Fri, 14 Jan 2000

Striving for effective higher education

By Nirwan Idrus

This is the second of two articles on ways to improve higher education.

JAKARTA (JP): It is exactly two years to the day. Regrettably, business is as usual in almost all the country's state higher education institutions.

In fact, for many people the situation is more perplexing and dangerous than before. We now have people and institutions who have learned the new paradigm "speak" or language. They now go around championing the new paradigm, but stop short of doing anything.

The same old lip-service syndrome. Some consider post-monetary crisis Indonesia as being totally different from that before the crisis, thus solutions that may have had an impact precrisis are simply not acceptable now. As if nothing can be learned from successful solutions generated during the precrisis era. Lest we forget, the problems with and in the Indonesian education system were perpetrated precrisis and not post-crisis.

It is true that the various ideas already advocated can be seen to be top-down. Without the appropriate training of the people, it is difficult to expect solutions to be generated at the "bottom" and then to expect them to filter upward to the top. The top also needs to be trained to receive and not just give ideas, instructions, etc.

It is also true that the changes discussed here would need appropriate resources. But is education in Indonesia out of resources? Not according to the amount of loans and grants that have been received to date, as well as the unserviceable equipment and buildings mentioned before. This is where the question of effectiveness comes into the picture.

Perhaps a more practical suggestion is now appropriate. Take just two items from the previous article as examples. They are: 1. The dissemination of the new paradigm in education, and 2. Getting unserviceable equipment working again.

The new paradigm was announced to heads of higher education institutions (both state and private) at the tail end of the New Order era.

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the message has not filtered down to the people. In the old paradigm, the required dissemination first required a letter of instruction from the director general followed by fund disbursement to carry out the order. This mentality is still alive in state and some private higher education institutions even now, two years hence and well into a different political era in Indonesia.

It is therefore suggested that a training program for rectors and directors of polytechnic schools be mounted as soon as possible to familiarized them with the new paradigm and show ways how they should disseminate the message to everyone in their respective institutions.

There should not be a huge expenditure for this purpose as rectors and directors could be grouped in a number of regions around the country while the director general traveled out to those regions from Jakarta.

There would be no need for an entourage from the ministry to accompany the director general, as it would be most appropriate that the director general be the person that sells and is seen to sell the new paradigm. A program of dissemination of the new paradigm could be agreed upon with the rectors and directors.

The implementation of this agreed program would need nothing more than a commitment and a little time from everybody. The commitment could be manifested in several ways. For example, the director general could set aside a couple of days a month on the "new paradigm", reading and commenting on reports from rectors and directors about progress in their institutions.

The comments, which should be developmental, should be passed on as quickly as possible to the rectors and directors. In turn, the rectors and directors would do the same with their deans of schools and the deans with their heads of departments.

Naturally, input from departments should precede that of the faculties and that from the faculties should precede that from the institutions to the director general.

The major difference between this method and the centralized system of the past would be that the position above would not simply give instructions to the position below and expect them to be acted upon, but would accept reports of action already taken and give advice on how to improve them in a sort of coaching manner.

There would be no sanctions or penalties for actions taken, but the wisdom of the people in positions above would be offered to those below them to improve the actions. This practice would be just as valuable to the people below as to those above. The people above do have a monopoly on the best solutions, and indeed in many cases are ignorant of situations in the "field".

Self-discipline would be the key to all the above. Everyone at all levels, from the director general down, should be disciplined enough to set that couple of days a month for this purpose.

The second immediate problem faced by institutions generally, and school of engineering in particular, is that of unserviceable equipment. This impacts badly on the education of students, particularly in this era of technology.

Theoretical knowledge alone cannot produce skilled graduates to bring this country on a par with its neighbors. This problem ranges from new equipment supplied without manuals, equipment supplied with missing accessories and equipment supplied without training, to nonexistent service support.

Exacerbated by New Order mentality, only very few institutions take the initiative to repair and bring equipment to a usable condition. Others simply wait for a letter of instruction and the funds to fix the problem. Naturally they wait a long time.

However, the situation is acute and the impacts on graduates and this country will be pervasive and debilitating. A national action plan is needed in this case. It is therefore suggested that the Directorate General of Higher Education (DGHE) requests all state institutions to make inventories of unserviceable equipment, clearly stating the required repairs.

To avoid potential misuse of funds, it is also suggested that an independent skilled personnel be contracted by DGHE to audit the inventories, prioritize the repairs and categorize them into those that should be repaired locally by expertise within campuses and those that needed skills and competence external to the institutions.

Where will the funds come from for the repair and other work, one hears many rectors and directors as well as deans and heads of departments at state institutions scream.

As has been said, there are at least seven solutions to a problem, and they do not grow on trees. Suggestions could be made, but it would be unfair not to let these people exercise their talents first, before being told what the answers are.

Hopefully nobody will need to tell them what the answers are. Then, and only then, will we see incipient effective higher education in the country.

The writer is an international higher education consultant living in Jakarta. This article is his personal opinion.