Apr 22, 2021 Last Updated 2:05 AM, Apr 21, 2021

Essay: Liberating learning in Indonesian higher education

Published: Jan 11, 2021
A new higher education policy is expected to bring about reform that will strengthen its role in connecting knowledge and science to society’s needs

Delita Sartika

For many Indonesian university lecturers nationwide, the first semester of the 2020/2021 academic year was particularly special (and perhaps also a little frightening) as we saw students taking up a new challenge to leave our comfortably-structured classrooms and embark on a different path of learning outside the campus.

In early 2020, the Indonesia Ministry of Education and Culture launched Merdeka Belajar - Kampus Merdeka or MBKM (Freedom to Learn – Independent Campus), redefining the university’s duty to provide pathways that allow students to carry out their learning outside the conventional classrooms. For three semesters of their degree, or equal to a maximum of 60 out of their compulsory 144 credit-hours, students are now able to choose from eight non-conventional classroom learning paths. These include student exchange, internship, teaching assistance, research assistance, humanitarian projects, entrepreneurship projects, independent projects and rural community engagement.

The implementation of this policy is expected to bring about long-delayed educational reform that will reshape the landscape of Indonesian higher education and strengthen its role in connecting knowledge and science to society’s needs.

A reality check

The concepts informing MBKM are not new. Experts have long argued that higher education lacks a reality check, and has been gradually losing its relevance in addressing actual problems existing in society. To reclaim their significance, universities have been pushed to work closely with relevant stakeholders to ensure that the education and training they provide are informed by and connected to demands in labour markets and society more broadly.

In the past few years, there have been examples of good and effective efforts by universities to involve employers and industries in their education scheme. This has included revisiting curricula, inviting practitioners and professionals into classrooms to teach and share insights from their vast experiences in the field, and implementing various models of experiential learning such as project-based courses and internships. At my university, for example, entrepreneurship education is incorporated into learning activities in which students are trained to develop a project, create marketable products or services, and work with real clients. Some faculties send their students to participate in community development where students can create social projects to help local communities, for example by building a water treatment system or introducing e-commerce technology to home industry owners. 

While most of these projects have provided students with valuable learning experiences, issues such as learning recognition and credit hour conversion are still problematic. Students are often disadvantaged by the absence of a fair system that values learning activities taken outside the campus. In this context, MBKM is meant to create not only a fairer, but also a more precise platform for designing what students need to achieve in their off-campus learning programs, as well as monitoring and evaluating their learning performance, and converting the learning achievement into curriculum standards.

Training future workers

Even before MBKM was introduced, however, educational experts and practitioners were critical of such a call to tailor university education according to the demands of the labour market. One of the most persistent critiques is the claim that higher education has lost its philosophical and ideological standing as it becomes too concerned with creating workers, not thinkers. Looking back on the historical roles of universities as institutions of higher education I can appreciate why the current shift in policy appears unnervingly pragmatic, if not capitalistic. Universities have traditionally been associated with complex intellectual inquiry, research and the generation of knowledge, in turn contributing to society’s development, and enabling graduates to fulfil their civic duties. Practical training of future workers is only one part of this role.

But the world is changing at a faster rate than we can anticipate. Technological evolution has transformed the nature of works and created demands for new skills profiles. Everywhere we look, statistics remind us of this; the unemployment rate among university graduates is still high, while at the same time some industries such as the agricultural and engineering sectors report skills shortages as they struggle to source qualified tertiary-educated graduates to fill available jobs requiring advanced skills. 2019 data from Badan Pusat Statistik shows that 5.67 per cent of university graduates were unemployed at the time of the survey.

Even among graduates who are employed, skills mismatch is a continuing problem. In many workforce surveys, Indonesian university graduates report they have no other option than to take jobs that are not relevant to their skills or that do make use of their university qualifications. If these gaps continue to hamper labour market productivity, the so-called ‘demographic bonus’ that predicts Indonesia’s chance to become one of the world’s largest economies, will never become reality.

Universities need to remain alert to the demands of the labour market / Flickr Creative Commons - Lau Rey

Venturing on a new path will always be a daunting experience, but we cannot continue to ignore the fact that to stay relevant, Indonesia’s universities must continue to evolve.

For a university lecturer like me, MBKM may easily appear like a half-baked idea. There are technical questions that need immediate answers, for example regarding the recognition of students’ off-campus learning. In most Indonesian universities, despite the government’s efforts since mid-2000 to develop regulations, there is not yet a consistent scheme for evaluating learning outcomes. At an operational level gaps between universities also present obstacles. Considering our preoccupation with administrative issues and paperwork, many universities have warned that the new policy will create another administrative burden on the lecturers and higher education management.

Apart from difficulties related to these technical issues, a more honest assessment probably reveals our biggest fear. As university staff we are afraid of losing our own relevance and significance. We are not ready; we are wishing for another delay.

To force students to look at their lecturers and the university as the only authority in knowledge production is not only outdated but also irresponsible and dangerous. In our classroom where knowledge is created and transferred in familiar uniformity and hierarchical flows, comfort is guaranteed; but comfort is the last thing we can trust in this age of uncertainty.

Learning through doing

The 144 credit hours university students need to accumulate during their undergraduate study offers more than enough room for learning innovation, including off campus. Outside our carefully designed classroom, students may lose some things, but they will also gain new, equally important wisdom from their unmediated engagement with society. Crucially, these include soft skills such as interpersonal and people-related skills, decision making and thinking skills, leadership and collaborative skills as well as in-demand professional traits such as integrity, persistence, and adaptability. Research has emphasised how rigid learning structures within classrooms often present barriers to students attaining these skills.

As the head of a department in my university, this semester I have provided academic advice to students who register to study in other departments, at other universities, and in non-university institutions under the MBKM program. In anticipation of their expanding network, intuitively I ask them to put a decent profile picture and real names for their Whatsapp, create a decent email account, learn to communicate not only in socially polite but also efficient ways, and warn them to not share contents on social media that may raise people’s eyebrows. ‘The world is watching you now’, I remind them.

This may sound like trivial advice, but choosing to navigate social and professional life in a conscious manner is an important lesson in order for our students to become fully functioning adults who can contribute positively to the world they live in. I prevent myself from giving further direction. I believe life always has the most unexpected yet effective ways to teach lessons that no other mentors or classrooms can imitate.

Delita Sartika is a lecturer in literary and translation studies and head of English Education department at Universitas Jambi.

Inside Indonesia 142: Oct-Dec 2020

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