The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Sunday, January 06, 2019


Wanted: Smart can-do grads with dirty hands    



Indonesia is facing a perfect storm on the education front now roaring in from all compass points. 

According to a lengthy report this year from Australia’s well-respected Lowy Institute:

Indonesia’s education system has been a high-volume, low-quality enterprise that has fallen well short of the country’s ambitions for andinternationally competitive’ system.

This outcome has reflected inadequate funding, human resource deficits, perverse incentive structures, and poor management, but has most fundamentally been a matter of politics and power.

Not just in schools but also universities where just 16 make Asia’s top 400 campuses on the international Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) ranking.  Adjacent Malaysia, population around 32 million, or 12 per cent of Indonesia’s, has 27 on the list.

There are around 3,000 tertiary institutes in Indonesia; just 122 are state-run.  Most are teaching, not research.  Wealthy students head for labs and lecture rooms overseas – UNESCO cites around 42,000. The world’s fourth largest country has yet to win a Nobel Prize in any discipline.

But the real crisis is in vocational education. From numerous speeches and statements it’s clear President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo - along with the nation’s more thoughtful politicians and academics - fear the economy will slump if it can’t rapidly train enough youngsters to match demands for high-level skills.

In this dystopia the Republic won’t come within a country kilometer to meet the upbeat forecasts being delivered by silver-tongue international financiers urging investments in Indonesia.

The figures they spray are impressive - World Bank statistics show a growth rate last year of 5.07 per cent, way above Singapore’s 3.62 and Australia’s 1.96.

The Pollyannas chorus that with an expanding middle class hungry for new goods and services, and with almost half the population under 30, Indonesia is on track to be the world’s seventh largest economy by 2030.

Realistic? Only if these youngsters can fill the positions being posted by worker-famished factories; however few bosses are seeking barrow-pushers and component sorters who need time off to eat and rest.

This century’s uncomplaining round-the-clock laborers are the restless robots; they’re already marching into modern manufacturers to keep their products jumping off the shelves ahead of competitors.

The work will be for those with the know-how to design, develop, assemble, adapt and repair the high-tech equipment displacing routine tasks. This challenge is international.  As Australian economists Andrew Charlton and Jim Chalmers have written:

Future governments will have to deal with a world in which artificial intelligence and automation will creep into every occupation, from bricklayer to teacher. We, in turn, will need to prepare for a working life that even a few years ago was unthinkable.

Widodo says 58 million skilled workers will be needed within 12 years; he should know a bit about this having run a furniture factory in Solo (Central Java) before carving out a career in politics.

He’s been badgering his increasingly fretful officials to conjure up solutions. They’re colliding with barriers so stoutly built the bureaucrats are risking reputations by looking abroad for ideas at a time when national pride tinged with xenophobia is a powerful driver of policy.

So far the searchers have scoured Sweden, the UK, the Netherlands, Germany, Canada, the US, Taiwan, China, NZ and Australia for ideas.  Educators in the Great South Land are hoping to help (for a fee) by using the Indonesia Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (IA-CEPA).

After almost six years of stop-start discussions this Free Trade Deal is reportedly close to settlement.  It’s believed to include clauses allowing Australian universities to open branch campuses in the Archipelago – but Indonesia wants vocational colleges.

Sounds simple:  First clean up the schools so they deliver keen, well-taught kids. Sort out the budget. Copy an overseas curriculum with proven results.  Download the steps to success.  Implement. Get all on the bus. Accelerate.

Then comes the jolt.  Culture, politics and distrust gather to roll out the concrete barrel roadblocks and barbed wire.  Border controls drop booms.  Progress shudders to a halt.

Which is where Indonesia is currently stranded.

Will the post-millennials prosper?

Ambitious parents often pray their children will get a university education.

If the Pops and Moms earned by heaving and sweating they don’t want their issue to tread the same track. Some men let a fingernail grow long. Explanations go from fashion fad to showing they’re above manual work.

Few want a technical certificate on the guestroom wall; neighbors wouldn’t be impressed.  What’s needed is a cap-and-gown photo, the image to snare a desk in an air-con office.

Once: Not now.

The 30 per cent of high school leavers who go to unis favor the so-called ‘soft options’ like social sciences and religious studies – areas where jobs are scarce. Instead the work and money is for people wearing hard hats and carrying hi-tech tool kits, according to Professor Ainun Na’im. (below)

He’s Secretary General in the Ministry of Research, Technology and Higher Education, squashed into the ugly acronym Ristekdikti.

His department is separate from Education, which handles schools, and Religious Affairs, which supervises Islamic teaching institutions.  Having three ministries with competing interests leads to overlapping responsibilities and much confusion, say public servants in these areas.

The US-educated former Professor of Accounting at Yogyakarta’s Gadjah Mada University (ranked 85 in the Asian top 400) is the man getting earfuls from an increasingly vexed President and his Minister, Dr Muhammad Nadir;

He was formerly rector (chancellor) of Diponegoro University in Semarang, Central Java, and also trained as an accountant.

“We don’t find students from wealthy families taking up vocational education,” Na’im told Strategic Review.  “The mindset of Indonesians is against learning practical skills.  This is something we have to change.”

How?  Shift thinking and expectations – old ways no longer suit.  This is the advice given by his department warning students and parents of the onrushing tsunami of workplace change. In the new economic climate this year’s tasks will be washed away as technology surges ahead of plodding bureaucrats and their cumbersome regulations.

Handling the quandary also needs big bucks: Do the public servants recommend their masters spend on technical college workshop gear to teach trades, only to find that the factories have retooled with faster and fancier machines?

Policy planning is further tangled because business and bureaucracy have different backgrounds and worldviews. Should schools form partnerships with industry so the youngsters can learn on the job? 

In Surabaya, the capital of East Java, the US heavy earth-moving corporation Caterpillar trains its own mechanics, but their skills may not fit a miner using Japanese Komatsu bulldozers.

Business tycoon Sandiaga Uno, a vice-presidential contestant in the 2019 election, told the A Dangerous Drift? foreign policy conference in Jakarta about his experience  commissioning a power station in Sumatra.

“We selected a Chinese contractor because the price was good,” he said.  “The plant was built within two years with imported staff.

 “Most impressive – but it’s a decision I regret; we should have used Indonesians.  When maintenance started we found all manuals written in Chinese – so had to go back to them for help.”

Overseas workers are a hot issue heading towards the April poll; opponents of the present government claim ten million illegal laborers are on the government’s massive nation-wide infrastructure projects.

President Widodo reportedly responded that there are only 23,000 Chinese on short-term contracts:  “Those workers install turbines. They build smelters. I’ve checked it myself. That’s because we are not ready yet    to do those jobs.”

At household level casual Indonesian contractors are often multi-skilled, one person seamlessly moving from carpentry to metal fabrication to power reticulation – all without certification.

Not elsewhere. In advance economies even floor cleaners must have passed a training course.  This is for health and safety reasons as moppers sometimes use toxic chemicals.

Over the top?  No, risks are real. In January more than 70 were injured when a mezzanine floor at the stock exchange building in Jakarta collapsed into the lobby.  Poor maintenance and wrong construction materials were alleged to have been responsible.

However there’s a downside. The US educated Na’im probably had a close shave when studying in Philadelphia, as he uses barbers to show how regulations lead to higher costs and a defiance of authority: 

“If I want a haircut overseas I pay twenty dollars (Rp 304,000) or more because the hairdresser has a diploma and the shop is licensed.

“In Indonesia I can find someone competent but unqualified. They’ll cut my hair for the equivalent of a dollar. So who’ll use the expensive shop?

“OK, we make it illegal.  But in this country we’ll never get a situation where such rules can be effectively policed.”

A Westerner who cables his new den with a couple of mates won’t get to play with his vices without a written guarantee, signed by an authorized expert, that the handymen didn’t get their wires crossed.

It’s the same with other trades leading to the old joke that parents wanting their offspring to get rich should steer them towards medicine and fixing perforated bowels, or plumbing and unblocking toilets.

The cost of taking a practical or academic course in an Indonesian state college depends on the quality of the institution; charges at the lower end are much the same.  About 90,000 talented kids from poor families get Rp 650,000 (US $43) a month government scholarships for tuition fees and Rp 400,000 (US $26) for living costs.

Indonesia has tried offering student loans similar to those available in the UK, the US and Australasia; now the banks won’t participate.  They used to hold graduates’ original certificates as collateral but found few repaid.


“That’s because the borrowers photocopied the documents and used these to get work,” said Patdono Suwignjo, Director General for Science, Technology, and Higher Education. (left)

The veteran educator will retire in 2019 so feels less constrained to be diplomatic.  His favorite words are ‘neglect’ when referring to past governments’ interest in vocational education, and ‘stupid’ for regulations. Later he added ‘distrust’.

Unlike many of his colleagues he knows about technology close-up from his days as a vocational lecturer – though not close enough. “I can tell you how to weld and what equipment settings to apply and filaments to use,” he confessed.  “But if I handle a torch the metal and flame tip will get stuck.”

He also has a droll sense of humor: “Do the maths: If we continue building vocational colleges at the present rate of three a year we might meet the demand in 1,350 years.”

His responsibilities include analyzing all factors crimping Indonesia’s ambitions to get internationally competitive.  First what economists call the human capital - the learners flowing into the system along with their attitudes, values and expectations.

The Indonesian Constitution requires a massive 20 per cent of the national budget be assigned to education. Yet the government allocates less than US $1,200 per primary student; that’s around 14 per cent of spending by nation-members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

Suwignjo blamed the gap on the education component in the budget being bundled with other items and sent to the regions to disburse. He estimates the actual proportion delivered to education is around eight per cent.



Nine years of schooling are mandatory and supposed to be free.  However school administrations thrust their hands deep into parents’ pockets with a range of charges from building new classrooms to funding teachers’ retirements, making school retention tough for low-income parents.

Angers about the education system are the second largest issue (after land certificates) among the 10,000 complaints received annually by the office of Ombudsman Professor Amzulian Rifai. 

“We’re not like the KPK (Komisi Pemberantasan Korupsi - Corruption Eradication Commission),” he said. “My powers are limited to mediation and recommending departments change their practices. Most do – some don’t.”

Indonesia has 170,000 state primary schools and 40,000 junior highs called SMP (Sekolah Menengah Pertama).  There are also thousands of private and religious colleges; many are boarding schools.

SMP leavers, aged around 15 and who stay in the system, have the choice of an academic high school Sekolah Menengah Atas SMA, or the vocational Sekolah Menengah Kejuruan SMK. 

The most talented SMK graduates wanting further qualifications head to university, a polytechnic or diploma-awarding college; these are confined to the big cities so students have to leave home adding to costs.  As they progress theory expands and practice shrinks.

Although apprenticeships haven’t taken root in Indonesia, they still operate in parts of Europe, the Anglosphere, Turkey, India and Pakistan so could be adapted to suit.

The current entrance ratio favors SMAs above SMKs seven to three.  Ristekdikti wants  these figures reversed, but there’s one tough question : What will graduates get in their wallets?.

 “Consider salary structures in Pertamina (the state-owned oil company),” Suwignjo said. “They recruit a top polytechnic student with a diploma and an ordinary university graduate with a degree.

“When both get permanency after two years, the academically trained employee will earn Rp 12 million (US $790) a month and the other Rp 8.5 million (US $560).  That’s even if they’re doing the same job.

“The company ranks a four year diploma below a basic degree.  They should be equal.  This would encourage bright kids to take on practical work, but I can’t get the Ministry for State-Owned Enterprises (SOE) to agree.”

Another difficulty is settling educators and employers on the same page headed JOB DESCRIPTIONS.  Is a health worker a nurse if they’re the only professional in a clinic?  Is a bank clerk an economic adviser if she or he suggests deposit accounts to customers?

“After two years discussion we couldn’t get agreement,” said Suwignjo. “Why? Kadin (Kamar Dagang dan Industri Indonesia (the Indonesian Chamber of Commerce and Industry) doesn’t trust the government.”

The SOEs are part of the reason. There are 118 and 800 subsidiaries.  Although socialism is on the nose in Indonesia because it carries a whiff of banned Communism, the number of government-controlled businesses is growing to the annoyance of private industry. 
Entrepreneurs reckon this swimming pool is so tilted by constantly changing regulations their team has no water to compete in the race for contracts.
Unsurprisingly Indonesia ranks 72 in the World Bank Group’s Ease of Doing Business list of 190 economies.  
Then there are subsidies for inefficient operators delivering price-sensitive essentials.  In mid 2018 Finance Minister Sri Mulyani said Pertamina had been handed Rp 26 trillion (US $1.5 billion) to keep gasoline prices stable when world oil costs surged. 
The State electricity company PLN (Perusahaan Listrik Negara)  is another recipient of government largesse. It has a monopoly on power distribution and most generators. Those privately owned struggle to stay solvent when dealing with a behemoth buyer.
An exasperated Suwignjo threw up his hands: “Where else in the world is there such a crazy system?”

To get around the bog of job descriptions Indonesia is toying with using the ANZSCO (Australia and New Zealand Standard Classification of Occupations) searchable list.  However the Australian Bureau of Statistics warns that it isn’t exhaustive and some titles still contested.

In a bid to boost teaching quality, Suwignjo’s section shut down 243 diploma mills in 2016, and then hit what he calls the “practical reality of Indonesian culture.”

Politicians or their friends owned many of the shonky institutions.  “Pressure was applied to reverse the rulings,” said Suwignjo.  “We resisted, but now try to make them more professional.

“That means lifting teaching abilities.  Good buildings are the easy part.  Getting quality staff is far more difficult.”

Here’s another zone where culture conspires to trip the unwary.  The idea of life-long learning is an alien notion.  Students are expected to make an unbroken journey from school to higher education – then rarely grace a campus after graduating.

Few take what Americans call a ‘gap year’ and Australasians ‘OE’ (overseas experience), to get their hands dirty and minds enlarged before settling to serious learning. 

The result is that Indonesian teaching halls are filled with a one-age cohort. Academics returning to classrooms to update qualifications fear their social standing will take a tumble.

Ristekdikti Secretary-General Ainun Na’im said he recognized the need to expand the education catchments and help students who don’t fit the standard mold.  “We’ll be introducing a multi-entry, multi-exit policy taken from Taiwan to build some flexibility into the system,” he said.  Then came a list of ‘musts’.

“We also stress health and safety practices must be totally accepted. We must improve the quality of vocational teachers. Fifty per cent must come from industry. If they’re reluctant to get retrained they’ll be fired.

“Our priorities are manufacturing, medicine, tourism, the digital economy energy and agribusiness.  We must get business on side. The need is pressing.”

The Cirebon Reality

Discussions about a vocational education crisis in an armchair circle of senior government officials atop a shiny Jakarta high-rise feel divorced from reality. The pie-chart figures are unpalatable, but abstract.  Down in the concrete classrooms the concerns are tangible.

Cirebon is a port city about 220 kilometers east of Jakarta.  A polytechnic is being built but won’t be ready till 2020.

SMK1 is the biggest vocational high school with 2,500 students.  Only one in four is female.  It was selected at random for this story and visited with no prior notice.

There are six departments – construction, electrics, electronics, automotive, computing and mechanical engineering.

Here the deficiencies were stark with students learning on lathes installed almost 40 years ago.  No CAD (computer-aided design) controls, standard in industry.  The carpentry workshop had no nail guns or a gang-nail press common in timber construction.

One small panel in a glass-top display represented solar energy.  The lecturer said battery costs deterred development.  He knew nothing about the technology commonplace elsewhere where solar-powered households sell excess electricity to the utility during the day then repurchase at night.

Students were not wearing eye or ear protection, steel-capped boots or other safety gear, mandatory on most worksites. Fire extinguishers and first-aid kits were well hidden.

Retired staff have been pulled back because replacements can’t be found.

“Frustrated?  Absolutely,” said Abdul Ghofir head of mechanical engineering.  “We were promised new equipment, but it never arrived.  Imagine how our graduates feel when their bosses tell them to handle equipment and tools they’ve never used.

“How can we train them properly?”


 Mila Merliyanti, 17, (left) a lone female in a workshop of boisterous boys, had an answer to her lecturer’s question:

“I’m starting to learn mechanics here because I want to study further in Japan. It’s my mother’s idea but I think it will lead to a better job.”

Cirebon’s SMK1 has a long-standing agreement with a Japanese corporate which might be worth copying.

The Japan Indonesia Association For Economic Cooperation runs what it calls a Human Resource Development through Apprenticeship Program.  Students are selected from SMKs, sent to Japan and placed with companies for work experience and further training for up to three years.
On their return they get jobs in Japanese companies based in Indonesia having learnt new skills and work practices which suit the employer.  The scheme has been operating since 2005 and taken about 10,000 trainees.
A program other countries might consider offering as they probe the Indonesian vocational education system for opportunities.  First they’ll need to understand the issues.  Ristekdikti staff, students, lecturers - all will oblige. 

(First published in Strategic Review, January 2019, Vol 9, No 1)









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