This paper contributes to the academic literature on policy-making at the global level by empirically showing the nature and institutional challenges of higher education reforms under NPM principles. The authors explain the key strategies adopted by Indonesia’s government and the problems it faced in reforming its higher education system. The overall result was negative. The Indonesian reforms will not bring about meaningful outcomes unless the existing institutions, and the environment in which they operate, are also reformed. IMPACT: This paper offers new insights regarding the nature and impacts of higher education reforms in an emerging economy. The authors explain why positive outcomes from higher education reforms are difficult to achieve in developing economies, without reforming existing institutions such as the human resource systems and laws underpinning the operation of higher education. The paper has important insights for employers, government and university managers and academics in developing countries, including the importance of opening a nation’s university sector to international providers.