missions of universities, or tri dharma perguruan tinggi, namely, teaching, research and community service.
Though the law outlines the principles and guidelines, ministerial regulations are undeniably urgent for the full-fledged implementation.
The law sets out a new paradigm for higher education in the country. The question is: Do all universities deserve the same degree of autonomy?
Considering their varied strengths and functions, universities should have a different degree of independence.
Over the years, as they grow older and stronger, their autonomy develops accordingly. As an African saying goes, “With wisdom comes with age”.
While universities yearn for academic freedom, society should be protected from academic mismanagement. No passion on campus is equal to the passion to open new study programs to increase student enrollment, despite a lack of expertise and resources.
Many have reported falling victim to illegal practices perpetrated by irresponsible people or even fake universities.
While juxtaposing universities as producers and the community as customers, the government, through the Directorate General of Higher Education should play a role as a mediator. Autonomy, as stated in Article 62 of the law, is to be exercised in line with the rationale, goals, potential and resources of universities.
To be precise, academic autonomy is guided by academic ethics and wisdom.
While a group of lecturers representing the most prominent state universities has been commissioned to prepare draft ministerial regulations and their own university statutes, autonomy remains an elusive concept and is subject to multiple interpretations as follows.
First, autonomy is an inherent feature of higher education. As early as 1988, the Declaration on Academic Freedom and Autonomy of Institutions of Higher Education made at the 40th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights stated that autonomy incorporates the independence of institutions of higher education from the state and all other societal forces to make decisions regarding internal governance, finance and administration, and to establish its policies on education, research, extension work and other related activities.
The declaration is a kind of international law such that any country that has ratified the declaration is obligated to uphold it.
Second, autonomy is a two-sided coin with academic and non-academic aspects. The former refers to autonomy in developing norms and operational policies on teaching, research and community service.
The latter refers to matters of organization or governance, finance, student affairs, employment and facilities. Some believe that academic autonomy is inherent, while its non-academic counterpart is not necessarily a given.
Third, there are two types of autonomy — attributive autonomy and delegated autonomy. The former is acquired through a constitution or laws, while the latter is derived from a mandate from a superordinate or subordinate institution.
Fourth, international laws are to be implemented in tandem with national laws. Universities are established by the government to educate its citizens.
They are, therefore, responsive to local and national problems. By nature, community colleges and universities are expected to function differently. Therefore, they have different degrees of autonomy.
Fifth, when it comes to internationalization, the clients and stakeholders represent international communities. Universities are evaluated by international standards, ethics and conventions.
Some prominent universities in this country are encouraged by the government to become more international. Those universities, in other words, are mandated to do so. They stand out as deserving more autonomy.
The Directorate General of Higher Education, the government body that oversees universities, has the authority to delegate its functions to a shortlist of universities.
These universities exercise their autonomy on behalf of the government and their mandated autonomy is therefore subject to review and evaluation.
Oftentimes, the central government has a national agenda, say on research and development of high priority areas. The government, by virtue of its power and authority, may provide block grants to selected universities.
Sixth, the controversial issues that have been lingering and perplexing university management include financial management and asset ownership.
World-class universities should have the autonomy to manage all of these things. The argument goes that academic autonomy is impracticable without autonomy in non-academic matters.
At home, the Finance Ministry controls the management of financing and asset ownership. Often, regulations issued by the Education and Culture Ministry are incongruent with those issued by the Finance Ministry. Such contradictions remain a major obstacle for universities to move ahead and to become more international.
Seventh, mindful of different categories of post-secondary education institutions by size, age, location, mission and ownership (private or state), it is fair that universities should be given various degrees of autonomy.
Article 65 of the law stipulates that a few universities may be given more financial autonomy than others. This plan, however, is performance-based and subject to public accountability.
To conclude, autonomy is not simply granted, but is inbuilt to universities and acquired through the enactment of laws. The government is responsible for maintaining the autonomy, among other things, by providing — not subsidizing — financial assistance.
Yet, universities should acknowledge the rights and freedoms of society. Abraham Lincoln once held, “Those who deny freedom of others deserve it not for themselves.”
The writer is a professor at the Indonesian Education University (UPI), Bandung, and member of the Board of Higher Education.