Is Indonesia’s soaring education budget delivering?

By Hasyim Widhiarto

After learning the hard way from the collapse of the country’s economy during the 1997-1998 Asian financial crisis, which led to the end of former president Soeharto’s long reign, Indonesia’s political leaders quickly realized the importance of enhancing the quality of national education to ensure the country’s future development.

The collective commitment to begin a long-term investment in human capital finally materialized in 2002 during the fourth and latest amendment of the Constitution, in which legislators agreed to include a paragraph in Article 31 on education, which stipulates that central and regional governments must allocate at least a fifth of their annual budget to the education sector.

However, it was not until 2009 that the government, under the leadership of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, was able to meet the constitutional obligation following a Constitutional Court ruling in 2008, which declared that that year’s state budget contravened the Constitution as it had yet to allocate 20 percent or more to educational spending.

Consequently, the money pouring into the sector rose by 35 percent, from Rp 154.2 trillion (US$12.9 billion) in 2008 to Rp 208.3 trillion in 2009. This year, the government allocated Rp 368.9 trillion for the sector and plans to spend another Rp 404 trillion in 2015.

Despite the government’s soaring education expenditure during the past several years, recent data and studies have disturbingly shown that the massive investment has had very little impact on improving the overall quality of education.

Although Indonesia has seen the compulsory years of schooling per student increase from 11.2 in 2005 to 12.9 in 2012, and the student-teacher ratio in primary education decline from 22 in 2000 to lower than 20 a decade later, the academic performance of Indonesian students is still far below that of students from other Asian countries, including China, Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Malaysia.

In December last year, the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), for instance, revealed that Indonesia finished second-lowest out of the 65 countries and regions participating in its 2012 assessment.

Organized by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) since 2000, PISA is a triennial assessment designed to compare the quality of international education by testing the performance of 15-year-old students in reading, mathematics and science. In 2012, PISA’s assessment involved more than 510,000 students across the globe, including Indonesia.

In their joint article Where did all the money go? Financing basic education in Indonesia, published in a 2013 book, Education in Indonesia, World Bank economists Samer Al-Samarrai and Pedro Cerdan-Infantes argued that even the increasing number of teachers and the ongoing teacher certification program had failed to significantly improve the quality of the country’s basic education, prompting the need to merge smaller schools as well as reviewing the teacher recruitment process, which is now managed by local governments following the implementation of decentralized governance in the early 2000s.

“The certification and conversion of employment status of all primary and junior secondary school teachers would imply that 89 percent of the total education budget in 2015 would need to be devoted to basic education. Given the [government’s] commitments outside basic education, this level of spending is completely unsustainable,” they wrote.

According to the 2005 Teachers and Lecturers Law, which was passed a year after President Yudhoyono started his first term in office, around 3 million elementary and secondary school teachers have to be certified by 2015 in the hope of improving their professional competence.

The program, which requires teachers to have a bachelor’s degree and pass both administrative and competency tests, is also aimed at improving teachers’ welfare, as certified teachers are eligible to receive an additional allowance apart from their basic salary.

Surabaya State University (Unesa) education science professor Yatim Riyanto, who helped the Education and Culture Ministry design the procedure for the teacher certification program in 2008, admitted that the program’s results failed to meet his expectations.

“We initially assumed that a salary increase would encourage teachers to perform better in schools. However, it turned out that most certified teachers have done almost nothing to improve their [teaching] skills or competency, making them no different than uncertified ones,” he recently told The Jakarta Post.

The relatively low quality of teachers, according to Yatim, also hampered the government’s efforts to introduce the 2013 education curriculum, which was deemed an improvement over the 2004 and 2006 curriculums.

“Studies have shown that teachers contribute the greatest amount to students’ learning outcomes. Therefore, no matter how good an educational curriculum is, it will be difficult for the government to implement the curriculum when most teachers do not possess the necessary skills and understanding to introduce it to students,” he said.

Indonesian Teachers Association (PGRI) chairman Sulistyo shared similar concerns about the relatively low quality of Indonesian teachers despite the massive spending on education in past years. He, however, pointed to the lack of coordination within the government as the primary cause.

“Between 2004 and 2009, during President Yudhoyono’s first term in office, all teacher-related issues were managed by one directorate general at the [Education and Culture] Ministry. However, during the President’s second term, all directorate generals in the ministry now share oversight authority on teacher management, creating confusion among teachers as well as overlapping programs,” he said.

The government’s policy on basic education has also strongly impacted the face of the country’s higher education.

A World Bank report released in June, titled Indonesia’s Higher Education System: How Responsive is it to the Labor Market?, revealed that the higher-than-expected incomes promised by the Teachers and Lecturers Law had motivated more students to pursue a career in teaching.

However, many of the teacher-training graduates, who account for almost a third of all higher education graduates entering the workforce, have ended up working as contract teachers due to an oversupply for civil servant positions.

Learning from the increasing mismatch between the education system and labor market demand, Yatim said the government should consider putting more money into the development of non-formal education to provide high school graduates with alternatives to learn the applied skills required by specific employers.

“Despite its potential, non-formal education has been kept by the government as a subordinate within the national education system,” he said.

This article appeared in the Jakarta Post.

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