Social research in Indonesia: Why and what next

By 05/05/2016

Despite being one of the fastest growing economies in Asia, Indonesia continues to lag behind its neighbouring countries in terms of research capacity and publication. The situation is even worse in social science, where almost 90 percent of articles about Indonesia published in international journals are written by scholars who are not resident in the country (Reid, 2011). This blog summarises the findings of research carried out in 2015 which took an in-depth look at why this situation prevails and what can be done to improve it. The study was conducted jointly by the Communication Research Centre, Universitas Indonesia and the Centre for Innovation Policy and Governance, along with the Asia Research Centre, Murdoch University.

Open Market Policies and Closed Bureaucracies

Almost two decades after democratisation, including international donor-assisted decentralisation processes, social research publication rates remain stubbornly low. In recent years attempts have been made by the state government to invest in research and capacity building by providing scholarship, research funding, and incentives to motivate publication among Indonesian academics based in universities. Throughout the 2000s, the Directorate General of Higher Education (DGHE) has consistently increased the allocation of the research budget for higher education institutions, hoping to encourage innovation and interdisciplinary collaboration in the face of regional market competition. This budget increase has been paralleled by the restructuring of state universities into State Owned Higher Education Autonomous Legal Entities (BHMN), which allow more autonomy in attaining external funding to support their academic activities. However, the effects of this have not been as intended. Instead of creating a culture of cross-pollination in sciences and research, it has led to universities engaging in business research and training, as well as increasing tuition fees and student intake. The policies and budget put in place to support research for national economy competitiveness have been impeded by the bureaucratic models which higher education institutions inherited from a centralised government.

This insularity of higher education institutions is further compounded by the current employment structures in place for academic staff. The majority of Indonesian lecturers who carry out research are employed as civil servants; this means their promotion depends on the state employment agency’s indicator of achievements applicable to all government employees. The academic salary structure in state universities is not designed to correlate with research productivity, and this is made worse by a complicated academic credit system (KUM) that measures promotion based on administrative conditions rather than academic performance. There is not as yet a performance-based sabbatical system that allows lecturers to carry out independent research. As a result of the existing structures, Indonesian academics are made vulnerable in an increasingly liberal system. They face economic constraints and are thereby encouraged to take in as many teaching hours and/or commercial research projects as possible. This clearly has a detrimental impact on productivity and peer collaboration.

Inbreeding and Insularity

Open market policies, accompanied by ineffective research funding disbursement and centralised promotion methods, serve to exacerbate the divide between Java and non-Java state universities. State universities based in Java have more direct access to the private sector and international donor organisations, who provide the majority of their research funding. Meanwhile, non-Java based universities are more dependent on public funds, either through the DGHE funding schemes or consultancy services by their respective local governments. This not only shows the limited opportunities available outside Java but also the problem of access.

The majority of active Indonesian researchers in state universities are over 50 years old, and most were recruited through a closed system. State universities tend to recruit internally, and most lecturers continue their higher education within their alma mater or in Java state universities. This high prevalence among Indonesian researchers to stay within their own institution when pursuing higher degrees has led to inbreeding within state universities and has resulted in insularity; universities and their subsequent faculties are more concerned in pursuing their own research interests, despite efforts to encourage more collaborative research. This draws a picture of poor academic mobility between institutions and countries among Indonesian scholars, shaping a culture of insularity that worsens the already very low presence of Indonesians in global academia.

Weak Policy Connections and the Importance of Peer Review

DGHE has identified the need to strengthen basic research, particularly in light of the current dominance of applied social research that does not focus on making sense of fundamental social changes. 79 percent of social research being carried out in state universities is applied, with the majority answering the demands of policy-connected social research. The popularity of applied approaches in social research in Indonesia does not, however, directly lead to better policy-making. This dominance is instead directed towards increasing university income rather than increasing institutional engagement with state government policy-making. Likewise, basic research, essential in preventing nearsighted policy-making, is being neglected.

Based on empirical analysis, our research findings show that there is a gap between open policies and closed bureaucracies, which has resulted in the insular practices in social scholarship. Such poor scholarship activities have long-term consequences on critical thinking and weak policy-research connections in Indonesia. Paradoxically, the very policies and funding put in place to increase national competitiveness have contributed to weakening Indonesia’s position within the regional higher education market, particularly in comparison to neighbouring Singapore and Malaysia.

Institutional reform must therefore be directed towards cultivating a culture of peer review and basic social research, practices which are still highly restricted. Indonesian scholars, who currently face insecure employment and lack of mentorship, must be equipped with the necessary skills and networks to successfully achieve some academic mobility in order to support institutional research development. There is also a need for a network of scholars from different universities and research organisations in Indonesia and beyond, who actively deepen intellectual engagement among themselves and with their international peers and stakeholders. This network could be developed through more loose funding structures that place preference over high-quality, multi-disciplinary basic research that is jointly carried out by multiple organisations, which have clear, potential links to policy and/or social impact. Only through cultivating such peer culture that promotes research excellence can Indonesian scholars be more equipped to inform policy-making in ways that are not myopic.


The full working paper can be downloaded here.

More information on the Doing Research project can be found at www.gdn.int/dr.

This blog is part of the GDN Doing Research series which brings together insights from the researchers across the project.

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