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Burn the Books, Bury the Scholars, Abort the Geeks

Posted on the 21 April 2012 by Ronnienolan @RonnieNolan

Education in Indonesia is appalling. Forget about quality, access to even the most rudimentary basic education is difficult for the majority. While those in government talks about a brighter future for Indonesia in the coming 15-40 years, they certainly aren’t backing up those visions with factual actions. Education, the means by which we equip our young generation with the skills necessary to fulfill their aspirations, has been thrown into the dustbin for a long while now. Not to mention that the government trumpeting their “accomplishments” within the sector of education, from the high “literacy” rate to the purportedly huge education budget, has helped little in allowing us to fully recognize this problem and address it with the honesty and urgency it so needs. This is doubtless creating an entire generation that would not be able to compete in the global market and would have an adverse effect on the effort to eradicate mass poverty from the country, particularly inter-generational poverty characterized by limited or non-existent social mobility.

In the 2012 National Budget Plan (APBN), government officials pat each other over the fact that they are dedicating 20% of the budget, or around Rp286.6 Trillion (US$31.2 Billion) towards education. Unfortunately, they forgot to mention how much of that is actually going to be spent on payroll and maintenance. If the previous years’ budget plans for education is any indication, we can expect around 70% of that to go towards payroll, with the rest split between infrastructure maintenance and improvements. Needless to say, maintenance will likely take precedence, so the funds for improvement of the quality of education and infrastructure will be whatever scraps is left, if there’s any. Let us also not neglect that since the allocated budget will flow through several government bodies, from central to regional to respective Ministry offices in the Regencies, before going down even more levels at the local districts, there is a lot of chances for whatever money passing through to be siphoned off. Whatever will reach the schools, should there be any left, will only be but a trickle of the allocation.

Burn the Books, Bury the Scholars, Abort the Geeks

This is the best investment ever, they say.

This is can be proven from the fact that despite the budgeted allocation being sufficient to sustain the Ministry’s operations, students are charged exorbitantly for their school fees, in addition to other illegal payments that the school requires them to make, which are necessary given that the schools usually receive way below what they need to maintain and operate the school. According to Indonesian Corruption Watch (ICW), in 2007, the Indonesian family pays an average of Rp4.7 Million (US$512) per child going through Primary School education for the year. To put this into perspective, that would be like American families (income per capita of US$48,147) paying US$5,300 (Rp49,000,000) to put one child through Primary School for a year. Consider also that this was back in 2007 when income per capita was still lower. Today, the price families pay to put a child through just basic education are doubtless higher.

There are other problems as well. That 70% of the budget would be spent on the Ministry’s payroll would not be such a bother if it weren’t for the news that nearly half of this country’s teachers, 1.3 million out of roughly 2.7 million teachers, are unqualified to teach in their respective positions. Primary School teachers who can barely read and write, High School teachers who have only the very basic understanding of the subject that they are teaching, the emphasis on rote learning and multiple-choice questions with problem-solving skills a distant and alien concept. You think this is a joke? I for one would think so if it weren’t for the fact that I’ve spent a decade in this country.

Of  course, it doesn’t end at the budget waste, the exorbitant costs and the dismal qualifications of teachers. The biggest bombshell is probably the rampant corruption that has permeated the education sector and academia. This takes many form, but the most common and persistent (and also dangerous) is the systematic mass-cheating during National Examinations, aided by none other than your friendly, neighborhood schools and examination coordinators responsible for overseeing the exam process. The policy of deciding budgetary allocation for schools and the promotion and demotion of their staff based on the performance of their students during National Examination has led to unhealthy practices where schools aid in the cheating by either giving out the answer sheets or pressuring excellent students to share their answers with the rest.

One such case rocked the country last year when Mdm Siami, mother of a bright student from a Primary School in Gadel, Surabaya, opened up the open secret on the case of cheating during the National Examination where her son was pressured by teachers and facilitators to share his answers with his classmates taking the test. While cases of cheating in schools has become stale news, what was particularly disturbing for this case was the scope of the cheating, where seemingly everyone involved in the facilitation of the exams, from the school to the teachers and the exam coordinators, as well as the students and their parents, were complicit in the act. That, and the response to Mdm Siami and her son’s honesty in coming forward with the truth. It would not be exaggerating to say that the entire community turned on Mdm Siami and her family, even forcing her to evacuate her home for months, labeling her a “traitor” to the community. This was communal insanity at its finest.

Burn the Books, Bury the Scholars, Abort the Geeks

Yes, it's Paint.

It took a lot of PR “wayang”, assurances from the Ministry that there will be no inquiry into the matter or retesting of the students in the school, despite the obvious need to, to get them to calm down. Also, that this is something that happened at the Primary School level bears a sickening implication for the state of similar matters at higher education levels. If anything, it really does get worse the higher levels you go. At higher education, students can regularly grease their teachers’ and lecturers’ palms for everything from marking their attendance despite being absent, to looking the other way when they send somebody else to sit for their tests! Even outright forgery and manufacturing of educational certificates is not unheard of. What is the implication for this?

On the moral and immediate side, these practices are definitely evil because it penalizes good and diligent students for the sake of the bad. It penalizes those who do not cheat, because they will be written off with the same brush as their cheating peers. After all, what has become of the value of an Indonesian certificate in light of these practices? I would argue that they are practically worthless, especially if the intent is to gauge the holder’s ability. This penalizes everyone with an Indonesian certificate, regardless of their character or intelligence. There’s also the effect on making good education or at least what is perceived to be good education, especially expensive. So expensive that only a small portion of the population may afford it. This would reduce Indonesia’s talent pool of competent individuals in the future. And definitely, the bulk of Indonesia’s talents would be wasted as their access to good education is restricted by their families’ financial fortunes. This would do little else than to stunt our future growth as we find ourselves unable to break the middle-income category (Indonesia is currently still a low-income country) and become a truly developed nation. On the long-term side, we are depriving entire generations of the skills and moral fiber they need to build a progressive and civilized society.

How do you trust surgeons to operate on you, knowing that he probably isn’t as qualified as he claims to be? How do you want to be defended in a court of law by a lawyer and judged by a judge with misconstrued understanding and interpretations of the law? And what about having political representatives with neither backbones nor moral character? It is hard to be optimistic of the future knowing this. Thus, it is imperative that changes are made soon before we reach a point of no return. Have we reached the point of no return? I would like to believe that we have not. I would like to believe that we still have a chance to turn back and remake our education sector from the ground up. However, I also believe that at the rate we are going, if we aren’t going to turn back, we might as well skip this process of slow-death and jump straight to burning the books, burying the scholars and aborting the geeks.

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