Sat, 04 Aug 2001

Subsidies must target better education for poor students

Good schools want new entrants with good grades. Do rich and poor have the same opportunities? Education researcher Ace Suryadi shared his views with The Jakarta Post's Muhammad Yazid on Monday. He teaches in the postgraduate program of the University of Indonesia, as well as the Jakarta State University, and holds a Phd in the economics of education from the State University of New York at Albany.

Question: The recruitment of students to relatively good state high schools has so far required good grades as reflected in the average examination grades (Nilai Ebtanas Murni, NEM). Such schools are now dominated by students from well-to-do families. What are the implication for poor students?

Answer: This is an issue of education quality -- which is not only determined by the NEM. Quality depends on a student's learning method and learning capacity, the output of which would be to understand something.

This requires four things: the ability to read fast, the ability to express ideas verbally or in writing; the ability to understand the logic of numbers, space mathematics, etc, and the ability to analyze.

Q: What is the aim of those requisites?

A: One is so that a student can get a good NEM. But it's not right if quality is judged by the NEM given that answers to the tests can be memorized. There is an unfair element in the process (of evaluation).

Q: Could you elaborate?

A: Poor students seem to have various disadvantages as regards entering schools requiring a high NEM. First, a high NEM is easy to acquire for those from well-to-do families because of their access to good facilities. Second, the poor will predictably enter lower grade schools because of their low NEM. These lower grade schools would certainly be financially disadvantaged because of their low fees. So such schools continue to be of low quality...

Meanwhile, students from well-off families have experienced a better process. They have had good nutrition and study facilities. They have acquired some habits from their parents, such as reading, discussing, analyzing. Their schools are better funded as the result of charging larger fees. The schools can thus pay their teachers higher salaries; their students' parents can pay for private lessons.

In state-run higher education institutions, we now have entry procedures without the NEM (for high school graduates with constantly good grades), but the proportion (of the total number of university entrants) benefiting is too small.

The standard matriculation examination for state universities (UMPTN) is unfair because it reinforces the status quo, which works to the advantage of the rich. This view is based on the findings of the research department of the ministry of education. Their studies have revealed a positive correlation between the NEM and the socio-economic status of parents.

I fear the state university recruitment method has been reduced to a selection based on financial rather than intellectual capacity. Those from rich families with good nutrition and learning facilities have a greater chance of passing the university test because the system stresses achievement instead of the thinking process, or the above four requisites. The University of Indonesia (UI) has more students from well-off families than from poor ones.

So the well-off pay low fees to study at state-run universities like UI and the Bandung Institute for Technology. While the poor who are rejected by UI must seek more expensive private institutions. Therefore our education system tends to make study cheap for the rich and expensive for the poor. So we tax the poor and subsidize the rich.

Q: What's the solution?

A: First, we need diversity in subsidies. It's better to provide subsidies for the poor -- such as subsidies for disadvantaged schools, even if they are private (as opposed to the current policy of only subsidizing state schools).

State schools dominated by the well-off -- such as SMUN 3 in Bandung (West Java) and SMUN 8 in Jakarta -- only need small subsidies, or none at all. Such state schools could be left to become independent or they could be turned into commercial ventures, as they receive large donations from parents.

The issue here is that the government must determine the criteria by which schools receive government subsidies. But don't differentiate between private and state schools (regarding subsidies).

The approach of managing schools like commercial ventures is reflected by the top private schools ... and also state schools like SMU 8 and SMU 70 (in Jakarta). They should be left to manage their own affairs. As they seek profit, they could be taxed -- these taxes could then be paid to poor schools as a kind of cross subsidy.

Q: But our taxation system is said to be ineffective and inefficient...

A: The method would be up to the government; but that's only a mid-term solution. The problem is that the government should be willing to adopt a commercial approach to education. Don't discourage educational institutes from seeking profit as long as they are providing quality education.

What should be discouraged is the practice of seeking profit when the education provided is bad. And, in general, parents will pay anything for a good education.

With cross-subsidization, the poor schools could hopefully upgrade their quality...

Q: So how can poor students enter the top state schools?

A: This brings us back to the NEM. Evaluations should be based on the learning ability tests which would apply equally to poor and rich students. The United States employs tests like the Graduated Record Examination, which evaluates verbal reasoning, writing, reading and argumentation skills. Also tested are mathematical reasoning, analytic reasoning and logical reasoning. This kind of learning ability test has a higher degree of predictability.

Q: Can we apply such tests under regional autonomy?

A: Tests to measure learning ability are precisely designed for autonomy. So regions must not repeat the mistakes of the central government (in designing inappropriate tests). I'm sure this system is workable.

Q: How then would you view later competition in the job market?

A: Competition in the job market would become more objective, and would no longer be based on whether one was rich or poor. Recruitment departments in foreign companies stress the above four requirements, as well as language skills. This is different from domestic firms which engage in a lot of nepotism in their recruitment practices. (Mohammad Yazid)