Votes for a brighter future

June 25, 1999

From the world's newest democracy, Neil Kemp and Geoff Evans report on the state of education in Indonesia.

Indonesians were spoilt for choice in this month's elections. Ballot papers listed no fewer than 48 political parties. More basic choices, however, such as whether to keep children in education, present fewer options - the economic crisis has forced many to curtail their studies and seek work.

Although education was barely mentioned by the parties in their campaigns, it was implicit in most of their policies. Top of the agenda was reformasi - a word covering the need for both political and economic reform. The former is gathering speed with the students who led the drive to oust President Suharto, and who are now challenging the role of the military, demanding an end to corruption and seeking to safeguard the future in what has become the world's third largest democracy.

The main theme that differentiated the parties is the tension between nationalism and Islamicisation, but even the more conservative elements are positive about Indonesia's role in the globalisation process. The new majority party (PDIP) is strong on this issue and recognises the importance of higher education in meeting the challenge - through strengthening academic independence, promoting multidisciplinary understanding and by removing the partitions between various types of institution, including the Islamic institutes.

All of this is taking place against a backdrop of economic stringency. Everyone desperately awaits the return to economic growth, mainly to be able to purchase life's essentials again, including education. Difficult decisions about investment in education are not just confined to the poor. Indonesia has been very successful in passing the cost of university education on to the main consumers. Government-funded institutions have been constrained while some 1,300 fee-paying private universities have been encouraged to grow.

Even the elite (a fraction of the 200 million inhabitants) must choose whether to send their children to an overseas university or to educate them locally. Before the crisis there were nearly 40,000 young Indonesians studying overseas. This number is now estimated to have dropped 30 per cent to around ,000. Nonetheless, Indonesia still represents one of the largest sources of international students in the world. This is a real testimony to the country's commitment to education given that the purchasing power of the rupiah has shrunk so dramatically: in 1997, Rp4,000 bought Pounds 1; now they are worth just 30p.

The issue that unites all in education is quality. Parents know that when the competition for jobs is at its toughest, the quality of qualifications can be the deciding criterion. Under Suharto there were significant improvements in education provision, in particular universal basic education has almost been achieved and girls are taking their rightful place alongside boys. This success only serves to increase demand for higher education, resulting in even greater competition for scarce funds and a downward pressure on quality.

An under-resourced system results in many difficulties: university staff are forced to supplement their meagre wages by taking on three or four jobs; there are no funds for equipment or books; and research is almost non-

existent.

These same problems will face the new government. The need for quality has already been stressed, but where will the funds come from? Some state universities have been earmarked for autonomy and a new National Accreditation Board has been formed. The latter is particularly important given the rapid growth of private-sector universities. These policies will almost certainly continue and Britain has been active in supporting them. The Indonesian authorities like the British Quality Assurance Agency approach and senior staff have attended special training at Newcastle University.

Despite all the difficulties, even poorly trained teachers, with salaries of about Pounds 30 per month, remain highly motivated. At a recent "active teaching" workshop run by the British Council in West Java, some 66 teachers worked with staff from Manchester Metropolitan University. During the workshop the teachers produced materials (including an abacus made from a banana plant) and highly innovative lesson plans that were subsequently trialled in schools. The top three teachers won a trip to MMU for special training and will now be resource personnel for future workshops.

In the early days of the crisis, universities suffered as a result of students having to leave their courses. Fortunately, the relatively flexible higher education system allows students to move in and out of education according to their personal circumstances. More recent enrolments in private universities indicate a renewed demand, even though some course fees have increased by a factor of three: some Masters programmes now cost Pounds 6,000 in a country where average incomes are around Pounds 300 per annum.

Alternative means of providing education are also gaining ground. Distance learning has great potential in a country as populous and widely scattered as Indonesia, where great economies of scale are possible. The outgoing administration has been relatively cautious, with much concern over quality and exam fraud. There has been some change in legislation, but the new government will almost certainly take time before it allows access by

foreign universities with quite

the openness of Singapore or

Malaysia.

The new politicians have a very difficult time ahead. People are demanding rapid political and economic change. They also want choice, not simply between political parties, but on substantive issues, including greater access to quality education. Neil Kemp and Geoff Evans work for the British Council in Indonesia.

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