Corona crisis-related inequality in access to university education in Eastern Indonesia

How can students participate in online courses without proper Internet access?

In June 2019, the Van Vollenhoven Institute together with the Royal Tropical Institute (KIT) launched the NUFFIC project ‘Strengthening Legal Education in Eastern Indonesia (SLEEI)’. The aim of the project is to enhance the law curriculum in Eastern Indonesian universities with more attention for legal reasoning, legal ethics, gender and law, and making law teaching more responsive to what is happening locally. Everything in the project had gone well up to the Training of Trainers event on Ambon in February this year. The participating lecturers returned to their universities full of enthusiasm to organise training sessions for their colleagues at the local law faculty around this time in May.

And then the Coronavirus spread throughout the world, leading to lockdowns in academia, including our Leiden Law School and the partner universities in Indonesia. In Leiden, we shifted to online teaching, and the results seem very promising so far. How would that work in Eastern Indonesia – a relatively underdeveloped part of the country? Last week, we spoke to the coordinators at each of the partner universities to find out how they are handling the crisis and whether the SLEEI project could do anything to assist them.

Until now, fortunately there have not been many cases reported of people infected with Covid-19 in Eastern Indonesia. Nationwide, as of the end of March all universities closed their doors following the decision of the national government. Just like in Leiden, the law schools asked their lecturers to switch their teaching to online lectures. After some weeks of learning how to do that, and convincing certain grumpy old professors, the lecturers are now giving their lessons via Zoom, Google Meet or Whatsapp. But after a few weeks, it is now clear that the students are the ones who are facing many difficulties; some more than others.

First, there are technical problems in accessing the Internet. Only a few people in this area have Wi-Fi connections in their private homes, and the signal for mobile phones is rather weak outside the city centres. Additionally, just getting access to laptops and smartphones is a major challenge: at one university around 30 per cent of students does not have a smart phone, while around 70 per cent does not have a laptop.

We also see, however, that these challenges are generating creativity. Some students from the Pattimura University on Ambon decided to pool resources, using one laptop together. Others in remote areas would send one representative to a place with a signal to download the recorded Zoom session and then share it with the rest of the group later. Despite these creative solutions, lecturers reported that they have lost touch with many students i.e. there is no contact online at all; on Sumba this has risen to around 50 per cent of the original course participants. Unpatti students originating from the remote island of Aru are facing other problems. Those who returned to their homes on Aru have no access to online courses because of weak Internet connections. Others who are still on Ambon cannot return to their families on Aru because air and sea traffic between the islands has stopped. This second group can technically access online courses because they are in the city, but they are suffering from the economic effects of the corona crisis.

The students of the universities on Ambon, Timor, Sumba and Lombok originate mostly from within the province. Typically, their parents are part of the local middle class who are not wealthy enough to send their children to the best Indonesian universities on Java, but are still able to spend their savings on paying university fees for the local university. The lockdown measures to prevent the spread of corona have caused job losses. The markets for some farm products like pigs and poultry have collapsed, because restaurants are closed and people cannot organise the ceremonial events at which they would serve meat dishes. Moreover, this year the rice harvest on Timor and Sumba has been extremely poor because of lack of rainfall, so that there is no surplus to sell. For students, this means that their parents can no longer support them. When they are unable to pay the rent of their student room, their only escape option is to return to their home villages.

At the same time, online education is very costly for students in Eastern Indonesia. Without Wi-Fi, they rely on their mobile phones that usually have limited Internet access. One hour of participating in a class through Zoom uses up 1 Gigabyte of their Internet package. A lecturer in Sumba calculated that if his students follow all the online courses they should be participating in, per month the cost is about half a million Rupiah – equal to the monthly rent of a student room.

Students at the Christian University Artha Wacana on Timor requested a tuition fee reduction to compensate for the increasing cost of Internet access. However, that university does not have the financial means to give such support, being a private university for which tuition fees are the major source of income. For the State university of Pattimura, which receives the larger part of its budget from the national government, it would be possible to support students in need with free Internet packages and even food distribution a few times. However, even there it will be difficult to organise this over a longer period of time.

As project partners in the Netherlands, we have great respect for the commitment and creativity of our Indonesian colleagues in trying to continue to provide quality education in the challenging context of Eastern Indonesia. In a small way, the SLEEI project may be able to address some key infrastructural challenges by providing funds from our budget for unforeseen expenditure. But we are particularly happy to note that the project network in Indonesia and the Netherlands is currently being used by partner staff to exchange experiences on how they are handling the crisis. We will do our utmost best to continue to encourage such exchanges.


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