In Exorcising Ills of Education System, Still No Silver Bullet

Fri, 06/26/2015

Jakarta. Civil society organizations and education experts have called on the national government to employ a holistic plan of action in reforming the Indonesian education system.

“Indonesia has a very strong education system, and it has worked well in the past. The challenge is now to reform it, so that it meets the needs of Indonesians today,” said Nabendra Dahal, chief of education at the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) Indonesia.

“The system that has served us well up until now will not serve us well tomorrow. It needs redirecting,” Dahal said on Monday.

According to figures from Unicef, 97 percent of Indonesia’s children were enrolled in primary education programs in 2012.

Though major successes have been made in improving access to education, ensuring a standard of quality across the nation seems to be a stumbling block for reformers. 

“If we look at the quality of education from any indicator, there seems to be no significant progress, even with budget increases,” said Sutarum Wiryono, education officer at the Indonesian resident mission of the Asian Development Bank (ADB).

“If we look at the results of the PISA, there’s still no improvement in quality over time,” Sutarum added.

Launched by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) is a worldwide study which tests students’ aptitudes in various subjects.

The latest PISA report, released in 2012, found that Indonesian students performed dismally on the international level.

In mathematics, Indonesian students ranked 63rd out of the 64 PISA-participating countries. Indonesians students ranked 63rd in science and 59th in reading.

“Around 50 percent of Indonesia’s students do not meet the minimum international standard. There is a huge problem of quality, despite heavy investment in education,” Dahal said.

According to data from the World Bank, the Indonesian government spent 20 percent of its total government expenditure in 2012 on education, amounting to nearly Rp 310.8 trillion ($23.3 billion).

Disparities in access 

Though Indonesia boasts robust figures in primary school enrolment, difficulties in ensuring equitable access to education still exist, particularly among the nation’s rural poor.

Dahal noted “at the primary level, 96 percent of children from the poorest households are enrolled. But by the time it goes to secondary school, only 38 percent of children from the poorest 20 percent of households are enrolled.

The biggest barrier today is cost of education. It’s not the only barrier, but it is the biggest one.” 

Monik Harahap, a project coordinator with non-profit Taman Bacaan Pelangi, believes that more initiative is needed in distributing educational materials throughout the archipelago.

“The government needs to reach children in rural areas. There are children in eastern Indonesia who don’t receive the quality books they need,” Monik said on Tuesday.

“There has to be stronger regulations on the distribution of teachers to rural sectors.” said Monik.

Unicef findings have further reported deep disparities in the availability of teachers across the nation.

Chief of education Dahal said “when Unicef supported a study conducted by the SMERU research institute, we found that 33 percent of school teachers were absent.”

“We then decided to complain to the school directors, only to find that 50 percent of the directors were also absent.”

Human capital

Issues in the Indonesian education system could threaten the growth of the nation’s human capital resources, experts say.

Dahal highlights the intertwined relationship between development and education.

“The best way to think about education is to focus on the children themselves. Thirty-five percent of children in Indonesia are stunted, which means they could have problems in cognitive development.”

“By the age of 2, 80 percent of the brain’s connections have already taken place. If children do not receive adequate support during the golden 1,000 days, their development potential is severely limited,” Dahal said, referring to the crucial time period between conception and a child’s second birthday. 

ADB’s Sutarum notes that inefficient education programs could produce serious consequences for Indonesia, a nation with a booming youth population.

“We need to be careful. If we do not teach the youth productive skills, and if there aren’t any employment opportunities, then the demographic bonus could be a threat,” Sutarum said, noting that the size of Indonesia’s working-age population has increased dramatically in recent years.  

Dahal agreed, saying “disparity leads to discontent, which can lead to problems of peace and security.”

“If governments do not build schools, they will end up building prisons in the future,” Dahal added.

The necessity of reforming Indonesia’s education sector will become apparent as the nation edges closer to the establishment of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Economic Community (AEC) at the end of 2015.

Under the AEC, the migration of labor will face considerable liberalization, opening up new markets to workers.

In response to changes in the global economy, Sutarum said “it’s hard to imagine what could happen ten years from now if we don’t improve our education system.”


“The global market may have fewer boundaries, and competition among nations will be even tougher.”

Handoko Widagdo, a whole school development specialist at World Education concurs, saying “if Indonesia fails in improving its education system, we won’t be able to take on an active role in the globalization process.”

“If we keep moving forward this way, we will only be consumers in the global market,” he said on Thursday.

A new hope

As challenges continue to mount, the national government has instituted a series of different policies to help clear a path towards accessible quality education.

Last November marked the launch of the hotly anticipated Indonesia Smart Card (KIP), a program that provides cash transfers for education to families in need.

Recipients of the card are eligible to earn Rp 225,000 per semester for elementary students, Rp 375,000 per semester for junior high students and Rp 500,000 per semester for senior high or vocational school students.

According to Unicef’s Dahal, the KIP program succeeds in that it targets both children who are in danger of dropping out of school, and those who are not enrolled in school at all.

Unicef estimates that nearly 6.8 million Indonesian children between the ages of 7 and 18 remain out of school systems. 

The Education Ministry has also tightened regulation on teacher certification, in the hopes of improving the capacities of school employees.

In discussing various programs designed to improve public education in Indonesia, Dahal notes “when it comes to improving the quality of Indonesian education, there’s no silver bullet. These problems must be addressed holistically.”

“There needs to be a change not just in the Education Ministry, but at all levels and sectors of government.”

Sutarum agrees, believing that consistency across government in designing education policy could be the key to healthy reform.

“It’s important that the government improves its grand strategy by having concerted efforts. Because so far, there’s a tendency of inconsistency of policy,” Sutarum said, referencing shifts in government position over the controversial 2013 curriculum.

“I’m not saying that we should stick to one system and use it forever, but I think consistency is important. Whatever investments we have made in the past, we should use as capital to build the system up better,” Sutarum concluded. 

In light of recent efforts to address key issues, Dahal believes that progress could be made.

“[Anies Baswedan] has very clear strategies in empowering stakeholders in education, improving access and quality, and reforming bureaucracy,” Dahal said, speaking about the education minister.

“We are seeing very competent leaders within the Education Ministry, and we are very excited by these new developments.”

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