Commentary: Indonesia has big plans for education but severely lacks good teachers

green and white leafed plantsSINGAPORE: In his state of the nation address in August, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo outlined his vision to develop Indonesia’s human capital.

Jokowi said he believed that human capital is the key to win in an environment of fierce international competition.



The president urged the country to look urgently at the role of human resource in innovation, especially in the science and technology sectors.

He framed his plan in terms of how Indonesia can respond to global economic disruption and escape its dependence on natural resources.

He added that the window of opportunity to benefit from Indonesia’s demographic bonus, as the working age population outnumbers dependents, including the elderly and children, is relatively short. Therefore, Indonesia must focus on education in developing its human capital.

Students at a school in Indonesia. (Photo: AFP/Bay Ismoyo)




Many observers were surprised by Jokowi’s pledge and have called it a policy shift. But this emphasis on human development is not new, and had been articulated in many of Jokowi’s past addresses.

Moreover, the same vision has been articulated by Jokowi’s predecessor, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. So, the question is what is really new when it comes to education in Jokowi’s second term?

To realise Jokowi’s vision, his administration will spend around US$36 billion for education in 2020, according to a state budget proposal released in mid-August. This amount is up 30 per cent from 2015, but stays within the 20 per cent of total public spending mandated by the constitution.

In fact, for almost a decade, Indonesia has spent 20 per cent of its state budget on education. Still, the country’s educational performance continues to lag behind, despite significant investments.

Ultimately, to have a reasonable shot at escaping its developing economy status, Indonesia’s priority for education must be to meaningfully increase access while building up a critical mass of high-skilled, highly educated workforce.

Currently the country’s labour force is still dominated by low-skilled labour, with enrollment rates in secondary and tertiary education low by regional standards.

About 40 per cent of working age Indonesians only have primary school education, while only 9 per cent of the labour force have a university degree, according to Statistics Indonesia.

Employer surveys also indicate that recent graduates are not meeting expectations.


A closer look at what the money has been spent on is revealing. The increased education budget has been primarily devoted to teachers’ salaries, in particular a programme aimed at improving teachers’ welfare by offering financial incentives for teachers to undergo a certification process – at a whopping cost of US$4.3 billion or 15 per cent of the education budget.

Students in Jakarta showing off their smart cards. (Photo: KJP)

The certification programme, initiated in 2007, targetted 3 million uncertified teachers all over the country.

The goal is to raise the level of teachers’ academic competency, pedagogical skills and emotional quotient. If they pass, their pay doubles and they can look forward to higher allowances towards professional development.

Raising how much teachers are paid has taken a huge part of the education budget in recent years. About 60 per cent of the education budget will go to teachers’ salaries and allowances.

The rest of education expenditure is aimed at increasing access to education, for example through the School Operational Assistance (BOS) Fund, a programme that provides grants to schools with the aim of reducing the public’s financial burden of completing 9-years of compulsory education, and the Indonesia Smart Card (KIP), a cash assistance programme to low-income households who want to send their children aged 7 to 18 years to school.

Nevertheless, this huge bump in teachers’ salary has not translated into better students’ learning outcomes.

As a result, Jokowi’s administration has come under wide criticism that those certificates mean nothing. It has opened the president up to speculation that such programmes were designed to legitimise dishing out more money to teachers, a critical vote bank.


While improving access to education is an important part of the plan to raise workforce standards, the government must focus on raising the quality of education first.

Finance Minister Sri Mulyani too has acknowledged this. In a recent media interview, she said that the government must improve the effectiveness of education spending.

Boys play with spinning tops during an event for traditional games at a school in Jakarta, Indonesia on Oct 1, 2016. (Photo: REUTERS/Iqro Rinaldi)

Minister Sri mentioned that Indonesia’s educational performance lags far behind Vietnam’s, a rising Southeast Asian economy. She pointed to the same budget allocation for education spending in the two economies (20 per cent of the government budget) and the disparate outcomes.

Indonesian students aged 15 rank 62 out of 70 countries on the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) survey. In contrast, Vietnam is ranked 22nd, and Thailand is ranked 56th. Singapore came in first and China 10th.


Let’s get real. The quality of education is dependent on the qualifications of teachers.

Despite the country’s effort to improve teachers’ competency through a certification process, many do not meet the required standards the qualification process aims to foster.

In practice, the certification can be obtained easily. There is a lack of monitoring of the quality of teaching by certified teachers after the certification test.

Most worrisome, the current certification process does not sufficiently provide oversight over teachers’ competencies and uses outdated academic materials.

The other huge challenge to ensuring that teaching conforms to standards set by Jokowi’s government is how much governance has been decentralised within Indonesia.

The system empowers local governments at the district level with authority over education resources and personnel, starting from early childhood through to primary school, junior high and senior high school.

Students gather in a classroom in Pantai Bahagia village. (Photo: Reuters)

Therein lies the challenge of how to synchronise central and regional government policy objectives.

It is common knowledge that many teachers are recruited because they have contributed to the regional government’s team during local elections, sometimes as contracted staff. Their promotions are not entirely based on performance and achievement of minimum service standards set by the central government.


Going forward, Jokowi’s administration must improve teacher recruitment, certification and continuous professional development, as well as strengthen oversight of how such programmes fare across various regions and localities.

Doing so could address wide disparity between Java and the other outer islands when it comes to quality of education and training providers.

Jokowi’s commitment to promoting human development is commendable.

Whether his vision for Indonesia to capitalise on its demographic bonus can be realised will depend on how Indonesia can raise teaching standards and the effectiveness of how the education budget is spent to these ends.

Siwage Dharma Negara is Senior Fellow at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.

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