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Surmounting Indonesia’s education problems

University Indonesia, Jakarta (Photo: Ruth San/Flickr)
University Indonesia, Jakarta (Photo: Ruth San/Flickr)
Published 8 Mar 2018 14:30   0 Comments

Although the recent Lowy Institute report by Andrew Rosser, “Beyond Access: Making Indonesia’s Education System Work”, reveals an Indonesian education system buckling under its own deficiencies, it can be read largely optimistically. The weaknesses Rosser outlines are all redeemable with tight reforms and savvy budgetary considerations. These include addressing the major weakness of academic instruction in the higher education sector.   

World Bank data cited in Rosser’s report shows a stunning lack of qualifications among academic staff. While much of Western academia struggles to find secure work, the opposite appears true in Indonesia’s higher education sector, where frighteningly underqualified instructors make up a third of the workforce.

It would be easy to suggest that this is problem exclusive private institutions; however, it is also a feature in the more established universities. This situation presents a number of issues beyond a subpar education provided for scores of young Indonesians.

Most importantly, the skewed quality of instructors perpetuates inequality between, and magnifies the stratification of, classes. Those in the upper- and ill-defined middle classes are able to study overseas, and the number of students heading abroad for study has increased by 35% over the past decade. United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation data indicates that 42,000 Indonesians were studying at higher education institutions abroad in 2016, mostly in Australia, the US, and Malaysia. Just under half the total number were students in Australia.

These figures are often cited as proof of the rising spending power of Indonesians, and as evidence of education providing a way forward but dampening demand on stronger academic instruction domestically as the economy booms. It presents a cyclical problem for Indonesia’s higher education sector: if a degree from an Australian university is seen as a better investment, why demand better teaching back home? And if the teaching is poor at home, isn’t it best to get a degree overseas if you can afford it? 

The best and brightest whose communities are unable to afford costly tuition abroad are left to depend on scholarships and government programs to secure a pathway to overseas degrees.  

The report identifies a network-versus-merit-based method of promotions within institutions as a major issue perpetuating substandard teaching. This is a common and well-documented feature in the bureaucracies of both the public and private sectors within Indonesia, but in higher education has ramifications far beyond frustrations and glacial-paced reforms. Rosser recounts a history of moderately effective reforms improving standards via government initiatives throughout the Reformasi years, at both the secondary and tertiary levels, but these are clearly falling short.

In addition to short-changing Indonesia’s youth, this problem also runs counter to the political and civil society emphasis on education as the primary means of the country reaching its full potential as an economic powerhouse and well-informed, culturally robust society.

So what would solve this dilemma? Rosser cites data showing academics and instructors often find other sources of income, “sometimes of a non-academic nature”, to offset low pay. Raising the salaries of educators, via government budget subsidies or otherwise, and linking that to performance is perhaps the fastest way to improve conditions while longer-term institutional reforms are taking place.

Rosser’s report quotes data indicating improvement in absenteeism among staff between 2003 and 2013, “but on any given day 10% of teachers are still absent when they are scheduled to be at work”. While secondary jobs are unlikely to explain every case of absenteeism, incentivising attendance and providing a wage in line with the high respect rhetorically deferred to educators will create positive change.

A meaningful increase in educators’ salaries is the best strategy to resolve underqualification in the sector. With a fast-moving economy offering attractive opportunities to Indonesia’s young and educated, entering institutional academia, at this stage, is simply not a solid return on investment, which perpetuates the cycle of substandard instruction.

Rosser’s report clearly and cohesively outlines the shortcomings of the Indonesian higher education system. These shortcomings initially appear insurmountable, but the historical context provided shows Indonesia is willing and able to reform. But for Indonesia’s millions of intelligent young people, change can’t come soon enough.


Quality over quantity: Indonesia’s education challenge

Photo: Lucy McHugh/CIFOR/Flickr
Photo: Lucy McHugh/CIFOR/Flickr
Published 1 Mar 2018 14:00   0 Comments

Two enduring ideological themes have informed Indonesian education policy almost since the Repulic was founded. The first has been an “education for all” approach, and the second has been to use the education system to promote a sense of an “Indonesian identity”.

Largely absent from historic debates about education in Indonesia has been the issue of excellence. In many respects, one of the implications of the national determination to provide education for all has meant a need to preference quantity over quality.

Opening Indonesia’s education system to international competition is one opportunity to promote excellence. This has proved easier to declare than to achieve. During the 1990s a number of private schools were opened using the national curriculum but enriched with learning materials from elsewhere. At the time, this blended cirriculum was quite controversial, but the approach was accepted eventually.

More recent efforts, during the Yudhoyono era, to extend international standards to government schools were blocked. Articles in the 2003 Education System Law permitting the establishment of foreign education systems within Indonesia were deemed unconstitutional by the courts. The primary objection to these systems was that they would diminish the Indonesian identity of education environment; proponents of the efforts, however, hoped the establishment of Pilot International Standards Schools (RSBI) would spearhead longer-term increases in the quality of school education.

The excellent Lowy Institute study by Andrew Rosser from the University of Melbourne, “Beyond Access: Making Indonesia’s Education System Work”, outlines the various interests within Indonesia that have often come together to defend the education status quo. This has tended to re-enforce the two key ideological themes of education for all and Indonesian identity. This includes teachers, academics, education officials, and – interestingly, since the start of the democratic era – even parents.

Indonesian President Joko (Jokowi) Widodo has weighed into this debate. Jokowi has worked hard during his first term to increase investment in the infrastructure sector, and from recent statements he is seeking to promote development in the education sector for the next five years. Jokowi has suggested opening certain special economic zones to allow foreign campuses to set up operations. This has prompted discussion about the value of focusing on certain sectors, such as vocational education or restricted access to the social sciences. Others have suggested allowing the foreign campuses to enter regions off Java, the most populated island in the world, while others still have suggested no geographic or discipline restrictions.

Vice President Jusuf Kalla has also made the point that the Indonesian Government is now spending considerable resources sending students overseas to study. Kalla argued that setting up foreign universities in Indonesia would create great savings. Linking savings for government and foreign reserves to the presence of international campuses not only adds a new dynamic to the traditional debate on internationalisation of Indonesian education, but also raises the wider issue of Indonesia’s existing exports of education services.

While many people consider foreign students in Indonesia to be taking part in some kind of social or cultural exchange program, it is also the case that there are many thousands of full-fee-paying students studying in both Indonesian state and private tertiary education centres. The stereotype is of a few Malaysian medical students, but the reality is far more varied; for example, I have met Japanese and Koreans studying in areas such as dentistry and other sciences.

The Indonesian tertiary education sector is, by law, open to foreign campuses. But there are still issues that may emerge. Some of the key principles and priorities to inform tertiary education can be found in the law. For example, references to excellence only appear four times, and references to integrity and ethics appear only once. References to religion and God, however, appear some 42 times.

Even references to the nation’s overriding philosophy (Pancasila) only appear four times. Finessing these varied “weights” of concern and priority outlined in the law may represent a challenge. Restrictions on the use of foreign lecturers may be another. While the law allows foreign languages to be used for instruction, other parts of the law demand instruction in Indonesian.

Indonesia is already an exporter, not merely a consumer, of education, and it is thus a source of foreign income for the country. If this is an export that Indonesia wishes to increase, the question is whether these new considerations tip the balance of the debate in favour of further growth.

Improving education quality in Indonesia is no easy task

School children at a temporary school in Pekanbaru, Indonesia, in March 2016 (Photo: Afrianto Silalahi via Getty Images)
School children at a temporary school in Pekanbaru, Indonesia, in March 2016 (Photo: Afrianto Silalahi via Getty Images)
Published 26 Feb 2018 11:40   0 Comments

In September, Indonesia’s Ministry for Research, Technology and Higher Education suspended Jakarta State University (UNJ) rector Professor Djaali after a ministry-sponsored review found evidence of academic misconduct and mismanagement at the university.

UNJ is one of the country’s most prominent teacher training colleges and according to official records has more than 17,000 students.

Among the irregularities identified by the review were manipulation of administrative records, excessive concentration of doctoral supervision responsibilities in the hands of individual supervisors, and widespread plagiarism.

The evidence of plagiarism raised questions about the university’s awarding of numerous doctorates, including one to Wiranto, former presidential candidate and current Coordinating Minister for Politics, Law and Security. Wiranto, who was supervised by Djaali, graduated cum laude from UNJ with a doctorate in human resources management in 2013.

The review findings came in the wake of growing tensions between Djaali and UNJ staff over his appointment of several family members to academic and administrative positions. Shortly before the announcement of the review findings, the National Ombudsman upheld a complaint by staff that the rector had abused his authority and engaged in nepotism in making these appointments.

This case illustrates much of what is wrong with Indonesia’s education system.

Over the past few decades, the country has done much to improve access to education, particularly at the primary and junior secondary level. Today, Indonesian children are starting school earlier and staying in education longer than they ever have before.

But Indonesia has made much less progress in improving the quality of education.

The country regularly ranks towards the bottom of international standardised tests of student achievement – such as the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), and Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) – lower than neighbouring countries including Vietnam, Malaysia, and Thailand.

Few Indonesian universities make the world’s top 500 in league tables, such as the QS, Times Higher Education, and Academic Ranking of World Universities, reflecting poor academic standards and a low volume and quality of scholarly research.

Most analyses have attributed these problems to inadequate funding, human resource deficits, perverse incentive structures, and poor management. There is no doubt that these factors have mattered.

But the country’s problems with education quality have been, at their root, a matter of politics and power. Like other parts of Indonesia’s state apparatus, public educational institutions, both schools and higher education providers, have been captured by predatory officials with little interest in promoting learning.

Rather than being mechanisms through which the country achieves educational and economic objectives, public educational institutions in Indonesia have instead become vehicles through which predatory elites accumulate resources, distribute patronage, mobilise political support, and exercise political control.

School principal and university management positions are regularly sold to the highest bidder in exchange for the opportunity to use these positions for personal enrichment and the lubrication of patronage networks.

At the same time, teachers have become deeply embroiled in electoral politics, especially at the local level.

There are more than three million teachers in Indonesia, and they represent a key electoral constituency. It is not uncommon for teachers who support successful local political candidates to be rewarded with promotions or attractive appointments, and for those who back losing candidates to be demoted or banished to outlying parts of a region.

The school system has also been used to promote values over skills. The New Order made courses in Pancasila, the state ideology, compulsory at all levels of the education system – a move aimed at ensuring allegiance to the state, not learning. The current government insists that school children take courses in “character education”.

All this has served to undermine learning and, in particular, acquisition of skills needed to enhance national economic competitiveness.

Some hope that as competition for students increases, Indonesia’s many private schools and universities will be driven to raise academic standards, and thereby emerge as centres of quality. But the vast majority of these institutions are “spillover” bodies that enroll students who fail to secure places at more prestigious state institutions.

In late 2014, then Minister of Education and Culture Anies Baswedan declared that the country faced an education “emergency”. The UNJ case suggests that this emergency continues.

For more than a decade, government education plans have stated that the country needs to produce “smart and competitive” individuals who can compete successfully for jobs and other opportunities in an increasingly globalised economy. Consistent with this objective, the government envisages Indonesia’s education system becoming “internationally competitive” by 2025, and growing numbers of Indonesian universities entering the world’s top 500 universities.

Given the political obstacles to improved quality, however, it will be enormously difficult to realise these ambitions.

Improved education quality in Indonesia requires more than the injection of additional funds and the delivery of new training programs for teachers and the like – the usual measures recommended by education and development experts.

It requires a more fundamental reorientation of the education system and the politics underpinning it, something unlikely to occur in the foreseeable future.

Andrew Rosser is the author of a new Lowy Institute Analysis, Beyond access: Making Indonesia’s education system work.