Dec 01, 2023 Last Updated 8:29 PM, Nov 27, 2023

A nation of dunces?

A nation of dunces?
Published: Dec 08, 2013

Bureaucrats and politicians have created an education system that is shockingly bad

Elizabeth Pisani

I’m sitting at a warung in Central Sulawesi, waiting to pay for my coffee. Two coffees, in fact, and two cakes. The warung owner whips out a calculator and starts to punch numbers into it: 2000 + 2000 + 1000 + 1000 = 6000. I gave him a 10,000 rupiah note. ‘Clear’, he punches. Then 10,000 - 6000 = 4000, and he counts out two 2000 rupiah notes and gives me my change. Meanwhile, other clients wait for their coffee. Is it really possible that he can’t do these sums in his head?

On 3 December, the results of the latest round of internationally-standardised tests of maths, science and reading skills among 15 year-old students were released. Of the 65 countries that participated in the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) tests, Indonesia ranked 60th in reading skills, and 64th in maths and science. What was really shocking was how very, very low Indonesian students’ skills are. Fully 42 per cent of 15 year-olds did not even make the bottom skills level in maths, and three out of four students – 76 per cent to be exact – sat at level one or less (of six levels). That compares with just 14.2 per cent at or below level one in Vietnam, 8.3 per cent in Singapore and 3.8 per cent in Shanghai.

But it’s not the international comparisons that really matter. What matters is that three quarters of those Indonesians who are still in school at age 15 don’t have the basic maths skills that they need to function in society. Two thirds don’t have enough science to get by effectively in the modern world, and one in five can’t read well enough to perform basic tasks in the workplace.

And yet Indonesia spends relatively more on education than many other countries. Indeed it is constitutionally obliged to spend a fifth of the public budget on education, at both the national and the local levels. Class sizes are among the smallest of any middle income country; in primary school there’s a teacher for every 16 pupils (better than the UK), in secondary schools the ratio is one to 12 (better than the US). So why aren’t Indonesian children learning much?

A view from the trenches

I got an insight a few months ago, when I was staying with a fisherman and his family in the Banggai islands, in Central Sulawesi. Pak Zunaidi’s wife had mentioned that she was a primary school teacher, one of ten teachers for a school with 120 children.

At about 6.30 in the morning, this woman stood over a vat of hot oil frying up breakfast when her youngest son came in wearing his primary school uniform. She told him not to be late; all over Indonesia, primary school starts at seven. Then a neighbour came in to complain that their proposal for funding for a nursery school had not been accepted. The teacher put some more plantains in the oil, made another cup of coffee. By now it was 10 to seven, and still she hadn’t bathed or dressed.

At about 7.15, I asked what time school started around here. She looked rather sheepish, gestured at me, the neighbour, the fried plantains. ‘It’s OK. Everyone knows I’ve got guests.’ It dawned on me that it was my fault that she wasn’t at work. I asked if I could come with her to school; perhaps I could help with the English classes? She looked hugely relieved; she bathed and washed in record time and by 7.30 we were at school.

It was mayhem. A hundred and twenty children were running around, screaming with joyous abandon. Half an hour after the start of the five-hour school day, there was not a single teacher to be seen. I ended up teaching English to Classes Four and Six. Ibu taught her own class, Class One. Classes Two, Three and Five – children aged seven, eight and 10 respectively, were instructed to go into their classrooms and work through their textbooks ‘until your teachers come’. ‘Don’t make a racket!’ she warned.

I was faced with about 30 kids under the age of 12, crammed into half a classroom (there aren’t enough rooms in the school for all six classes so they use plywood dividers to make rooms). ‘Good morning everyone!’ A lusty response: ‘Good morning, miss!’ ‘My name is Eliz; what is your name?’ I addressed the question to one of the older boys who was sitting close to me. He had been learning English for three years. He was stunned to have been asked something as an individual, rather than as part of a scripted chorus. Indeed he was speechless. The other kids quickly averted their eyes, lest I pick on them. I was grateful when one girl raised her hand. ‘What is his name?’ I asked her, pointing elaborately to the boy in the front row. ‘My name is Fifi!’ she declared, triumphant.

None of the other teachers made an appearance at school that day.

Too many teachers, too little teaching

The World Bank has written several interesting reports about schooling in Indonesia. Almost all of them conclude that there are too many teachers, that the country can’t really afford the wage bill. The Bank says Indonesia needs to shed some teachers and redistribute others. But its calculations are based on the number of teachers on the wage bill, not the number of teachers in the classroom. The two are quite different.

Many local governments now pay incentives to persuade teachers to work in the remoter areas of Indonesia. Often, these incentives double a teacher’s salary – without them, teachers sometimes spend more getting to school than they make for being there. But it doesn’t seem to be enough. Even with the incentives, teachers in remote areas are less likely to go to work than teachers in other parts. And school heads, the highest paid of all, are the ones least likely to show up for work.

In a study in the highlands of Indonesian Papua, seven out of ten school heads were not at work when researchers visited, while half of ordinary teachers had not put in an appearance that day. In fact, about a quarter of all teachers had not set foot in school for months. In areas classified as ‘remote’ in other islands – including the more inaccessible areas of super-crowded Java – around one teacher in five is absent on any given day. That’s in part because many of the people who have jobs as teachers don’t want to teach.

Once upon a time, teaching was an honourable profession in Indonesia. Then came the economic crisis of the late 1950s. Hyper-inflation wiped out salaries and people wanted a government job, any government job, because it came with rations. The easiest way to squeeze into the coveted beige uniform of the civil servant was to become a teacher. The profession was invaded by people who had no interest in education. Suharto’s New Order, which treated teachers first as agents of the state and only second as educators, entrenched the bureaucratic mindset.

Though there’s now a whole slew of new rules and standards about teacher training, local governments continue to hire ‘guru honorer’ – locally-appointed contract teachers – more or less as they please. These underpaid individuals, around a million of them nationwide (a third of the teaching workforce) are exempted from the new standards. They take the job, wait for one of the periodic mass promotions, and get bumped up to full civil servant status.

For the district head or mayor, creating teaching posts is a way of thanking people who helped with the election or who otherwise deserved a small-to-medium-sized favour. The standards on school staffing also provide an excuse to get around a centrally-imposed moratorium on hiring more civil servants. And the more civil servants a local government manages to hire, the more money it gets from the central government.

In short, the schools are stuffed with people whose goal is to be a bureaucrat, not an educator. And they behave just like many other bureaucrats in Indonesia: though they know they are supposed to teach a minimum of 26 hours a week, they also know these rules won’t be enforced. Like many other bureaucrats, they see working hours as a moveable feast and take time off more or less at will. And like those other bureaucrats, they justify this by pointing to their low salaries: we’re paid so little that we have to do other jobs on the side. What else can you expect?

Those who do come to school are often unmotivated: I’ve seen teachers sitting smoking, chatting and drinking toxic orange fizz in the principal’s office during lesson time. When I asked about their teaching commitments, they said they had given the kids work to get on with. In the classrooms, seven and eight year-olds were diligently copying multiple choice questions from their text books into their notepads, incorrect answers and all.

The government’s stab at addressing low quality teaching is to make all in-school bureaucrats take a teaching certification test. For most, that involves a 90 hour crash-course, then a test. Anyone that passes gets their salary doubled right away. The test results for over 90 per cent of the teachers classified them as ‘very incompetent’ on teaching skills. More than half of primary and around a third of junior high school teachers were judged to be very incompetent in their subject matter. But everyone who has ever taken the course has ‘passed’ the test and been given their raise, which they keep even if they go back to being absent four days out of five.

Promotions in the school and state university systems, just like those in the bureaucracy, are based on time served. There is as yet no system for rewarding people who work harder, who teach better, who inspire kids to think, to explore, to develop their potential.

Too big to fail

Like their teachers, Indonesian students seem always to pass their exams, no matter how limited their skills. According to the education ministry over 99.5 per cent pass the national exams that every child takes at the end of primary school, for example. It’s only in carefully supervised, internationally standardised tests such as PISA that their skills are ever truly tested.

If newspaper reports are anything to go by, plenty of kids pass the national exams by cheating. Every year, the papers are filled with reports of printers leaking exam questions, of brokers selling answer templates, of teachers passing out results with the exam papers, or even, in remote schools, writing the answers up on the board. Google ‘how to cheat in national exams’ in Indonesian, and you get hundreds of ‘tips and tricks’ pages.

Pisani 2Search for ‘how to cheat’ in the British GCSE or American SAT exams and you’ll get lots of hits too. But most coverage of cheating in such countries is of the breathless ‘how a small minority gets away with murder’ type. Typical Indonesian headlines include: ‘When collective cheating becomes a tradition in the national exams’ and ‘Cheating as Academic Culture.’

Reading the paper one day last year, I noticed an article about a new initiative to stop cheating in schools. Under the banner ‘Berani jujur, hebat!’, which translates roughly as ‘Dare to be honest, that’s cool!’ a group of organisations was touring Indonesian schools, introducing the idea that cheating was not inevitable. The organisers of the campaign, including the Anti-Corruption Commission, Indonesia Corruption Watch and Transparency International, said students who did not admit to cheating were vanishingly rare. They accepted that most students wouldn’t be able to give up cheating just like that. They tried to encourage them to develop time-bound plans to wean themselves off their dishonesty.

A high-school headmaster in upland West Sumatra told me that the cheating situation had grown much worse since decentralisation. We were sitting chatting in his office, under portraits of the district head and his deputy, who wore the statutory white uniforms and sailors’ caps that make all such officials in Indonesia look like ageing leaders of the high school marching band.

I asked if decentralisation had made any difference to his job. ‘Oh yes,’ he said. ‘Oooooooh yeeeeess!’ There are always plusses and minuses with something like decentralisation, he said. There was a long pause. ‘Plusses and minuses,’ he repeated. Another pause. ‘Actually, from the point of view of educating children, there’s no plus,’ he said finally. He sat back, deflated.

Decentralisation has greatly increased the pressure to ‘teach to the test’ because district heads like to make promises about education in their districts, and because school heads are appointed directly by the district head. ‘So school heads will do anything to give the district head what he wants. Really, anything.’ He told me stories of a headmaster dismissed a decade earlier when the inspectorate found the school accounts leaked like a sieve. ‘Then we got local democracy, and he became a star of the TimSes’. The head teacher put the phrase – a contraction of ‘Tim Sukses’ or campaign team – between apostrophes with his fingers, half amused, half disgusted. ‘And now he’s head of High School [X]. Then there’s the guy over at High School [Y], he was fired for gambling with school money but he sucked up to the district head and he’s back in his job.’ He sighed, resigned. ‘Such a good example for the kids.’

Thinking forward

Obviously it’s a challenge in a country as massive and diverse as Indonesia to come up with a single curriculum and with a model of school management that meets all needs. Recognising this, the government has recently introduced a system that gives individual schools (supposedly in consultation with parents) a fair bit of control over how they spend their own funds: one school might choose to build a laboratory, another to buy computers, another to organise transport for children who find it hard to get to school, and so on.

But on the issue of the curriculum, there is less flexibility. Local education authorities are allowed to choose two subjects to teach in addition to the core curriculum. Sometimes they choose wisely, sometimes not. In a large pesantren (Islamic boarding school) not far from the growing tourist industry hub of Senggigi in western Lombok, I found a headmistress in despair. The local education department had ordered her to take her choice of subject, English, out of the timetable and substitute the local language, Sasak. ‘For kids around here, the best hope of a job is in a hotel. And I’m not allowed to teach them English.’

At the national level, curriculum development seems just as irrational.

This year’s PISA test results are nothing new. Indonesian 15 year-olds have been at the bottom of the international league tables for maths and science since the country began participating in the tests in 2003. Education authorities in Jakarta decided that this was because Indonesian students have too many subjects in school, so they never learn anything in any depth. But their response was a curious one: in the new curriculum, which made its debut in 2013, they reduced the number of subjects by removing science, of all things, from the primary school curriculum. Geography and history were excised, too. The extra time this created was given over to more teaching of religion, citizenship and maths.

Cynics may say that it’s in the government’s interest to keep people stupid; it makes them more governable. That certainly worked for the Dutch colonists in the Netherlands East Indies for centuries. At the turn of the twentieth century, a full century after the VOC trading company had been taken over by the Dutch state, there were just 25 ‘natives’ in secondary school; by the end of the 1930s a total of just 6,500 soon-to-be Indonesians had any secondary education. Many believe the policy of keeping people ill-educated was deliberately pursued in the Suharto era, also. The bureaucrat-teachers who force fed children the anti-communist foundation myths of that time may certainly be accused of keeping critical thinking at bay. But I don’t think that most people in government now have a secret agenda to keep people stupid.

As a nation, indeed, Indonesia has every interest in getting more good brains working well, because decentralisation has scattered decision-making to the winds. In a highly centralised system, you can get away with having only a small group of super-smart people; good decisions at the top will cascade down. The high economic growth of the Suharto years, for example, was engineered by a handful of US-trained economists known as the Berkley Mafia. But now, over 500 separate mini-governments are making substantial decisions about education, health, investment and much else, independently of whoever may be sitting in Jakarta. Indonesia needs thousands more people with exceptional problem-solving skills, and it needs them in every corner of the land.

The people who now control many of those mini-governments are themselves the gossamer-thin layer of better-educated people in remoter areas. Some of them are pouring money into scholarships for locals – putra putri daerah, ‘sons and daughters of the regions’ – deliberately trying to increase the human capital in their areas. Many others, however, see little reason to increase the competition for jobs that they and their families now control.

Whether or not they are being deliberately obstructive, those who are making decisions now are products of the very system that so desperately needs to be changed. Centuries of underinvestment in education, decades of treating schools like an extension of the bureaucracy, years, for every child, of rote learning – the vast majority of Indonesians from university lecturers to teachers to parents are a product of this system. It’s a system which stifles curiosity, undermines critical thinking and entrenches low expectations.

Doing OK, on paper

As I mentioned, one of the government’s approaches to increasing the skills of teachers (and, as it happens, civil servants, the police force, and the military) is to require them to acquire more ‘qualifications’ themselves. Besides the 90-hour boot camp, from 2015, all teachers are supposed to have a four year college education under their belt. Indonesia’s Open University has done especially well out of that; of the half-million students who are currently doing on-line degrees, over three quarters work as teachers, many in places with no internet access.

That ought, perhaps, to be worrying. But there is no real expectation that a ‘qualification’ – an ‘ijazah’, usually a piece of paper emblazoned with the word ‘Diploma’ in mock-gothic script – actually qualifies anyone to do anything in particular. As a Javanese engineer with a PhD said to me: ‘For most Indonesians, education is about getting a diploma, not about learning anything. So really, why stress about quality?’

Many people go one step further: they don’t stress about the education bit at all. They just find an internet cafe and order their ijazah. One company which charges four million rupiah for a high school certificate and twice that for a university degree, declares that its offerings are: SAFE, LEGAL, REGISTERED AT UNIVERSITY/ COLLEGE, CAN BE USED FOR ENTRY (CIVIL SERVICE, ARMY, POLICE, STATE COMPANY, PRIVATE SECTOR). On their website, these purveyors of instant education remind customers that: ‘Nb: All people have a right to work and a decent education, regardless of whether they are upper, middle or working class. That’s why we are here for those of you who need certificates.’

The National Electoral Commission reports that the single most common complaint they receive about candidates for district head, mayor and MP is that they don’t actually meet the minimum educational requirements for their post; their ijazah are fake.

People who just buy their diplomas off the shelf at least get what they pay for. But many Indonesian families are making huge sacrifices so that children can become graduates, and they are getting far less than they deserve. Many send their children to private ‘les’, or tutoring, often from the same teachers who are supposed to be teaching their children in classrooms. Parents seem to think their kids will get better quality schooling if they pay extra for it, but the evidence does not support this. An international comparison found that private tutoring did indeed increase children’s performance in every country studied except Indonesia, where it made no difference. There’s a circularity here: the products of a poor system don’t always have the skills to expect, let alone to demand, better for the next generation.

But what about the middle class parents, the ones who went to the expensive private schools staffed by educators not bureaucrats, the ones who went to the better state universities, the ones who studied abroad, even? Why are they not railing against the appalling state of education in Indonesia, why are they not up in arms at the prospect of schools that don’t teach science?

To be fair, there was enough of a protest in 2012 that the ministry of education scaled back its plans; instead of foisting the science-free curriculum on over 100,000 schools all at once, they are rolling it out more slowly, starting with around 6000 schools. After that small compromise, the protests went quiet.

Most Indonesians who realise how bad the national school system is simply don’t engage with it. Like well-educated, well-heeled people the world over, they send their children to private schools. Though that in itself is no guarantee of a better education. Indeed the newly-released PISA results show that students in Indonesia’s state schools score better than those in private schools. (More detailed studies suggest that the exception is Christian private schools, which consistently achieve the best results).

Higher education

Nothing is more ubiquitous on the walls of Indonesian houses these days than photographs of young people in caps and gowns. Even kindergartens are staging graduation ceremonies, but most of the photos so proudly displayed are of children clutching diplomas from high school, or of ‘sarjana’, college graduates. I’m not talking about middle class homes. I’ve recently stayed with three or four Indonesian couples who are themselves illiterate: all had photos of their graduate children on their walls.

Poor parents often work very hard to allow their children to finish school. But where does all their investment lead? Six million Indonesians who have graduated from high school currently have no job. The government considers graduates of high schools and vocational schools to be ‘skilled’, but employers beg to differ. Eight out of ten employers say they struggle to fill managerial jobs. Close to half of the ‘skilled’ workers they do hire, even for the less demanding posts, don’t have the critical thinking, computing or English language skills they need to do their jobs well, employers say. Most big companies retrain almost everyone who walks in the door.

Some years ago, when German trained engineer and subsequent interim president B. J. Habibie was influential in government, there was a national debate about increasing technical and vocational training in Indonesia. Habibie favoured refocusing the education system; he was shouted down by old school academics who objected that this amounted to turning Indonesians into nothing more than labourers. As a result, there has been a vast expansion of courses in traditional cap-and-gown subjects, while employers are left without welders or engineers.

Access to higher education has expanded massively in Indonesia in recent years; the number of young people in higher education grew by 60 per cent between 1999 and 2010, to over 4.3 million. But again, quality is a concern. Of the roughly 3500 universities and colleges registered with Indonesia’s Ministry of Education, (this excludes the Islamic schools administered by the Ministry of Religion), fewer than 100 are state run. Supervision of private institutions is all but non-existent. Standards are slipping even at the ‘top five’, the best state universities which are Indonesia's equivalent of Oxbridge or the Ivy League. Not one of the country’s top five universities made the Times Higher Education Supplement’s ranking of the 400 top universities in the world in 2012, and none made it to the Asian top 100 either.

This is in part because the partial privatisation of state universities has led them to auction places off to the highest bidder: students with indifferent grades can get a place to study medicine at a top university if they pay some 250 million rupiah before fees. And it is in part because university professors are promoted simply on the basis of seniority, with little or no attention paid to innovation in research or excellence in teaching (though this, too, is supposed to be changing).

On paper, Indonesians are certainly getting more schooled. But until they start to demand more of their educational institutions, it seems unlikely that they will get any more skilled.

Elizabeth Pisani’s book Indonesia Etc., Exploring the Improbable Nation will be published by Granta, WW Norton and Lontar in June 2014. Contacts and commentary at

Inside Indonesia 114: Oct-Dec 2013

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