Subjects of change: The government’s top-down initiatives are proving a challenge

The Indonesian educational system is large, well funded, fast growing and quickly improving. Despite some difficult years as a result of the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis and some ineffective policies instituted in its aftermath, the government has made a significant commitment to the sector. Both the central and local authorities are required to spend at least 20% of their budgets on education. This benchmark, now enshrined in the fourth amendment to the constitution, is a level of spending achieved by few nations and promises to make Indonesia a country of great opportunity for both students and educators alike.

Yet there is a wide gap between the country’s educational goals and the reality on the ground. Because of lingering structural issues and persistent constraints on capacity, money is not getting to the students or to the schools, and outcomes are far from where they should be. The 20% figure, for example, has in most years been impossible to achieve. The funds have either not been fully distributed or not properly used.

Another potential issue is the introduction of a new curriculum, which began in 2013. While proponents say that it will help produce better, more capable students – and better citizens – critics quoted in the local press said that it shifts the balance of course work away from the practical and more toward subjects that will do little to prepare students for a modern, services-oriented, high-tech economy. As a result, they say, Indonesia could potentially suffer a shortage of qualified talent.

Size & Spending

Indonesia has 50m students, 2.6m teachers and 250,000 schools, according to the World Bank. For size, its educational system is number three in the region and number four in the world: only India, China and the US have larger ones. It is also well funded, making it an exception in the developing world. In 2012, the government set the budget for education at $35bn. Education spending doubled in real terms between 2000 and 2006, according to the World Bank, and almost tripled between 2001 and 2011, reaching 3% of GDP (about the same level as Singapore) from less than 1% two decades ago. Education has become better in other ways. A 2005 teachers law changed the criteria for certification in a bid to improve teacher quality, and the World Bank says that educational governance improved between 2009 and 2012, noting better transparency and educational management.

A Brief History

Formal education in Indonesia was first introduced in 1906, when the country set up a system of village schools. Earlier but less systematic efforts were made by colonial governments and religious institutions, according to Mission Schools in Batakland (Indonesia): 1861-1940, by Jan S Aritonang. Still, by 1946 only 6% of the population was literate, according to the paper “Decentralising Education in Indonesia”, by Stein Kristiansen and Pratikno.

In 1945, however, a constitutional amendment declared the right of all Indonesians to an education.

After that, national education became a priority. Oil revenues from 1973 on helped boost education, and the number of schools and students doubled by 1984. Also in that year, the goal of universal primary education was reached. Education spending as a portion of the central budget hit a high of 17-18% during that decade.

After the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis, education suffered. Spending decreased and enrolment dropped.

As of 2001, on the advice of international donors, the government launched a decentralisation programme whereby accountability, responsibility and control of much of the business of government were devolved to the local level. The idea behind dispersing power was to prevent a repeat of past errors. Since then, by some measures education has done well. The 20% spending mandate became part of the constitution in 2002. A teacher law was passed in 2005. By 2009, spending finally reached the 20% level required, and enrolment figures rose. According to the World Bank, secondary school enrolment, as a percentage of gross enrolment, jumped from 18% in 2000 to 81% in 2011.


On balance, though, decentralisation has been more problematic than helpful. It was approached in a “big bang” style, whereby power was devolved immediately to the local levels. Administrations at this level were unprepared to handle the new responsibilities suddenly foisted upon them.

Most measures of education in Indonesia confirm this. According to the World Bank, the sector suffers from problems with governance, accountability, transparency and efficiency. According to research by Kemitraan, a community group, none of the country’s provinces have been able to spend the required 20% on education, although spending is higher among cities and regencies and many have exceeded the 20% target. Leakage of funds has been reported by the Supreme Auditing Board, and as a result parents are often required to pay for education that should be free.

Such weaknesses show in educational outcomes. According to 2012 rankings by the Programme for International Student Assessment and published by the OECD, Indonesia came in second to last among the countries covered. In the Pearson index of cognitive skills and educational attainment, Indonesia came last out of 40. According to press reports, less than a third of students finish their schooling, less than half of teachers possess proper qualifications (one study says the rate is as low as 37% for elementary school teachers) and the distribution of resources is inefficient. Absenteeism is high among students and teachers alike: about 15% of teachers miss school on an average day. To blame for low teacher quality are oversupply, low salaries and a weak recruitment system, according to “Assessment of Policies to Improve Teacher Quality and Reduce Teacher Absenteeism”, a paper by Asep Suryahadi and Prio Sambodho of the SMERU Research Institute in Jakarta. The style of teaching – stressing rote memorisation and discipline, discouraging creative thinking – has also been criticised.

Broadleaf Towers

While the higher education system certainly has strengths and some substantial improvements have been made, it too faces challenges. The number of university and college graduates, for example, doubled between 2005 and 2012, according to the British Council. Enrolment rates, however, are low – in the neighbourhood of 20-25% – and questions about quality persist. In the U21 Ranking of National Higher Education Systems, conducted in 2013 by the University of Melbourne, Indonesia came in last out of 50 countries. In the QS World University Rankings 2013, only one local university, the University of Indonesia, was included in the top 400, ranking 309th. As a result, the country is lacking in skilled workers to staff companies. Reports indicate that 25% of new hires have to be retrained. According to the OECD, many graduates lack needed skills as they enter the workforce.

Hope Of Change

Various educational reforms have recently been initiated. In 2013, the number of years of compulsory education was increased from nine to 12 (the former had been required since 1994). Reforms in higher education have also been enacted. In 2012, the country passed the Higher Education Act, which significantly altered the landscape for tertiary education. It increased the autonomy of universities and gave institutions more control over their managements and budgets. The hope was that this restructuring would increase accountability, improve performance and enable them to raise funds outside of traditional state channels. The act also called on all municipalities and districts to establish community colleges and, above all, urged educational bodies to become more international. Relationships with foreign universities, seen as a threat to national security, were long restricted in the country. Under the new law, foreign institutions are encouraged to set up in Indonesia, though to do so they are required to collaborate with local institutions.

New Curriculum

The new curriculum was published in late 2012 and introduced on a limited basis in 2013. It was a matter of great debate as it was being developed and remains a much discussed subject. According to a July 2013 article in The Jakarta Globe, the new curriculum “slashes” the number of subjects taught in a day and drops “dedicated classes [in] science, English-language and social studies courses in favour of classes on Bahasa Indonesia, nationalism and religious studies”. The Jakarta Globe article said the main concern was about the shift toward softer subjects at the expense of “English, computers and science.”

Critics believe the programme has the potential to weaken the educational system. A January 2013 Jakarta Post article, which quoted teachers’ union officials, said that the Ministry of Education and Culture was trying to combine science with civics and religion, while Yohanes Surya, a physicist who helped write the curriculum but believes it ultimately went too far, said in an article in The Jakarta Globe that science needs to be taught as a dedicated subject from grade four rather than mixed with other subjects through grade six.

The programme is being defended by the Ministry of Education and Culture, which argues that many of the criticisms of the new curriculum are simply inaccurate. It insists that there has been no change in the amount of English being taught, and while headline hours in science are down in elementary school, science remains very much a part of all coursework. The ministry adds that information technology will be used throughout the school day, so a separate information and communications technology course is unnecessary.

Indonesia’s leaders say it is a good programme. According to comments by the deputy minister of education, Musliar Kasim, the curriculum will improve students’ character and make them more tolerant and empathetic. The education and culture minister, Mohammad Nuh, has defended the overhaul. He assured the local press that more religious education would not inspire extremism but rather reduce its likelihood, as children would receive better instruction in the subject. In late 2013, Jakarta Governor Joko Widodo said that he supported the changes. “I agree that the Indonesian language should be prioritised. English should be offered when [students enter] junior high school,” he was quoted by The Jakarta Globe as saying. “But I think that for elementary school, it’s better [to offer] Indonesian language and local educational content.”

The ministry claims one other practical benefit. Textbooks for the new curriculum were written and published by the government, and will be distributed free of charge. Students previously were required to buy their own books. The curriculum is to be rolled out in phases. During its initial introduction in July 2013, it was made available to just 6000 schools and only to students in the first, fourth, seventh and 10th grades. The goal is to implement the curriculum nationwide by 2015.

Parents, educators and foreign investors are concerned. They fear that the reformed curriculum may produce less qualified graduates and reduce the number of skilled workers at the very time Indonesia is seeking to advance economic development and expertise in manufacturing and services. Other concerns are related to the logistics of the undertaking. Teachers were provided 52 hours of training on the new curriculum, which some educators say is not enough.

Purpose Of Money

Indonesia has committed great sums of money to improving education, but observers wonder if it is being used efficiently. They argue that the country needs to focus on being more effective if it is to improve educational outcomes and train students for the challenges ahead. They say the country should focus less on gross numbers and instead on how resources are used. Funding is not the issue; rather, implementation must be improved. “I think what’s most important is not so much the amount, but how the money is being spent,” said Pedro Cerdan-Infantes, an education economist at the World Bank’s Jakarta office.


Optimists say the next few years could be the best half-decade for Indonesian education. The country has worked its way through past difficulties and begun to build a system that could greatly improve performance and outcomes. Observers are particularly hopeful that reforms at the tertiary level will cause universities to become more productive, competitive and financially sound. But concerns remain. The chief worries are that resources will not be used well and that the emphasis on character and national interests will obstruct better reforms. If Indonesia can carry out its programmes effectively, the improvements will be reflected both in test scores and in international rankings. Foreign universities would then be keener to form partnerships that further raise its global standing.

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The Report: Indonesia 2014

Education & Health chapter from The Report: Indonesia 2014

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