Indonesia enlists technology legend to galvanise universities

Commentators laud ‘exciting’ political pairing of seasoned bureaucrat and entrepreneurial icon

October 28, 2019
Nadiem Makarim
Source: Reuters
Nadiem Makarim

Indonesia has reshuffled its higher education and research portfolios, conscripting a political odd couple to recreate universities as engine rooms for its economic advent.

In a reversal of a 2014 restructure, Indonesian president Joko Widodo has separated the higher education directorate from the ministry of research and technology. The two had been merged to foster an entrepreneurial spirit in universities – an experiment that faltered because of Indonesia’s “overlapping bureaucratic systems”, with the two arms financed and regulated separately.

The joint agency, Ristekdikti, underpinned the president’s goal of fulfilling the country’s vaunted economic potential by boosting human capital and cultivating the tech sector. He now hopes to achieve this aim through two of the more interesting appointments to his 38-person cabinet, unveiled on 23 October.

One is 53-year-old bureaucrat Bambang Brodjonegoro, who has been named minister of research and technology. An Illinois-trained economist and former dean at the University of Indonesia, he served as minister of finance and then of national development planning in Mr Widodo’s first cabinet.

Responsibility for higher education goes to the new education and culture minister, 35-year-old Harvard Business School graduate and political novice Nadiem Makarim, who founded the country’s most renowned technology company.

Indonesia’s answer to Uber, Gojek became the country’s first billion-dollar private start-up and has since been deemed a US$10 billion (£7.8 billion) “decacorn”. Mr Makarim was named an Asian of the Year by Singapore’s Straits Times in 2016.

While his cabinet appointment has surprised many, commentators said it was more than a politically astute exploitation of his “glamour value”. Mr Makarim will harness his entrepreneurial flair, digital know-how and risk-taking instincts to cut through the sector’s convoluted administration with “breakthroughs that have not occurred to previous bureaucrats”, Ciputra University’s Freddy Istanto wrote in The Conversation.

Academics say Mr Makarim also has an implicit understanding of industry’s need for skilled labour. “He has no experience in education,” said James Fox, an Indonesia specialist at the Australian National University who studied with Mr Makarim’s lawyer father at Harvard. “On the other hand, he’s intelligent, he’s young, he’s a multimillionaire and he comes from a very distinguished family.”

Commentators say Dr Brodjonegoro developed a deep understanding of the research sector as planning minister, while his finance experience will buttress his oversight of research funding and endowments.

In another appraisal in The Conversation, Bogor Agricultural University biologist Berry Juliandi predicted that funding distribution between the two ministries would “run smoothly”. He said the pair would galvanise research policies with “triple-helix dynamics [involving] academia, industry and government”.

Michael Fay, head of Sydney consultancy AFG Venture Group, said Dr Brodjonegoro was a regular visitor to Australia and had presided over the establishment of split master’s programmes spanning the two countries. “He’s very international in his outlook,” Mr Fay said.

“This is an exciting set of appointments,” said Monash University’s senior pro vice-chancellor for Southeast Asia partnerships, Andrew MacIntyre. “Bambang Brodjonegoro is a highly competent person with a belief in the importance of research.

“Nadiem Makarim is the wild card. He’s highly educated and successful, from a family with a deep appreciation of what universities are all about, and has a strong mandate to shake things up. The real question is how quickly he can get up to speed on the educational bureaucracy and work out how to drive change.”

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