Sun, 27 Apr 2003

Higher education still a status symbol

Hera Diani and Moch. N. Kurniawan, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

Andri Wongso, founder of Harvest Card, the Indonesian version of Hallmark, was not prepared for the questions that came from students at a recent career day held at state SMUN 35 high school, Central Jakarta.

Andri had just finished telling his rags-to-riches story to a total of 650 students from SMUN 7, SMUN 24 and SMUN 35 senior high schools at an event arranged by General Electric. It was the second such event staged by the company.

In a loud voice and with a firm tone, often asking students to keep quiet, he revealed how hard work, honesty and other virtues had landed him success, despite the fact that he had barely graduated from elementary school.

Syahrul, 18, a senior at SMUN 35 high school, quickly responded to Andri's remarks, saying that his father had always been honest and a hard worker, yet his family remained financially modest.

"Well, honest people are sometimes cheated, and it could happen to anyone. That's the way to learn about life," Andri said.

Although dissatisfied with the answer, Syahrul did not ask any more questions. Later he told The Jakarta Post that he was worried he could not get into university as his parents were in financial trouble, which had left them unable to pay for his university tuition.

"I really want to study psychology at Gadjah Mada University (in Yogyakarta)," said the eldest of three siblings.

Apart from wanting to lead a better life by working for a university degree, he said he wanted to prove something to his mother's family, who often mocked his family for being none too successful.

While his dream of obtaining a university degree is noteworthy, Syahrul missed the whole point of the career day in the first place: That not every high school graduate can or should enter university. Instead, they may have other options, such as obtaining a diploma or developing their entrepreneurial skills.

Andri's experience was a perfect example, though, and so was the experience of another speaker at the event, photographer Achmad Budiman from the Asia Foundation, who had started from nothing.

However, Syahrul's view is understandable, as most Indonesians still perceive higher education to be a status symbol.

As society still clings to a feudal pattern whereby one's achievement is determined by one's status rather than merit, it is small wonder that most people think of a university degree as a ticket to a more respected place in society.

As a result, nearly half a million senior high school graduates compete each year for places at 46 state universities across the country, while only about 20 percent of them will enter.

Private universities with questionable credentials have mushroomed, and, worse still, fake degrees can easily be obtained through some institutions, as long as you have the money.

Rector of the University of Indonesia Usman Chatib Warsa said that parents had to be prepared to change their opinion that their children ought to go to university after graduating from high school.

"Some children may have good skills rather than intellectuality. They should aim for a diploma rather than a university degree. If they were forced to enroll at university, they might not be able to compete; thus their grades would be disappointing," he told the Post.

The government, he added, ought to promote the view through high schools that children could achieve their potential without necessarily going to university.

"At the same time, the government should also establish more polytechnics, which are still fewer in number than universities," he said.

Chatib also called on companies not to underestimate graduates from polytechnics in their working environment, and provide them with good remuneration and opportunities for career progression.

However, besides the perception that a degree confers self- esteem and is a status symbol, the low minimum wage in this country is another reason why people want to work for a university degree in order to get a better job.

The provincial minimum wage in Jakarta, for example, is only around Rp 600,000 per month, while living costs are a lot higher than that. Under such circumstances high school graduates must think of developing whatever entrepreneurial skills they might possess.

According to SMUN 35 high school principal Suparmi, some students were truly inspired by the first career day that they started their own businesses after graduating, instead of going on to higher education.

"I met some of them: They sell chickens at the market, or hire out potted flowers. At least they have the motivation to do something, and are not embarrassed to do so, either," she said.