With the sector going through an overhaul and expansion, education in Indonesia represents both an opportunity and a challenge for educators, policy markers and investors alike. Indeed, major programmes of new school and college construction, new teaching requirements and a new outlook, aimed at bringing academia and business closer together, may transform the landscape over the next few years.

MOVERS & SHAKERS: The education system is overseen by the Ministry of National Education (MoNE), with the Ministry of Religious Affairs (MoRA) regulating madrasahs (Islamic schools). Underlying these institutions’ authority is the education law, which is based on the constitution. The latter, heavily amended since its inception in 1945, guarantees the right of all Indonesian children to basic education. Currently, and for more than a decade past, this has been taken to mean nine years of schooling.

Both state and private schools exist in Indonesia, with some of the latter classifying themselves as National Plus schools. These have subjects that are in addition to the national curriculum, which consists of a minimum standard that the MoNE and/or MoRA expects schools to adhere to. In 2012, debate over the curriculum resulted in the MoNE announcing a new, slimmed-down version for the elementary level. This involves removing science, social science and English, with a concentration on basic maths, Bahasa Indonesian, religious studies and patriotism. The dropped subjects will be taught at more senior levels. The change has not been universally welcomed.

At primary and secondary level the MoNE oversees both public and private general schools, while the MoRA oversees the madrasahs. Both are also active in higher education (HE), with the former responsible for public and private universities, and the latter for higher institutes for religious education.

PRE & PRIMARY SCHOOLS: Education begins with kindergarten (ages four to six), although this is not compulsory. The Department of Statistics (DOS) shows 69,126 of these in operation under the MoNE for the 2010/11 academic year, a total up on the 65,101 of 2008/09. Some 198,250 teachers worked in these kindergartens in 2010/11, teaching 3m children.

At the next level, the DOS figures for 2010/11 showed 146,804 primary schools (known as sekolah desar, covering the age range from six to 12) under the MoNE, up from 144,228 in 2008/09, with 1.5m teachers and around 27.5m pupils in 2010/11, up from 1.4m teachers and 27m pupils in 2008/09.

In addition, coming under the MoRA were 22,527 primary madrasahs (known as madrasah ibitdaiyah) in 2010/11, up from 21,524 in 2008/09, with 258,737 teachers and 3.08m pupils in 2010/11, up from 229,985 teachers and 2.9m students in 2008/09.

JUNIOR HIGH: When it came to junior high schools (known as sekolah menengah pertama) covering the age range 12-15, there were 30,290 of these under the MoNE in 2010/11, up from 28,777 in 2008/09, with 526,615 teachers and 9.4m pupils in 2010/11, down from 600,451 teachers and up from 9m pupils in 2008/09, showing worsening teacher/pupil ratios.

In the next level of religious schools, the madrasah tsanawiyah, under the MoRA, the 2008/09 numbers were 13,292 schools, 245,699 teachers and 2.5m pupils, while in 2010/11, the respective figures were 14,782 schools, 245,575 teachers and 2.6m pupils.

HIGH SCHOOLS: At senior high school level, ( sekolah memegah atas), 2008/09 figures from the MoNE indicate there were 10,602 schools, 303,652 teachers and 3.9m pupils, while in 2010/11, the figures were 11,306 schools, 253,300 teachers and 4.1m pupils. At this age group – which is 15-18 – there are also vocational schools under the MoNE, known as sekolah menengah kejuruan. Of these, in 2008/09 there were 7592, employing 258,426 teachers and with 3.1m pupils. For 2010/11 there were 9164 schools, 146,492 teachers and 3.7m pupils – also demonstrating that, as the population has grown, school classrooms have become increasingly crowded.

The MoRA equivalent at this level is the madrasah aliyah, which gave numbers of 5648 madrasahs in 2008/09, with 112,793 teachers and 895,834 students, while in 2010/11 the numbers were 6426 of these schools with 126,497 teachers and 1m students.

KEY INDICATORS: The key indicator for student performance, literacy, has held steady in recent years, alongside enrolment, with some 97.95% of seven- to 12-year-olds attending in 2009, 98.02% in 2010 and 97.58% in 2011. Yet after that group, the numbers begin to fall. In 2010 the 13-15 age group saw an average 87.8% attending, the 16-18 age group, 57.5%, and the 19-24 group, 14.3%. Differences in enrolment between genders remain within one percentage point at all age ranges, except 13-15, when slightly more girls attend than boys. By 2008 the World Bank was reporting the literacy rate at around 100% for those under 15 years old, with illiteracy mainly confined to the older population in more remote areas.

Thus the education system has been largely successful at bringing Indonesians into the primary and junior levels, with sector professionals now looking to extend these results higher up the educational ladder. However, there remain some wide regional variations in terms of enrolment and attendance, along with an urban-rural differential. “There is a gap between Jakarta and the rural areas,” Nenny Soemawinata, the managing director of the Putera Sampoerna Foundation, which is active in the sector, told OBG. “Many youths who should be in school are not.”

The DOS statistics show that in 2011, 70.53% of the five- to nine-year-old age group attended school in urban areas, while the figure was 68.66% in rural regions. In the 10-14 age group, the gap was similar, then widened dramatically in the 15-19 group. There, while 62.66% of children attended school in urban areas, in rural areas the figure was 51.85%. Into higher education, and the gap grows still further. Organisations such as the Putera Sampoerna Foundation have been trying to tackle this issue. The foundation has pursued a strategy of developing leaders who receive a good education and then return to the rural areas, building local capacity as a way of reversing the brain drain to the cities. The government too is addressing this via moves to build up educational institutions in the regions and provinces.

EXPANSION: Indeed, this is a central part of the new government strategy to implement universal secondary education. This involves increasing the number of years of compulsory schooling from nine to 12 and is due to begin in 2013. The move requires a major expansion in funding for education, with the government providing the school operating costs for both state and private sector schools – currently, only primary and junior facilities are subsidised in this way.

The immediate impact of this will be a major expansion in school building programmes. Up to 2015, according to the MoNE, an additional 1600 schools will be needed, nationwide. From then until 2020, a further 1600 will need to be built and staffed. The intention is to boost the numbers graduating senior high school to 95%. Such an expansive programme also requires a major increase in teacher numbers.

According to the MoNE, current teacher training institutions provide around 2500 newly qualified teachers every year, yet the expansion agenda requires some 5000 new teachers a year – twice current capacity. More teacher training facilities will be needed to meet this shortfall, but in the meantime, a MoNE programme has taken training out into the field, placing trainee teachers in schools for half their course, while the other half is spent at teacher training centres. In this way, trainees can gain on-the-job experience and also help ease the capacity challenge.

At the same time, the MoNE intends to boost the quality level of its existing and future teaching staff. Recent tests carried out by the MoNE to judge the competency levels of teaching staff have proved generally disappointing, with low scores across the country. Partly, this is the result of long-term neglect of teacher training, with little support given once a teacher is in post. There are also major difficulties in removing poor quality teachers, who often enjoy lifetime contracts. Yet it also represents the challenge of changing attitudes towards the profession, making it a more desirable career choice for graduates. Conscious of these issues, the MoNE is moving to institute stricter standards for teacher training, to raise the quality of teachers, while also potentially boosting the number of graduates.

Many private academies now offer education programmes, yet only the state-run training institutes are licensed to certify teachers, meaning that after attending a private course, trainees must still go to a state institution. Yet, according to the Indonesian Teachers’ Law, these state institutes must be boarding schools and must be financed by a scholarship. These restrictions narrow capacity. Given the huge surge in demand for teachers the new 12-year education reform implies, pressure is thus now on for a change in the way teachers are trained. Here, the private sector may have an increased role, with MoNE officials debating in late 2012 whether private sector institutions that passed rigorous standards might also be able to issue teaching certificates in future.

PRIVATE PLAYERS: Indeed, the expansion of universal education to 12 years may have a major impact on the private sector. For a start, financing the construction of some 3200 new schools over the next eight years is likely to be partly undertaken through public-private partnership (PPP) initiatives. The MoNE has said that the funding breakdown for the expansion would likely be around 60-70% from the government and the rest from the private sector. The details for this were still being finalised at time of press. Teacher training – both at pre-qualification and post-qualification levels – is expected to see major expansion in the years ahead, with scope there for more private sector training outfits to become involved.

HIGHER EDUCATION OPENING: Also likely to result in greater private sector involvement in education are some major changes now under way in Indonesia’s HE sector. New regulations are now coming into force that should see a much greater role for foreign institutions, too, while at the same time granting greater autonomy to universities, potentially opening the door to collaboration between academia and business. Overall, the aim is to increase the number of Indonesians gaining higher qualifications, as the country makes major structural reforms to sustain economic growth and prosperity into the years ahead.

HE really only began in earnest in Indonesia with independence in 1945 – at which point, the country had no more than 1000 students enrolled in tertiary provision, with only half of these native-born, according to a 2010 World Bank study. By 2008 though, the same study recorded over 4.5m students enrolled in HE nationwide, while figures from the DOS showed 4.79m attending universities under the MoNE’s remit for the 2010/11 academic year. That year too, some 576,516 students were enrolled in universities under the authority of the MoRA.

At the same time, a large number of Indonesians travel abroad for their tertiary education. MoNE figures show that approximately 40,000 students enrolled overseas in 2010, the largest group – some 17,000 – in neighbouring Australia.

LEGAL ENVIRONMENT: Until recently, a single law governed all levels of education, including HE, but this changed with parliament’s passing of the new Higher Education Bill in July 2012. Thus, the HE sector is now governed by two laws. The rationale for passing a law specific to HE was that it was felt by the government and education professionals alike that issues such as governance, research and the public services of universities should be clearly addressed, with the old law being too general. A number of aspects specific to the HE sector have been introduced. Of greatest interest to many overseas has been the provision under Article 90 of the law that foreign universities can operate in Indonesia. Previously, while several foreign institutions have maintained offices in the country, these had only been used to administer exchange programmes and joint degrees. Australia’s Monash is one of the better known, along with the Melbourne Institute of Business and Technology. However, this is set to change.

The aim of the new law is to encourage foreign universities to open whole branch campuses, as seen in neighbouring Malaysia, and thus help reduce the flow of students abroad. Indeed, in some instances, study at a foreign university can turn into a more permanent loss of talent for the home country.

Yet there are some conditions attached to the new provision. First, the institution must be properly accredited in its country of origin; second, it must operate in partnership with an Indonesian university; third, it must have a non-profit orientation; and fourth, it must prioritise the appointment of Indonesian staff and support the national interest.

In essence, the government may well be able to decide where the foreign university establishes itself and which programmes it runs – with government officials stating in late 2012 that they envisaged foreign institutions focusing on courses that involved a high level of capital investment, such as those in the engineering and science fields.

As of that time, the detail of the law – the all-important implementing regulations – had yet to be released, with the possibility that these may create a certain amount of wriggle room for potential entrants. As the rules stand, finding institutions willing to participate may be challenging, although the potential for future growth and greater flexibility may be tempting. The new law also includes a major provision introducing diploma-level community colleges. The law stipulates that there should be at least one of these for each region. These colleges will be based on the US system, in which, after two-years attendance, enough credits can be built up for a student to then transfer to university.

HE EXPANSION: Should the law be successful in engendering a greater variety of more affordable institutions, it is expected that more students will be encouraged to enter the HE system, while also spreading HE coverage to currently under-served regions. In addition, each province – the administrative layer above region – will also have its own university, funded by the central and provincial authorities. This represents a major expansion of HE.

“In our long-term planning [by 2025] we are planning to establish 850 community colleges,” Professor Abdullah Alkaff, a senior advisor to the MoNE, told OBG. “In 2013, we have a target of 125.” This should help with the current bottleneck in HE applications. Figures from the Putera Sampoerna Foundation suggest that as many as 450,000 applications may be made for state HE institutions each year, with only around 75,000 places available annually.

Another important provision of the law is that it moves towards greater university autonomy – a move that successive governments have tried to make, only to fall foul of constitutional requirements for equality in education. Details of how the new law will allow institutions to proceed have yet to be clarified. However, as a means of countering any discrimination that might result from excessive autonomy, state universities are now required to set aside 20% of their places for economically disadvantaged students.

Indeed, the non-profit clause for foreign universities is also a response to earlier setbacks in efforts to reform the HE level in this area. A previous law, struck down in 2009 by the constitutional court, was criticised on the grounds that it had opened the HE sector up to commercialisation, with the result that a number of Indonesians were going to be excluded by high entry fees. As a result of this and given the low rate of transition from secondary to tertiary education among the bottom three economic quintiles, the provision for poor students is less than 10%, according to the World Bank.

In terms of governance, provinces may be given wider responsibilities in managing their local university. At the same time, regional governments may be able to exercise managerial functions over their local community college. Both moves would increase institutional autonomy, although the precise details were still to be announced at time of press.

Universities, like schools, are expected by the MoNE and MoRA to offer a core group of subjects, with other programmes left up to them. The national education standards agency is responsible for ensure that all programmes meet good standards, while making sure that the universities themselves make the grade is currently up to accreditation agencies that are themselves accredited by a central authority at the MoNE. In the short-term, however, officials within the ministry expect that as many as a dozen independent accreditation agencies may be licensed.

BRINGING IN BUSINESS: Another major challenge that the HE sector in particular faces is that of bridging the divide between academic and business interests. Traditional attitudes have tended to hamper efforts in the research and development (R&D) field, which is largely focused outwards to the creation of marketable products, while businesses have often simply relied on importing new technologies, rather than encouraging domestic R&D, which can be particularly expensive, initially.

Muhammad AS Hikam, the vice-rector IV at President University and a former government minister for research and technology, told OBG, “There is a tradition here in business to import foreign R&D, so we will need to work very hard to get local industries to pay attention to cultivating the local R&D sector.” Not only the creation, but the implementation of incentives to encourage local R&D and its linkage to business is widely called for in the education community. At the same time, a change of approach to education itself towards more creative, critical and entrepreneurial skills over traditional, rote learning, is also widely called for. In this, there is some optimism that the arrival of more foreign institutions might help kick start further change.

OUTLOOK: With the details of the new HE law set to be hammered out in the next one to two years, it may still be some time before the potential benefits of the reform are felt. In the meantime, however, there are huge opportunities in the secondary education expansion being planned by the government. Such a huge programme of new schools necessarily involves investment in not only bricks and mortar, but equipment and human resources. In all of these, there is a role for the private sector and for high-quality foreign educational outfits. With an expanding population of 242m, future demand is also set to keep increasing.