Youthful new Indonesian Education and Culture Minister Nadiem Makarim dispensed with the usual platitudes on Teacher’s Day this year, urging the nation’s teachers to start engaging with their students instead of perpetuating an outdated learning process that relies more on rote than serious classroom discussion.

Since his October swearing-in, Makarim also called for a broad program of deregulation, an end to year-end National Examinations — regarded as worthless by many educators – and a sweeping redesign of the education system to conform better with what is required in the modern workplace.

But 2020 is already shaping up to be a make-or-break year for the 35-year-old founder of the US$10 billion Gojek ride-hailing and services platform, the youngest minister to have ever held the education portfolio.

The shakeup in the education system is part of President Joko Widodo’s new emphasis on human development, which he said in his state of the nation address last August is key to competing in the international marketplace.

Makarim’s approach fits with the need to build up a more highly skilled workforce that meets the expectations of the private sector and allows Indonesia to escape from its developing economy status.

According to Statistics Indonesia, more than 40% of working age Indonesians have only a primary school education, while just 9% of the labor force has a university degree, often achieved without any serious test in critical thinking.

The biggest challenge to Makarim’s Merdeka Belanjar (Freedom to Learn) program?: An entrenched bureaucracy stubbornly opposed to reform for ideological, material and even cultural reasons.

Education Minister Nadiem Makarim is tougher than he looks according to friends and associates. Photo: Facebook

Friends insist Makarim is tougher than he talks and looks, but it is not immediately apparent he is equipped to overcome the institutional resistance he will inevitably face to critical elements of his reform plan.

“Nadiem has the same problem as (former president) B J Habibie,” says educator Toenggoel Siagian, a long-time critic of Indonesia’s learning processes. “He’s a good administrator, but it takes a very good politician to win a fight against the bureaucracy like that in education.”

The son of a prominent Jakarta lawyer whose family, by one close relative’s admission, has always been “obsessed with education,” Makarim received only his early education in Indonesia.

He later enrolled in a Singapore boarding school before heading to the Ivy League in the United States, where he earned a BA in international relations at Brown University and an MBA at Harvard University.

His Gojek, which began as a call center offering courier delivery and motorcycle taxi services and is now Indonesia’s first decacorn company, or a start-up valued at over US$10 billion, has made the young entrepreneur a household name particularly among the nation’s millennials.

Some educators believe Makarim’s extensive overseas learning may be an advantage as he seeks to map out what Indonesia, despite an impressive literacy rate of 99.6%, needs to do to match education standards in neighboring countries.

With 64 million students, 340,000 schools and higher learning institutions and 3.9 million teachers and lecturers, Indonesia has the world’s fourth largest education system.

Students in Indonesia lag their regional peers in standardized test results. Photo: Twitter/UN

Financed by a 2019 budget of 152.6 trillion rupiah ($10.8 billion), the amount represents only 3.5% of gross domestic product (GDP) compared to Vietnam’s 4.3% – a nation which is taking the lion’s share of regional foreign direct investment (FDI) at a time when global supply chains are reconfiguring in response to the US-China trade war.

Those budgetary funds are clearly being misallocated. In the benchmark 2018 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) Program for Student Assessment (PISA), 15-year-old Indonesian students finished 73rd in reading, 72nd in maths and 71st in science out of 79 countries surveyed.

Indonesia’s aggregate score combining all three disciplines was 1,146, representing just 78% of the OECD’s average and a decline of two percentage points over the previous survey in 2015. More worrying, Indonesia ranked last in the percentage of employed adults with a tertiary degree.

It has long been recognized that Indonesia’s education system is seriously flawed, with little improvement in quality made in the two decades since governments began devoting 20% of the national budget to a problem that is now widely seen as a major obstacle to national development.

Certain political analysts even suggest poor education lies at the heart of the country’s faltering progress towards democratization, a surfeit in learning that allows an unquestioning populace to be easily manipulated by self-interested politicians and their bureaucratic and corporate allies.

Makarim seems to agree with that assessment. “Every young person must be able to think independently,” he told Parliament’s education commission recently, stressing the need for a stronger connection between teachers, students and parents that technological advances in learning can’t provide.

Before Makarim’s appointment, the education ministry’s top post was seemingly perpetually reserved for Muhammadiyah, the country’s second largest and mostly urban-based mass Muslim organization, which has done little over the years to meet the glaring need for reform.

Indonesians share a computer. Counterfeit software is widely available in the country. Photo: Reuters
Indonesian students share a computer screen in a file photo. Photo: Facebook

Indonesian children may be starting school earlier and staying longer, but as former education minister Anies Baswedan pointed out in 2016, the country is facing what he called an “education emergency,” beset by low-quality instruction, poor learning outcomes, inadequate facilities and discipline problems.

Siagian believes Makarim is on the right track with his decision to end the national examination in 2021, and to retrain teachers in new classroom methods that earn them greater trust and allow schools the freedom to be more imaginative in their overall approach to education.

“If they do that, they will overturn the apple cart,” he says, pointing to failed attempts in the past to find an alternative method of measuring academic accomplishment. “Kids will learn what is important instead of wasting their time having to memorize everything.”

Makarim says he plans to replace the national exam with a so-called Assessment of Minimum Competency and Survey of Character, but he has made it clear it will not be used to measure a student’s eligibility to move to the next grade.

That will fall to the National Standard School Examination (USBN), managed only by schools and built around written tests or other more comprehensive exercises that will give teachers and schools greater freedom in evaluating learning outcomes.

Siagian contends that too many outside vested interests are involved in Indonesia’s education system, ranging from the military to the printing industry, the latter of which benefits from lucrative examination paper and textbook contracts.

Andrew Rosser, a Melbourne University political economist, laid out a crushing indictment of those same outside influences in a 2018 Lowy Institute paper that is now viewed as an empirical work on the problems afflicting Indonesian education.

Rather than producing Indonesians capable of finding jobs and other opportunities in the global economy, he wrote, “their interests have been in the development of an education system that helps them to accumulate resources, distribute patronage, mobilize political support and exercise political control.”

University students protest outside the Indonesian Parliament in Jakarta, on September 24, 2019. Photo: Twitter/Tempo

“Their focus has been on expanding the scope and reach of education, rather than improving its quality,” his report said. “They also have an interest in limiting the public funding for education to ensure that government resources are concentrated on areas of public spending that offer them better opportunities to accumulate rents.”

Rosser argues that a fundamental shift is required in the underlying political and social relationships that have characterized the political economy and shaped the evolution of education. “In the absence of such a shift, interventions aimed at improving the quality of education are likely to be stymied by political and social forces opposed to reform,” he wrote in the report.

It is that – and the questionable ability of teachers to adapt – that will present Makarim with his biggest challenges in 2020 and beyond.