Indonesian scholars call for global help to protect autonomy

Appeal by academic groups condemns ‘targeted efforts to restrict or retaliate against students’ and scholars’ exercise of academic freedom’

June 1, 2022
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Indonesian universities are in danger of losing their autonomy under political pressure, academics have warned.

The Indonesian Caucus for Academic Freedom (Kika) and the group Scholars at Risk have urged the United Nations to protect academic freedom and the rights of scholars and students in the country.

The groups note “targeted efforts to restrict or retaliate against students’ and scholars’ exercise of academic freedom and related rights, as well as broader pressures on academic expression, exchange, research, and university autonomy”.

The organisations’ joint submission to the UN details a worsening situation for academic freedom in the country over the past five years.

Since 2017, Indonesian authorities have arrested students for peaceful protests on numerous occasions and universities have disciplined – and even expelled – students for exercising their right to free speech on issues such as tuition cuts and corruption. In that time, Indonesian scholars have been “targeted with criminal legal actions, civil suits, and violent threats and harassment in response to their academic expression”, the groups write.

They urge officials to “strengthen university autonomy and reduce the risk of corruption in state higher education institutions” and repeal current laws on science and technology that scholars say risk making some academic collaborations illegal for political reasons.

Their appeal also calls for the revision of a 2019 law which mandated that academics apply for ethics approval for research considered “high risk” or “dangerous”, including activities that could threaten “social harmony” or “national security” – terms they say are not defined and could be used as a catch-all to ban a “wide range of research activity”.

Efforts by Indonesian scholars to remedy the situation have begun to feel like an exercise in futility, said Dhia Al Uyun, Kika chair and a lecturer in the law faculty at Brawijaya University.

“Demonstration is always happening, but [the] government [does] not care – we don’t know how we can make them hear us,” she told Times Higher Education.

In the past, groups including Kika had raised concerns about plagiarism by university administrators, but their pleas to the government have had little effect, said Dr Al Uyun.

Dr Al Uyun was especially concerned by the current practice that gives Indonesia’s ministry of education a 35 per cent vote in the appointment of university rectors. Kika has said the practice “engenders corruption by making rectors beholden to the wishes of the minister and the ruling party”.

Barring intervention, she worried that close ties between Indonesia’s ruling class and its higher education system would result in a situation in which universities were limited in their roles, their prestige co-opted by the government to consolidate power.

“Currently the interests of the government and the political elite are difficult to separate from the legitimacy of academia,” she said. “Academic institutions should be separated from the will of the government.”

pola.lem@timeshighereducation.com

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