Paid with compliments, not cash
Catootjie Nalle (left, with students) is a star scientist. In 1999 she won an Australian Government scholarship to study at Queensland University where she graduated with a Masters Degree in animal nutrition.
A few years later the New Zealand Government recognised her talents and offered her a place at Massey University. She graduated with a PhD and returned to her job at Kupang State Agriculture Polytechnic.
She’s spent more than seven years studying overseas much of that time as a single mother caring for her son.
Dr Nalle, 44, is one of the best qualified nutritionists in the Indonesian poultry feed business, and the first woman at her polytechnic to gain a doctorate.
Her research abilities have attracted laboratory equipment grants from the Asian Development Bank
She lives in a tiny house in high cost East Nusa Tenggara and can only afford a motorbike. As a department head she gets Rp 9 million a month (US $687). Yet by local academic standards that’s a handsome wage.
Indonesian education institutions do graduations well. Staff in faux-ermine robes and tasselled mortar boards shuffle to the flower-strewn stage for Indonesia Raya, hands on hearts.
The nervous students and their awestruck parents surely think: ‘The rewards must be great to match the prestige these learned ones bring to the institution and our nation’.
But without rich partners or politically powerful mates, chances are the academics arrived at the ceremony straddling Hondas and enrobed in the staff toilet.
For Indonesia still doesn’t pay its scholars well or even appropriately, according to English language lecturer Aam Alamsyah. He claims poor salaries and conditions aren’t just crippling professionals’ careers; they are throttling the nation’s advancement and international reputation.
Alamsyah (right) has been researching employment conditions while studying for a doctorate in linguistics at Atma Jaya Catholic University. He teaches at private colleges in Jakarta and Tangerang and recently presented a paper on tertiary education salaries at an international conference
In this he claimed some school teachers were getting allowances and incentives which lifted their income above higher qualified academics.
“University staff face many problems, and the most disturbing is their remuneration,” he said. “Low wages run against workforce laws. They force scholars to moonlight rather than concentrate on their students.”
Despite academics being considered important for Indonesia’s development the government leaves pay in the hands of the institutions. Lecturers struggle on their own since there’s no substantial legal body to defend their rights.
“Though faculties of business, engineering and information technology usually offer more, many lecturers survive on less than Rp 3 million (US$228) a month,” Alamsyah said.
That’s equal to the supposed minimal wage of an unskilled junior high school graduate in a Jakarta sweatshop punching parts or packing plastics.
But universities are supposed to be temples of learning, not factories rolling out identical gizmos. They never omit the comparative adjective when describing their role as ‘higher educators’.
Alamsyah is not howling alone in the wilderness. Economist Jonathan Pincus, a teaching fellow in the Development Studies Centre at Cambridge University, wrote in this newspaper that ‘Indonesian lecturers are promoted based on seniority rather than research or teaching performance.
‘The rules make it difficult for lecturers to change universities, which effectively eliminate competition to hire the most productive scholars or the best teachers. Academic departments routinely hire their own graduates as lecturers, a practice that encourages patronage and favoritism and discourages competition.’
Although Indonesia has around 2,800 tertiary institutions, few rank well. The University of Indonesia just squeezes into the world’s top 400 as listed by the Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) annual report, but the rest are still seeking the start line.
The production of scholarly papers in learned journals recognized internationally is a handy guide to a nation’s intellectual thrust. Indonesia ranks 57, below Malaysia (35) and Thailand (43).
Bureaucrats love pasting letters after their names. No public presentation by government officials is complete without the speakers parading their Sarjana (Bachelor’s Degree) or Master of Management (MM). However such qualifications may indicate wealth rather than commitment to prolonged study; degrees are for sale in Indonesia.
Last year the government started cracking down on phony academies with Research, Technology and Higher Learning Education Minister Mohammad Nasir leading raids on dodgy outfits.
But such is the demand that fines of up to Rp 500 million (US $38,000) and five years in jail for individuals using false certificates don’t seem to deter.
“Few campuses are willing to pay their lecturers to do research, or even try to help them publish their work in journals,” Alamsyah said. “There are also private colleges and universities using the notorious ‘home base’ racket.
“In this illegal scheme campuses offer small sums for the right to include an academic’s name on their faculty list to meet staff quotas. They blatantly neglect other aspects of lecturers’ welfare such as a basic salary, overtime, research pay and health insurance.
“The wealthy and prestigious campuses usually spend as little as Rp 1 million (US$76) for a doctoral graduate, and half that for a masters. School teachers and public servants are then hired to lecture at low rates, but the teaching hours are credited to the ‘home base’ academic.”
Alamsyah’s wish list includes erasing this scam and the national government getting tough over accrediting new colleges.
He wants salaries which recognise scholars’ qualifications and status, and an end to student ‘tipping’ – a ruse he alleged is used to “respect the noble deeds of the teacher”. These practices masquerade as ikhlas beramal (willing to donate) or sedekah (giving alms).
“Better remuneration will boost lecturers’ dignity and confidence to serve their students without moonlighting or getting involved in graft,” he said.
“There’s evidence of a strong correlation between improving education and declining corruption. That alone should be good reason for reform.”
In countries like Australia with powerful unions, minimal academic salaries are negotiated and set by legal awards with terms and conditions.
For example, an associate lecturer at the University of New South Wales would start on an annual salary of AUD 70,000 (Rp 700 million) or about Rp 58 million a month.
In the US at the University of California an assistant professor gets US$5,000 a month (Rp 66 million) while in the UK an academic at Cambridge might begin at 3,300 pounds a month (Rp 60 million).
Although factors like tenure, insurance and costs of living can warp these figures, academics in the West get paid well by comparison with their colleagues in Indonesia.
(First published in The Jakarta Post 7 December 2016)