May 13, 2017 | Hizbullah Arief *

A recent post from World Economic Forum mentioned that the demand of critical thinking in world’s societies is constantly increasing. Based on 2015 report by the Foundation for Young Australians, the article stated that need for critical thinking skills in new graduates had risen by 158% in three years. This data was drawn from an analysis of 4.2 million online job postings from 6,000 different sources in the period 2012-2015.

The article also added another major report by a consortium of more than 400 US employers in 2006 that ranked “critical thinking” as the most desirable skill in new employees. Critical thinking was ranked higher than skills in “innovation” and “application of information technology”. Employers increasingly recognize what is needed in graduates is not so much technical knowledge, but applied skills, especially skills in critical thinking.

Critical thinking according to the article is defined by several qualities. Some theorists considered critical thinking as a skill towards practicing argumentation, logic, and an awareness of psychology (cognitive biases). Others related critical thinking to man’s ability to analyse facts, generate and organise ideas, defend opinions, make comparisons, draw inferences, evaluate arguments and solve problems.

Whatever the definitions, those perceived qualities according to the article are important as drivers of comprehension and decision making.

I recently signed short term technical agreement with Knowledge Sector Initiative Indonesia (KSI Indonesia). Knowledge Sector Initiative (KSI) is a joint program between the governments of Indonesia and Australia that seeks to improve the lives of the Indonesian people through better quality public policies that make better use of research, analysis and evidence.

Joining the project in its final months of its first five-year term means I should directly involve in technical drudgeries producing several publications that would become KSI Indonesia’s outcomes.

There are two important publications that I have finished processing. Both are part of Diagnostic Study –  Addressing Research Challenges at Universities series. These two publications – and another two coming – discussed the importance of developing research culture at universities in Indonesia.

These two studies mentioned that universities – especially state universities in Java – are the main “research providers” for local and national governments and private sectors. Funding from local, provincial governments – aside of funding from Ministry of Research, Technology and Higher Education – provides alternative income for the universities.

However, data have shown that Indonesia is lagging any developing countries in term of producing high quality researches and publications. Of more than 4000 universities in Indonesia, only a handful of them are consistently producing high quality researches, and the researches mostly come from natural science fields.

Based on data from SCImago Journal and Country Rank for the period of 1996-2014, Indonesia produced only 32,355 documents for scientific publications. This is far below other Southeast Asian countries like Singapore (192,942 documents), Malaysia (153,378) and Thailand (109,832) – (Diagnostic Study, Addressing Barriers to University Research: Case Study of Four Universities in Indonesia, KSI Indonesia, April 2017).

Next problem, even though the natural science researches lead in producing peer reviewed and Scopus indexed journals, the solutions derived from these natural researches have yet answered to the recurring social and environmental problems in Indonesia.

The diagnostic studies found that instead of producing research to influence policies, universities tend to cater the needs of private sectors to answer their corporate problems. In other words, universities tend to conduct research that generates income, highlighting problems of building research culture in university and difficulties to do research and then link the research to policy due to insufficient, improperly scheduled funding from government (Ministry of Research, Technology and Higher Education).

Can we say that critical thinking, the most important element in the research, is missing in Indonesian policies? And thus, the researchers have failed to influence policies?

It is tricky to answer these specific questions. First problem, as mentioned above, universities tend to do research that brings financial benefit thus “putting aside” of research that can influence policy due to many difficulties in doing it. Second problem, like “egg and chicken quiz”, who should first promote evidence based policies, is it the government or university?

However, one thing for sure can be identified in Indonesia’s social and environmental orders. Because of the lack of evidence based policies, government continues to face social and environmental problems.

For example, forest fire in Indonesia is constantly menacing local and regional environment, sending haze and air pollution to neighboring countries, to Singapore and Malaysia. Indonesia also needs social researches to solve poverty and other social problems.

Nigel Warbuton in Thinking from A to Z published by Routledge (2007) said that research is supposed to provide firm empirical evidence, evidence that is based on experience and observation. The experience and observation are foundation of sound policies.

The government needs to empower universities, through systematic changes in research culture and funding, to solve social and environmental problems. And university implementing Tri Dharma Perguruan Tinggi (Three Principles of University) is required to not only teaching or educating students but also involving in doing research and community services. Thus, like in a symbiotic mutualistic relationship, university has also an obligation to help government, one of its biggest stakeholders to write evidence based policies.

Solutions exist, though! Producing high quality journals that are peer reviewed and indexed by high quality database like Scopus, and then using the journals as foundation of evidence-based policy are the ways out.

These solutions need supports from Indonesian stakeholders to increase production of high quality researches and journals and ease the use and access to the publications. And the supporting process requires critical thinking as its most important quality, be it of culture or skill. Hopefully by doing so university can help resolving Indonesia’s unending puzzle: its inability to write policy that can be a solution not just a rhetoric.

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Hizbullah Arief is national consultant for Knowledge to Policy Learning and Knowledge Product. Opinions expressed in this article don’t reflect Government of Australia, Government of Indonesia and KSI Indonesia.