Predatory political, bureaucratic and corporate elites have been a core reason for Indonesia's learning crisis | Melbourne Asia Review

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Indonesia is in the midst of a learning crisis. While it has done much to improve access to education in recent decades, it has done little to improve mastery of basic skills in literacy, numeracy and science. The country has typically placed towards the bottom of the list of assessed countries and behind neighbouring countries such as Malaysia, Vietnam, and Thailand in international standardised tests of student learning such as the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and Progress in International Literacy Reading Study (PIRLS) since it began participating in these tests in the early 2000s.

Its learning crisis was exacerbated by COVID-19, which saw schools close across the country for roughly two years. According to a World Bank study, the pandemic resulted in an ‘estimated learning loss of between 0.9 and 1.2 years and a decrease in reading competence of 25 to 35 points on the [PISA] reading score’ up to mid-2021 with further learning losses likely as a result of continued school closures beyond that point. However, as devastating as the pandemic was for Indonesia’s school system, it has not been the core cause of the country’s learning crisis. The crisis has deeper roots.

Much analysis of poor learning outcomes in developing countries has emphasised factors such as inadequate funding levels, human resource deficits, perverse incentive structures, and poor management. These have all been a feature of Indonesia’s education system. However, Indonesia’s learning crisis most fundamentally reflects the nature of the ‘political settlements’ that have characterised Indonesia’s political economy in recent decades. A political settlement is ‘the balance or distribution of power between contending social groups and social classes, on which any state is based’.

Political settlements in Indonesia have differed slightly over time being more exclusionary in the case of the authoritarian New Order period (1966-1998) and more inclusionary in the case of the democratic and decentralised post-New Order era (1998-present). But, in both cases, they have been characterised by the political dominance of predatory political, bureaucratic and corporate elites whose dominant interests lie in use of the state apparatus to secure rents and maintain power. In accordance with these interests, they have sought to use the education system to accumulate resources, distribute patronage, mobilise political support, and exercise political control rather than promote learning and skill acquisition. Progressive elements in civil society committed to human rights and social justice and technocratic elements committed to free markets and neoliberal notions of good governance, both of which have supported a stronger focus on learning and basic skills acquisition (albeit for different political and ideological reasons), have been relatively marginalised. In this context, the government has failed to adopt and implement education policies that promote learning in Indonesian schools along the lines assessed by tests such as PISA, TIMSS and PIRLS. Contestation of predatory agendas by technocratic and progressive elements has generally been settled in favour of predatory elites.

Below, we illustrate these points by examining how these political settlements and associated processes of conflict and contestation have shaped one key area of education policy and its implementation in Indonesia: the school curriculum.

The New Order

Curriculum reform during the 32 years of the authoritarian New Order was largely an exercise in indoctrination. While revised curricula were framed with reference to then-fashionable education theories (e.g Management by Objective [Curriculum 1975], Active Student Learning [Curriculum 1984], School-level autonomy [Curriculum 1994]), such technocratic flourishes were only admitted insofar as they did not contradict the overriding agenda of regime maintenance. This agenda was most clearly manifested in changes to content that were designed to indoctrinate students with a set of values and behavioural norms that legitimised the authoritarian state. The 1975 Curriculum introduced compulsory Pancasila studies (PMP or Pancasila Moral Education) to each level of the system. The 1984 Curriculum inserted a compulsory subject on the ‘History of Armed Struggle’ that presented the regime’s account of its sacrifice and munificence. In the same year senior high school and university students were obligated to complete an additional extra-curricular course on Pancasila. While the weighting of explicit ‘values’ units (PMP and Religion) within the curriculum was typical of other ethnically and religiously pluralistic developing countries such as Malaysia and The Philippines, ideological instruction permeated a much larger portion of the curriculum via language and social science subjects.

The dominance of the New Order’s paternalistic agenda sustained a highly centralistic approach to curriculum development. The centralised production of textbooks was part of an effort to ‘teacher proof’ the system and enforce a model of learning uniformity that was considered to be a vital ingredient of national unity. Critical thinking was undermined by a learning process that presented all knowledge as dichotomous: there were right and wrong answers and no in-between. Education was framed as a process of knowledge transfer in which teachers were simply the downstream mouthpiece. Tellingly, changes to the national curriculum for the duration of the New Order were never presented as a response to problems stemming from structural issues. Each new iteration of the curriculum was presented as a disempurnakan (perfected) version of that which preceded it. One consequence of this was an accretion of overlapping subject matter. Reforms carried out in the 1990s that introduced locally-developed content exacerbated the problem. By the end of the decade the curriculum was considered to be overloaded and unintegrated.

The exclusionary political settlement of the New Order meant that curriculum policy development was a closed shop. While high profile education experts such as Mochtar Buchori and Winarno Surakhmad boldly took the regime to task over issues such as curriculum design, their middle-class readership remained small in number and highly dependent upon the state for their welfare. Domestic capitalists, another important stakeholder in debates around education outcomes, were likewise ‘dependent upon the state as the engine of employment and investment’. Thus, while curriculum development under the New Order theoretically worked at two levels—an internal process led by the Ministry’s Curriculum Development Centre (CDC) coupled with an external process of consultation with key stakeholder groups—in practice the CDC’s control of the process was uncontested.

The only real challenge to the New Order state’s control of curriculum policy levers was the size and diversity of the education sector itself. In 1981, for instance, the major daily Kompas reported that many rural schools were still using the 1968 curriculum on account of the fact that the resources required for the 1975 version never arrived. Only 5,000 curriculum manuals were printed for the 1984 curriculum to service over 130,000 state schools and an unspecified number in the private sector. Not surprisingly, most teachers never saw one or experienced training designed to support new innovations such as Active School Learning (Curriculum 1984). As such, one may speak of different forms of curriculum, as the one being taught in a New Order primary school was not necessarily the same as the current official version. The challenge presented by the sheer size of the sector—i.e. getting the official curriculum operationalised in all schools—would be a focus of one of the first major curriculum innovations introduced following the collapse of the New Order in 1998: decentralisation.

The Reform Era

Fittingly, the first curricular reform of the post-Suharto era was to address his historical legacy. A key motivation for ‘Curriculum Supplement 1999’ (an amendment of the 1994 Curriculum) was to revise content regarding the rise of the New Order and the role of the military in politics. It was an early sign of the shift to an inclusionary political settlement around the issue of curriculum design, as the decision was a highly symbolic acknowledgement of the role of progressive coalitions (particularly university students) in forcing Suharto’s resignation. The far more substantial reform, however, was the launching of a new curriculum in 2004. Popularly referred to as the KBK or Competency-Based Curriculum, it was designed to accommodate provisions contained in a sweeping regional autonomy package that granted districts significant control over education provision and to meet stipulations laid down in the 2003 Law on the National Education System. The design of the new curriculum was led by the Ministry’s Curriculum Centre, which had commenced work in 2000 as a continuation of reforms to the 1994 curriculum. It contained the hallmarks of the technocratic agenda, especially New Public Management theory, as student learning outcomes were tied to a range of defined competency standards and associated indicators. The preamble to the policy set education provision within a framework of regional and global competitiveness, in which ‘the quality improvement of our human resources must be the first priority’. It was in stark contrast to the New Order priority of ‘creating the true Pancasila individual’.

The speed of the shift was startling. Only a few years prior, the ‘divergence of opinion with regard to educational philosophy among key stake holders’ had been identified as a primary obstacle to curriculum development. Now a curriculum had been launched that was closely aligned with a global education orthodoxy based around standardisation, core competencies and the use of corporate management practices. While it is tempting to seek out the smoking gun that triggered this package of policy reform, the more realistic scenario was a confluence of factors. Comparable developments in neighbouring countries were one reference point, as was input from multilateral agencies such as the World Bank which had long pressed for market-oriented reforms to the education sector. The political vacuum created by Suharto’s fall created the space for experienced technocrats to operate relatively unhindered. The ensuing package of reforms included the introduction of a new high-stakes exam system and the establishment of an independent Board of National Education Standards (BNSP). In addition to the state system, technocratic agendas made significant inroads into the private education sector as MoRA was increasingly engaged in donor-supported schemes for quality improvement in the madrasah sector. At the project level in general, key external donors such as AusAID, USAID and the World Bank moved quickly to improve enabling conditions for curriculum policy reform, particular administrative capacity building at the district and school level.

The key to effective curriculum reform was not, however, capacity building. Of foremost importance was getting the right balance between centre and districts. On paper, the new model whereby the centre would retain control over curriculum policy development and standards with the districts controlling implementation played to the strengths of both actors. In practice, however, reform measures have suffered from the ‘poor fit’ between the technocratic consensus at the national level and the political and institutional context at the district and school level. This can be illustrated by way of two prevalent examples. At the school-level, the curriculum overhauls prompted a high degree of confusion and hesitancy amongst teachers. Three decades of didactic policy control from the centre had left them utterly unprepared for the level of agency that post-New Order curricula granted them in terms of content development and competency assessment. At the same time, institutional and political reform at the centre was not matched by similar processes in the districts. Established hierarchies and practices in local institutional contexts not only weathered reformasi, but in many cases were strengthened. The net result was that the intent to drive learning improvements via curriculum reform was undermined by a lack of capacity amongst frontline providers and a political and institutional setting that was resistant to change. Local parliaments, for example, were reluctant to approve budgets for teacher training because such disbursements provided few opportunities for rent-seeking and entailed complex reporting obligations. Not surprisingly, the main curriculum development activity for teachers was the age-old practice of sharing centrally formulated templates and teaching plans to ensure that the workplace was compliant, regardless of whether the curriculum was being operationalised or not.

The second example of the ‘poor fit’ centred around curriculum resourcing. At the national level, the decentralisation of curriculum resourcing served to reduce expenditure and was posited as a solution to the intractible problem of adequate textbook production and distribution. But at the district level, tendering processes for government contracts were deeply embedded in local political institutions and the bureaucracy. Predatory coalitions of elected officials and bureaucrats controlled production and distribution deals for curriculum resources such as textbooks. Corruption cases revolving around ‘pengadaan buku sekolah’ (textbook tendering) became a weekly staple in the press, with a number of high profile District Heads being indicted on charges of corruption. The implication for learning outcomes was that the main quality assurance mechanism for a textbook was the size of the kickback a publisher could muster. As was the case with the tendering for national exam support services, providers often sought to maximise their margins by using the cheapest available materials. Worse still, the practice had the effect of driving up the cost of schooling for parents as school principals were often complicit in the system. Students went from being consumers (the neoliberal ideal) to a captive market (the predatory reality).

In such instances of a ‘poor fit’ as described above, Brian Levy rgues that ‘there exists the possibility of improving the development outcome by reshaping lower-level institutional arrangements and policy choices to align better with the political and institutional arrangements which prevail at higher levels’. In reality, MoEC possessed limited power to shape lower-level policy choices. Kleden’s study of district education planning processes, for example, reveals that district-level compliance with national policy targets is generally retrospective (i.e. spend first, fit the spending to policy targets later).[1] It is not uncommon, for instance, for district education budgets to be approved prior to receiving the targets by which the central ministry seeks to assess performance. The other main lower-level institutional arrangement delegated to support the desired development outcome (i.e. improved quality of education) is the School Committee. As noted earlier, although these bodies consist of the school principal and ‘elected’ parents and community representatives, they have proven to be a weak accountability mechanism due to the tendency for them to be ‘captured’ by principals who are part of local predatory coalitions.

The sum effect of the poor fit described above was a growing popular perception that the national curriculum had just become another ‘project’, a euphemism for a corrupt activity. In Indonesia, this term is a euphemism for policies or programs that are foremost designed to meet the interests of political elites, often by providing opportunities for graft. This perception was strengthened when the same administration that introduced the KTSP in 2006 announced (with minimal consultation) that it would be replaced in 2013 with the Character-Building Curriculum. Popularly known as K-13, this new curriculum sustained the dominant neoliberal agenda of the post-New Order period with a renewed effort to lift student performance against standardised international benchmarks (PISA, TIMMs, PIRLS). Where it diverged from its predecessor was in providing for a restructuring of units of study to accommodate the interests of an increasingly assertive nationalist and religious agenda at the national level. Prior to the formal announcement of the new curriculum, Religious Affairs Minister Suryadharma Ali was pushing for additional religious education on the pretext that the moral values of younger generations were slipping. The response from legislators of a more nationalist bent was to champion a revival of Pancasila values. Implicit in the representation of the new curriculum as an exercise in morality reform was a critique of a technocratic agenda that had moved too far from the earlier orientation of the country’s education system.

The popular backlash against the announcement of yet another curriculum overhaul was not limited to watchdog groups wary of further abuses of the education budget. The most vocal critics were middle-class parents and educationalists who opposed the removal of English and science at the elementary level. Local governments pushed back strongly (and successfully) against plans to streamline content by removing local language subjects, while the Secretary General of the Indonesian Federation of Teachers summed up the mood of many teachers in remarking that ‘instead of changing the curriculum, better change the minister’. The response of the incoming Minister of Education for the new Joko Widodo government, Anies Baswedan, was to procrastinate and obfuscate. He declared that schools would have up until 2016 to transition to the new curriculum. Those that had already transitioned for three semesters were asked to carry on, but those that had applied the new curriculum for two or less were asked to go back to the 2006 KTSP. Ultimately, he failed to make his own deadline before being replaced in a mid-term reshuffle. His successor advanced the transition deadline to 2018. Meanwhile the implementation of the Movement for the Strengthening of Character Education by the MOEC from 2016 onwards signalled an attempt to impart the spirit of K13 into classrooms without necessarily changing the curriculum. One blogger summed up the situation nicely by comparing the K13 to a car full of schools, teachers, and students that was put out on the road before passing a roadworthy test.


Between 1999 and 2013 Indonesia underwent two major curriculum reforms and a number of minor revisions. While the failure of this curriculum reform to produce a measurable impact upon student learning outcomes was frequently linked to a range of proximate causes (i.e. resourcing bottlenecks, lack of teacher training), these issues were largely manifestations of deeper structural politico-economic problems. In the preceding account these problems were discussed in terms of the ‘poor fit’ between central and district political and institutional contexts. In a nutshell, it could be said that central policy-makers failed to appreciate the fact that the rapid pace of institutional and political change in the metropole and major cities has been far slower (and even regressive) at the district level. Rather than stimulating improvements in learning quality (or even an appreciation for the need to pursue this agenda), curriculum reform created a range of rent seeking opportunities for predatory actors at the local level and generated a largely apathetic response from teachers.

[1] Kleden, P. (2017) RENSTRA Study: Comparison of Teacher and Education Personnel Policy Planning Frameworks at the National and District/Municipality Levels.

Authors: Phil King, Andrew Rosser and Danang Widoyoko

Image: Children in a school classroom, Indonesia. Credit: ILO Asia Pacific/Fauzan Azhima/Flickr.


curriculum education elites Indonesia New Order politics reform school Social policy