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Quality over quantity: Indonesia’s education challenge

Debates about opening up Indonesia’s education system might also allow the country to grow its income.

Photo: Lucy McHugh/CIFOR/Flickr
Photo: Lucy McHugh/CIFOR/Flickr
Published 1 Mar 2018 

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.

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