Picking the Right Battle
Sondang Sirait, WEEKENDER | Wed, 04/25/2012 2:24 PM |
I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news.
Of the 700 best universities in the world, only four are in Indonesia. That’s according to the highly respected QS World University Rankings, which uses indicators such as academic peer review, faculty/student ratio, recruiter review and faculty-level analysis. Our champion, University of Indonesia, sits at number 217.
Nevertheless, the Yellow Jackets can still claim to be performing better than other prominent state universities.
As a Yellow Jacket myself, the news gave me mixed feelings. Sure, there’s always pride that we’re ahead of our usual competitors, but the survey results also show there’s plenty of room for improvement, not only for the University of Indonesia, but for education in Indonesia as a whole. To be able to make it on the global front, first we must succeed at home.
I suppose our Minister of Education M. Nuh had the same goal in mind when he launched a proposal that university students should be required to publish scientific papers in journals in order to graduate, starting from this August. True, the goal of producing prolific, scientific young scholars is a noble one. But simply imposing such a rule will not have meaningful outcomes, if the policy is not supported by proper resources and incentives. After all, it’s better to have a few good papers than plenty of rubbish. It’s quality that matters, not quantity.
I like to look back on my college years as a period that not only formed my intellectual curiosity, but also introduced me to real life.
For that, I thank my old professor, broadcasting legend Ishadi SK. He was never one to stick to a rigid syllabus or textbook curriculum, instead opting for a more casual style of teaching. There was always an element of surprise too, because he had a habit of bringing guest speakers to class and taking the class to real newsrooms. At all times, gorengan (fried snacks) and iced tea were on hand. I believe it was through listening to him (and constant munching) that I learned the most about the field in which I was to forge my career. Despite the nibbling (or perhaps because of it), I managed to graduate cum laude and was accepted into several top-tier universities in the United States.
My point is that there isn’t a single path to academic success. It’s a big war to fight, and we need to start by picking the right battle.
One of the biggest education problems that the United States is facing is a high student dropout rate of 25 percent – a student drops out of school every 26 seconds. So it’s understandable that the US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has taken some measures to address the problem. For example, he banned schools not on track to graduate at least half of their basketball players from competing in the NCAA men’s and women’s tournaments.
“[A high dropout rate] is economically unsustainable, and that is morally unacceptable,” the former Chicago Public Schools CEO once quipped.
Here at home, education problems tend to be more complex. According to a World Bank study, only 55 percent of Indonesian children from low-income families are enrolled in junior high school. The same report points out poor performance by Indonesian students in international standardized tests.
Other studies have led to similarly disheartening findings, be it in matters of infrastructure, resources or teaching quality – all of which apply throughout Indonesia.
I encountered the harsh reality in the village of Batu Gajah, Kampar, Riau. On a hill top deep in a palm plantation area stands a modest hut. This tiny shack is actually a school, although you wouldn’t know it if not for the voices of children repeating simple mathematic formulas. Through the single door you can see their bare feet resting on the cold, mud floor.
Teacher Agus told me he’s the only one there responsible for the dozens of children of different ages. Once in a while, help comes from a bigger school in the adjacent area, but it’s mostly just him. His salary is rarely paid on time, so he relies on a bit of help from the children’s parents, most of who are low-paid workers at the plantation.
What renders the situation even sadder is that this area is rich and its residents so economically disadvantaged. Palm plantations contribute a lot to Riau’s economy, making it one of the wealthiest provinces in the country. After all, Indonesia is the world’s biggest palm oil producer. What good is such wealth if it can’t provide a decent education for the next generation?
Once we fix this elementary problem, then we can progress to other areas of education. But for now, let’s pick this fight.
The writer is a former journalist with SCTV, VOA and Metro TV. She’s a graduate of the University of Indonesia and Northwestern University (Evanston, Illinois).