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Passing the buck

Jakarta Post Editorial - June 3, 2024

Jakarta – Just a week ago, we celebrated the overturning of a planned tuition fee hike for state universities, an effort led by incensed student bodies and amplified by social media.

We cheered Education, Culture, Research and Technology Minister Nadiem Makarim's decision to postpone the proposal after meeting with President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo and holding separate talks with state university rectors.

The policy had been pushed out without much regard for, or sensitivity to, the economic challenges that most young people face today, as rising inflation and living costs eat away at their families' ability to pay for education.

It is no wonder that a comment from a ministry official about tertiary education being a tertiary need bothered so many, especially after the government tried to push its vision of a "Golden Indonesia" by 2045 down our throats.

While we may have won a brief respite from the fee hikes, Nadiem's gesture does little to actually solve the problem. Jokowi simply passed the buck to the incoming Prabowo Subianto administration when he predicted that tuition fees would start increasing next year.

At least this victory gives us some time for collective soul-searching regarding the future of our education sector.

Taking a historical view of the government's efforts to develop tertiary education, state universities have been asked since 1999 to fend for themselves financially while the state focuses on subsidizing primary and secondary education.

That decision, 25 years ago, effectively turned tertiary education into a tertiary priority and is part of the reason the massive 20 percent state budget allocation for education – some Rp 665 trillion (US$43.2 billion) this year – does not all go toward developing higher education.

All of this points to the root cause of the problem that the government is so loath to admit: Indonesia is too big a country with too big a population for the state to guarantee higher education for everyone.

Looking beyond our country, we would be forgiven for thinking that the only way to finance education for all would be to liberalize university education and have the private sector play a larger role in expanding the talent pool. After all, they, too, benefit from a larger professional workforce.

A cursory glance at Singapore or Australia, where some of the best universities in the region reside, might appear to suggest that education is best left to market forces. Students buy into their privileged networks and world-class facilities, later returning home with the knowledge to help with national development.

But in adapting this problem to the Indonesian context, one cannot overlook the fact that world-class education requires robust facilities, exceptional teaching talent and continuous financial backing to pull off.

One would also have to factor in how small the student populations of these countries are compared to the number of people in Indonesia still in need of a basic education.

There simply aren't enough college seats in the country, free or otherwise, to meet the demands of the 2045 vision and its calls for the establishment of a golden generation by the time the nation turns 100.

With this failure to address the need for subsidized tertiary education, it is no wonder these incorporated state universities (PTN-BHs) are forced to think about their bottom lines and pass some of their costs on to their students.

It doesn't help that Nadiem's own world-class education only proves that money is still king.

If the next government really wants to sell its pledge for continuity, it would be best to show its resolve in tertiary education and ensure that the vision of a 2045 Golden Indonesia generation can be realized.

It would do well to balance the politics of popular welfare with the need to provide an environment conducive to a flourishing tertiary education sector.

Higher education is too important to allow it to be guided solely by the narrow interests of private enterprise. The next government must put care and consideration into finding a competent minister to lead the medium- to long-term transformation of the sector.

Source: https://www.thejakartapost.com/opinion/2024/06/03/passing-the-buck.htm