It’s crunch time in our education sector!

School children in the Ulu Masen forest, Aceh, Indonesia

Every mid-year Indonesians always hear the same old story entitled  ‘Education is expensive’. July is school admission time. The time where thousands of parents get confused and many are frustrated to find ‘good schools’ for their children. Good schools are scarce commodities. Given the variation in the quality of education in Indonesia, only few good schools exist and they are truely ‘price makers’ implying they normally charge high admission and tuition fees. The ‘victims’ of such condition are students from poor families. Good schools actually select students based on their academic merit. But without paying the fees, students from poor families especially those who are at the borderline might be ‘sacrificed’ for the purpose of allowing below-standard students from wealthy families to get in. What is the solution?

Government Intervention

Given the picture of the Indonesian education sector, there seems to be rationale for government intervention. Government intervention may be needed to correct market failures. One example is when there is imperfect competition including when there are only a few producers (or schools in the education sector) and many consumers. The intervention can be through ‘price control’. Government must monitor fees attached to the admission process. Some may have heard the so-called ‘chair fees’ or uang bangku. Most parents do not really understand what it means as their children cannot take their seats when they complete the school anyway, nor that their children can bring their own seats from home to reduce the cost. For these parents, they just know that there is no other way to send their children to a particular school without following the requirements and paying the fees set by the school. Government control should be able to ensure that such costs would not be barrier for children from poor families in continuing their study.

In addition to price control, the Indonesian government should continue to improve the quality of schools. Here we are not only talking about schools in isolated areas and in the Eastern part of Indonesia, but also low quality schools on Java Island. If there are more good schools in one region, the competition between schools to attract students will increase. This competition would normally benefit students (and their parents) as it tends to lower price and improve quality. Strategies to improve education can be based on existing studies as well as partnerships. The so-called EAS Education Action Plan, agreed by 18 country representatives attending the first East Asian Education Ministers Summit Meeting (EAS EMM) earlier this month attempted to adopt an action plan to improve the quality of education in the East Asia region (Jakarta Post, 6 July 2012). Obviously, developing good quality schools requires funding. One may raise a question: where would the money come from? One potential source is fuel subsidies. Stop the subsidies and allocate the money directly to the poor.

Regarding corruption practices in schools, the government through Indonesia’s Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) should closely monitor the admission process. This monitoring role would not be easy. Corruption practices in schools are nicely covered by their good names claiming that the money is used for a good cause, for school development, library, uniform, extra-curricular forcing parents to believe that without their contribution their children would not get the best education available. Some weird names also exist claiming the money is used for ‘principal change’ (uang pergantian kepala sekolah), certificate folder, writing the certificate (Kompas, 4 July 2012). What is concerning is that the schools claim that the Parent-Teacher Association has approved their acts. This approval is seen as legalisation of acts that could otherwise be considered to simply be corruption practices. Parents of enrolled students may not have incentives to not approve those charges given that the money collected from new students can be used to develop the school for the benefit of their children too. The big question is whether the money is indeed being used to do so.

Scholarship Programs

The community can help solve the problem by providing scholarships. One thing that the scholarship providers should take into account is the allocation of funding to students who are in transition from primary to junior secondary school and from junior secondary school to senior secondary school. This transition stage is usually the period when students are at higher risks of dropping out given high fees associated with admission process. Scholarships are normally given equally to students regardless the level they are in. On the other hand, many parents have steady cash flows limiting their ability to provide substantial amount of money at the admission time without external support. The challenge is even greater for farming families whose income depends on the harvest. Therefore, providing extra support to students who are in transition would prevent them from dropping out.

One message we hope the Indonesia government wants to hear and acts on is that all Indonesians have the same right to access to good quality education.

This article is written by Risti Permani.

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Filed under Education, Indonesia

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