Educating future Indonesians: An absence of dedication

Ratih Hardjono, Jakarta | Opinion | Tue, July 16 2013, 11:41 AM

A nation’s future of sustained economic growth depends very much on the quality of its human resources, and this is determined by the quality of education.

Studies have also shown that education is a crucial factor in reducing income inequality, as can be seen in many Latin American countries. Investment in a nation’s education takes 10 to 15 years for a country to reap the benefits.

Since 2008, thanks to a constitutional amendment, spending on education has been set at 20 percent of the total budget.

The budget for education in 2013 is nearly U$6 billion, which makes education one of the top seven recipients of state budget funds. Currently, there are approximately 59 million students, 3 million teachers and 330,000 schools.

So what does the Education and Culture Ministry do with a whopping $6 billion? Education and Culture Minister Mohammad Nuh, said in February this year that in 2007, 80 percent of the children who entered primary school graduated, but out of this number only 61 percent continued on to junior high.

The minister went on to say that, of those who did enter junior high school, only 48 percent completed this stage of schooling and of this number only 21 percent continued to senior high.

Of this 21 percent, only 10 percent graduated. Of the 10 percent who graduated, only 1.4 percent undertook tertiary education.

It was safe for the minister to talk about numbers in 2007, it was six years ago and a long time before he became education and culture minister.

During the last decade, primary education enrolment rates have been impressive.

There is, however, more to education than just enrolment! Has the proportion of drop-outs also decreased dramatically since 2007?

Given that we are entering a demographic bonus, where there will be a large number of youths, which should be able to fuel our economic growth, have the enrolments produced a workforce that is now developing our economy?

A report released by the World Bank in March this year entitled Spending More or Spending Better: Improving Education Financing in Indonesia finds that, despite the large increase in education spending, the quality has not improved.

According to the report, Indonesia’s performance in international tests has been disappointing; in fact, the country’s general scores were at the bottom of international assessments of learning achievements.

Apparently, when eighth grade Indonesian students were tested through Trends in International Mathematics and Science Studies (TIMSS), which is an international benchmark for mathematics and science, they performed significantly worse than students from Thailand and Malaysia.

The TIMSS test showed that not only are average scores low but that the share of students achieving the highest levels of performance is also very small, with only the top 20 percent of performers in Indonesia achieving at least an intermediate score.

Only 3 percent achieved scores at the highest level and no students scored at the advanced level. In contrast, almost 50 percent of students in Thailand and Malaysia achieved at least the intermediate level, while 10 percent achieved high benchmarks and 1 percent achieved advanced levels.

The results show that average scores in 2003 and 2009 are not statistically very different in mathematics and science. Only reading scores improved. Even more worrying is the fact that, when researchers broke down results by socio-economic deciles, the inequality in access to quality education was glaringly obvious.

There was a significant difference in performance between the richest and poorest students in mathematics. Poor students performed significantly worse than rich students, and this difference has not improved since 2003.

So, where did all the money go? The same report found that a large share of the massive increase went to pay teachers’ salaries and teachers’ certification allowances.

The increase in spending on salaries was driven by a fast increase in the total number of teachers, which continues to increase despite Indonesia already having one of the lowest student-teacher ratios in the world.

The teacher certification program almost doubled the pay of certified teachers through an allowance equivalent to a teacher’s basic pay. This allowance absorbed more than 2 percent of the state budget in 2009, even though only 30 percent of teachers were certified.

It is convenient to blame decentralization. One intrinsic problem is the attitude of our bureaucracy to the notion of public service. There is even rejection among much of the bureaucracy of the basic principle that the main task of civil servants is to serve the community that pays their wages.

Bureaucrats have been smart in serving whoever their masters are, so that their privileges as civil servants remain intact. With this framework of thinking, it is easy to see how budgets are used mainly for operational costs rather than servicing the community.

Political elites must agree to stop playing politics with education and to take education out of the political horse trading that takes place when new cabinets are formed.

The minister in charge needs to be competent and not politically well connected just because a political party was promised the job for agreeing to be in the government’s coalition. This approach has cost us dearly!

We have a Master Plan for Acceleration and Expansion of Indonesian Economic Development (MP3EI), so why not have a Master Plan for Acceleration and Expansion of Indonesian Educational Development?

Indonesia needs bridges and roads, but if we are to develop our economy, we desperately need skilled human resources. If we can plan infrastructure building for the next 15 years, why can we not do it for education when so much depends on it?

If not, we will be importing doctors and engineers and continuing to export migrant workers (TKI).

The writer, a former journalist, is secretary-general of the Indonesian Community for Democracy (KID). She was a recipient of the Nieman Fellowship for Journalism at Harvard University, in the class of 1994.