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Indonesia’s education system faces disaster

The Jakarta Post – OPINION & EDITORIAL, Friday, July 04, 2003

by Yanuar Nugroho

For those genuinely concerned about what is going on in the education system in this country, the present might be the right time to reflect on and rethink what we believe and value about education as the basis of development. Let us examine these two issues.

First, some state universities, after the government cut their subsidy, are now seeking to earn money from an admissions scheme for new students. Apart from the state university entrance scheme (SPMB), many state universities have created a “special channel” for those who have not been accepted through SPMB. This channel simply requires these “special students” pay a “special rate” — in some state universities it is formally termed a fee for institutional development (BPI) — after they have been offered a place.

Take some examples. UNS, a state university in Surakarta, Central Java, charges as much as Rp 75 million (around US$9,375) for special students at the school of medicine. The University of Indonesia charges Rp 120 million at a similar school. The same thing is most likely taking place at other state universities. Money really does matter when it comes to education, doesn’t it?

Commercialization of education, some would say.

Second, almost at the same time, we also learned, some days ago, that dozens of qualified Indonesian lecturers were applying for (and some had obtained) permission to abandon their civil service status, as they wanted to move to neighboring countries such as Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei for “better income” and “self development”.

These two facts seem to contradict one another. What does it mean?

So far, we may believe that education — particularly the formal kind — is a powerful vehicle for any society to advance itself. Nothing is wrong with this attitude, yet it seems that either this goal is too high for us to really achieve, or we are simply incapable. Why? There are two problems. The first deals with why educational systems are organized and the other concerns how.

Why are educational systems organized? One can see that the purpose of education is to develop an individual’s potential. Education is organized as a capacity-building mechanism to ascertain, empower and facilitate the progress of an individual in relation to — and for the sake of dealing with — culture, ethics and the common good.

Yet, another perspective, which is more powerful and becoming dominant, is the understanding of education as preparatory training for entering the job market and meeting its needs. It is the direct result of a new way of organizing society, necessarily demanded by the current, modern political economy of globalization.

The latter perspective becomes the key to understanding what actually takes place in our formal education and its recent relationship to globalization. In the heart of today’s globalization is the modern economy, which needs “interchangeable” as well as “modular” human resources to boost economic performance.

According to Herry-Priyono (2002), the words “interchangeable” and “modular” are the key to understanding the phenomenon. For example, an engineer’s absence, (for whatever reason, be it sickness, leave, being laid off, retirement, etc), must be filled by another engineer, just as for other professions, such as analysts, accountants or even machine operators. This might sound mercenary, but indeed it is the key to understanding the direct link between formal education — or schooling — and globalization.

Of course, education involves values. Yet, make no mistake: Values do not necessarily mean the normative agenda of education; instead — to be precise — the prevailing political-economic situation, whether we like it or not, is what deeply affects the mode of our formal education. What exactly does that mean?

Nowadays, formal education is no longer considered to be a prerequisite for character and capacity building. Instead, formal education simply prepares students to enter the labour market of industrialized society. The proof? Look at the curriculum, which indicates perfectly that the content and direction of formal education simply serves the interests and needs of business and industry. Thus, we can easily see that there are “favored” and “most wanted” universities, schools, departments or subjects, which precisely implies, “they offer the best chance to make money after graduation.”

The second problem is about how education is organized and delivered to the public. For those who are aware of the power of capital, it is clear that financial considerations are the decisive factor in the formal educational infrastructure, in order to meet the needs imposed by the political economy of globalization, such as the need for laboratories, a computer-literate society and the like.

In Indonesia, for example, the government’s stated willingness to allocate 20 percent of the state budget to education is not even close to the reality — it was only 2.8 percent in 1998 and no more than 5 percent in the 2000 state budget. It is not surprising, therefore, to learn that Indonesia’s education quality ranking is only 109 (of 174 countries), according to UNICEF (2000). Of course, we cannot place everything on the state’s shoulders — including setting priorities for formal education — as there are many factors, but the lack of financial support is a very important one.

So, if for the sake of global competition the government cuts all subsidies and taxes, we can now easily understand that state universities, as a consequence, are forced to earn their own money — and commercialization appears to be the most desirable path to follow. That, at a glance, does not appear that different from the liberalization and privatization of other services — even essential ones — such as water, health and electricity. The principle involved is clear: full cost recovery, which means simply that education will no longer be delivered to people as a right or because, as citizens, they are entitled to it. Furthermore, education is perceived as a commodity whose provision should be paid for in full — and should even make a profit.

Clearly, thus far, the typical mode of service delivery — centralized public agency provision — has had its successes and failures. Therefore, without doubt, it must be improved. However, in this era of globalization, the pendulum seems to have swung from one extreme to the other. Current attempts to commercialize services appear to have a simple logic: Establish a service market where services are treated like commodities, sold and traded freely — including education.

Yet, education is a public good: Society in general is better off because its people are well-educated, not merely well-schooled. Consequently, services such as education inherently occupy the public rather than private domain. They should therefore be funded, managed and governed as such — this is the only direction that can be followed by future education policy-makers and managers.

We exist in a river of history that is an everlasting battle between “pragmatism” and “idealism”; it is impossible for us to avoid the tension.

But be careful: Some solutions are more pragmatic than others and can often lead to tragedy. If we make the wrong choices, they will crush our own future.

The writer is the director of Business Watch Indonesia in Surakarta, Central Java and a researcher at Uni Sosial Demokrat Jakarta.

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