At the Asian Physics Olympics in Taiwan last month, Indonesian high school student Rezy Pradipta won the special prize for the most creative solution to a theoretical problem.
It was a boost for national pride at a time when Indonesia seemed to be hurtling into economic and political disarray. Then came the real prize - Pradipta won a scholarship to study physics in a university in Singapore, not Indonesia.
His case is an example of a problem that has been haunting Mochtar Buchori, professor of education at University of Indonesia, one of the country's top educationists: what has become of higher education in Indonesia? How can the system provide for young minds such as Pradipta?
Asked about Indonesia's education policy, Dr Buchori replied: "Policy? What education policy? The ministry is overwhelmed by what has happened in higher education. The government is bankrupt and cannot put any more money into it and standards are falling."
Indonesia has about 1,400 universities. Fewer than 50 are state funded. Individual ministries run about 80 universities to train their staff, the rest are private. These institutions boast a lively and politically active student body. But they have been accused of not providing students with the right tools to achieve their aspirations.
To that charge, Dr Buchori added that universities were not responding to the country's needs. For example, about 70 per cent of students graduated with social science degrees. Private universities preferred to offer social science courses to avoid having to provide the costly laboratories and equipment that hard science courses require. "Many are unemployed now because what the economy needs is information technology graduates, and not many universities provide that training," he said As ever, money is a factor. The United Nations Development Programme's Human Development Report 2000 shows that Indonesia spends only 1.4 per cent of its gross national product on public education, compared with 3 per cent in Singapore, 4.9 per cent in Malaysia and 4.8 per cent in Thailand. With the economy growing at a disappointing 4 per cent, far below the 8 per cent economists say is needed to satisfy the 2.5 million new job seekers countrywide, there is little hope that education spending will rise soon.
Yet what is more critical for Dr Buchori is what he called "a lack of rationality due to a deep divide in mental procedures".
He said: "There is no emphasis on the need for systematic observation, verification and analysis of research, so what you get is confusion. In addition, you have a weak academic culture.
"These factors keep the country's higher education system mediocre. But in the long run, I am optimistic."
Already, some institutions are striving to meet new demands. The Bandung Technological Institute, the University of Gadjah Mada, the University of Indonesia and the private Atma Jaya University have made management changes, started to establish research centres and have attracted contracts from international companies and organisations.
Furthermore, government decentralisation is giving universities more opportunities to control their own curriculum. With independence, it is hoped that universities will be able to focus on their strengths, build a reputation and establish good research contracts.