Krismanto, a former student at SMA Dharma Putra high school in Tangerang, once dreamed of becoming a world-class civil engineer. But the 20-year-old has had to resign himself to working as a home physics and math tutor.
His dreams were shattered when he failed the notoriously competitive State University National Entrance Test (SNMPTN) for admission to the University of Indonesia in Jakarta and Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta.
“I failed because there were so many students competing for just a few seats that year,” he said.
Krismanto was not alone in his disappointment. Five friends took the exam on the same day and only one received an offer from a second-choice university.
Since then, the paths of these six friends have diverged greatly. Unlike Krismanto and one other who chose work over college, a third waited to retake the exam the next year, while two enrolled in private universities.
“I thought about enrolling in a private university but I decided not to because they are expensive. So I chose to work instead,” Krismanto said. “I might try to enroll in a nearby private university in two or three years.”
He said private universities were easier to get into because most did not require a test but merely a high school report card.
According to studies done by the Graduate School of Education at the State University of New York in Buffalo, the average cost of higher education for Indonesian students in 2004-05 was Rp 1.2 million ($135) for low public universities, Rp 2.35 million for high public universities and Rp 6.25 million for private universities.
The SNMPTN is for high school students seeking a place in a public university. The 57 public universities offer the same test on the same days — June 17 and 18 this year.
This year 447,000 students took the test, 10 percent more than last year. They were competing for just 82,000 places. The results will be announced on July 17.
The quota of places available via the SNMPTN is decided by the universities; the University of Indonesia, for example, reserves less then 30 percent of its places for SNMPTN test-takers.
The rest of the places are for those who gain entrance through other forms of admission.
The University of Indonesia, for example, has three other admission rounds, beginning with the preselection stage (PPKB), where academically gifted high school students are offered a place without having to take a test.
Alternatively, students can take UI’s self-designed admissions test (SIMAK-UI) or UMB test, an entrance test for 12 universities.
Public universities usually have a lower one-off entrance fee for SNMPTN admissions, compared with students who get in by other means.
Gumilar Somantri, UI’s rector, said all admission rounds served their own purpose and were therefore good in their own ways.
“The PPKB, for example, directly recruits students from Sabang to Merauke — in other words, from all over Indonesia — who may not have passed the SIMAK or UMB test had they taken it, but who have ranked first or second in their schools,” he said. “This gives people from different, and perhaps less developed, provinces a chance to gain admittance.”
Likewise, the SNMPTN “gives students [who failed the SIMAK or UMB] another chance for admission,” he said.
Gumilar said students taking the SNMPTN exam had a comparatively lower GPA average of 2.5, compared with the 3.6, 3.3, and 3.2 averages of PPKB, SIMAK, and UMB applicants, respectively.
“The lower GPAs of SNMPTN students are partly because the higher-performing students have already been accepted through the other ways of admission, held earlier,” he said.
Pushed for Space
The high level of competition in the SNMPTN exam raises the question: are universities providing enough places to accommodate aspiring high school graduates?
Many observers have suggested that state universities need to accommodate more students, and that the government needs to build more universities.
The limited number of places forces universities to turn down qualified applicants.
“The students who fail the SNMPTN are not necessarily unqualified because the pass/fail benchmark is defined not by a fixed numerical value but by whether or not they get offered a place,” Krismanto said.
Darmaningtyas, an education expert from Taman Siswa school, suggests that part of the problem involves state universities that “place such a low quota for SNMPTN test-takers. They need to allocate more seats for the SNMPTN passers.”
Gumilar also believes the government needs to diversify the types of educational institutions available to accommodate varying talents within Indonesia’s youth.
“Many students might want to pursue certain fields like medicine only because it is prestigious,” he said. “They fail the SNMPTN exam because they cannot compete with other students in their field, being only average or slightly above average. Instead, these students need to pursue their true talents.”
Given that Indonesia’s tertiary enrollment rate was only 18 percent in 2007, according to the World Bank, slightly lower than the average of lower middle-income countries, observers say state universities should not be turning away students who have the potential for further studies.
Others, however, do not think the government should bear the responsibility of financing higher education. Instead, they believe the government’s responsibility lies primarily in providing access to nine years of compulsory education.
Anything beyond that would fall outside of its obligations; students can enroll in private universities instead.
Many scholars have argued that government funding of higher education only exacerbates inequities within the sector. According to one study, those from the poorest 20 percent of Indonesia’s population hardly ever make it to university, while the richest 20 percent make up 92 percent of university students.
Since the poor are likely to benefit the most from free primary education, and the rich from higher education, the government should focus on the former, these scholars say.
As education experts continue to debate this, a bigger problem seems to be employing university graduates.
Winarno, rector of Atma Jaya University, said the number of unemployed people with a bachelor’s degree was rising. In 2007, there were about 740,000; in early 2009, it was more than 900,000.