The Thinker: It’s Not All Academic
Oei Eng Goan
The government’s dream of establishing state-run universities in big cities that do not already have institutions of higher learning will be fulfilled soon after the House of Representatives unanimously passed a bill on higher education earlier this month.
Besides universities, the government also plans to set up 20 academies this year in remote districts and towns as part of its drive to accommodate rural high school graduates, mostly coming from middle- and low-income families, who want to further their studies at a higher level with a focus on specialist subjects.
Education and Culture Minister Mohammad Nuh said that, as stated in the bill, each district capital will have at least one “community academy” with a special curriculum that complies with public or industrial demands in the region, so academy graduates can be readily employed.
The academies Nuh has in mind are somewhat similar to community colleges in many developed countries that offer two- or three-year vocational training to students, giving them the practical knowledge and skills that will allow them to enter the work force.
But scores of education experts have said the term “academies” sounds pompous for institutions that are below the university level, suggesting that “vocational training centers” would be more appropriate. Other have said the term is misleading because an academy is usually identified as a body of higher learning with members comprising prominent people and pundits.
Originally referring to Plato’s school of philosophy set up around 350 BC, academy, in modern times, also refers to a group of people or an organization that promotes the arts and sciences. Some schools are also called academies instead of colleges.
In the past decade, a large number of state academies here, save for the military and police academies, have dropped the “academy” from their names and adopted “institute.” A notable example are the respected academies of music, traditional dance and fine arts in Yogyakarta, which became the Indonesian Art Institute following their fusion into a single body.
But, as Shakespeare wrote, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose/By any other name would smell as sweet.”
So, regardless of whether the planned new institutes are called community academies or community colleges or even vocational training centers, what really matters is that the Education and Culture Ministry make sure the schools are well managed, charge affordable fees and produce qualified graduates.
Constructing new buildings is one thing, but properly running a college is another. If it hopes to encourage district administrations and private companies to participate in the establishment of the schools, the ministry will first have to convince the public that the academies are meant to help improve their knowledge and welfare.
One crucial problem the ministry will most likely face is finding professional teachers who are good not only at teaching theories but also at putting those theories into practice, turning students into competent, ready-for-hire employees in their respective fields.
Professionals are expensive. Even if the government offers handsome salaries and bonuses, it is not certain that qualified teachers or lecturers would be willing to work in remote districts, much less in outlying underdeveloped areas that offer few modern amenities. This is a sad fact, but that’s reality.
Prior to the schools’ operations, the ministry needs to check that the subjects to be taught are pursuant to the curriculums already set by the government, given that the majors offered by each academy would be different from one another.
It would also be the duty of ministry officials to watch closely the construction of the schools and ensure that the building materials used and the learning equipment purchased meet the required standards, thereby avoiding corruption.
Oei Eng Goan, a former literature lecturer at the National University (UNAS) in Jakarta, is a freelance journalist.