OPINION: Indonesia's higher education: Staying relevant in Education 4.0 era

JAKARTA (The Jakarta Post/ANN) - The biggest obstacles of achieving that “acceleration” is not a lack of funds or people or technology, but the largely outdated mindsets of both policymakers and those who own and run higher education institutions.

It’s that time of our lives as parents when we take our kids to visit some ivory towers for their eventual university studies.

During the Idul Fitri holiday, my family and I visited some university open-day sessions in the United Kingdom. My daughter, who will graduate from high school in a few years’ time, is thinking of becoming a chef. Being a responsible parent, I tried my best in finding the right educational environment that would at least give her the best chance to make her relevant in today’s highly competitive world.

The first stop was Oxford University, where I met a friend who is completing his PhD in theoretical physics. Whilst acting as our guide, visiting all the beautiful colleges, I asked him of his learning experience. To my surprise, neither master’s degree nor PhD students are required to publish academic papers in journals, something mandatory for all master’s and PhD students in Indonesia. Academic semesters at Oxford are eight weeks in length, versus Indonesia’s 16 weeks; undergraduate degrees last three years, a master’s 10 months. In Indonesia, the periods are four years and 24 months, respectively.

Students completing their undergraduate degrees can go directly to PhD if they manage to get top grades. In Indonesia, all PhD hopefuls must first have a master’s degree, taking a longer route.

The same can be found at the School of African and Oriental Studies (SOAS) and King’s College London, my alma mater. There, the semesters are slightly longer at 10 weeks, but still within the three years for a bachelor’s degree and a year for a master’s. Such shorter semesters and academic rules are actually commonplace at universities residing in the former UK colonies of Singapore, Australia and Malaysia, most of which are ranked internationally higher than our leading universities.

Returning to Jakarta to a freshly won presidential election, I was curious about the current government’s focus on building Indonesia’s human capital. There have been talks of “accelerating” human capital development, especially in eastern parts of Indonesia where large infrastructure development has been taking place.

However, the biggest obstacles of achieving that “acceleration” is not a lack of funds or people or technology, but the largely outdated mindsets of both policymakers and those who own and run higher education institutions.

In the last four years, I have met more than 400 state and private sector universities all over Indonesia, constantly preaching the benefits of mobile learning technologies that can rapidly transform them and increase student intake with low investments. Sadly, the majority of my academic colleagues are still trapped in some sort of time warp, many seemingly totally oblivious of tectonic changes happening within their institutions, let alone the dynamic market place and technological shifts occurring outside.

These “centers of excellence”, the foundations of our national economic might, are much more akin to Jurassic parks full of aging T-Rexes rather than the leading technology and knowledge centers we would expect from them.

Our university students still study in the same Socratic method of ancient Greece 3,000 plus years ago: the lecturer-centered learning, one seemingly-know-it-all professor, boringly dispensing outdated academic materials with little relevance in today’s Industrial 4.0 world.

The arrival of Generation Z, those born after 1994, is transforming the urgent need for our archaic learning environments to be more Education 4.0 ready, using smart mobile devices, up-to-date Indonesian case studies and relevant work skills that would help employers shorten training times required to deploy new graduate recruits to quickly contribute to their bottom line, before the gen Z gets bored and move on to a competitor (usually within six months after joining the company).

Not only do they get bored easily, but they are also becoming incredibly spoiled, as illustrated by recent news of a University of Indonesia (UI) fresh graduate, refusing a starting Rp 8 million (US$560) monthly salary.

In the face of complex regulations that often change and become increasingly impossible to meet, this has proven to be more challenging for many institutions to comply. The internet of things, AI technologies, coupled with increasingly higher expectations of industry and consumers of higher education, need to be met not only by those of us who operate in the front line of higher education, such as lecturers, deans, rectors, foundations, but also by policymakers who need to set the right, relevant, realistic regulations to stimulate long-lasting improvements. These takes significant planning, time and resources.

As I look back at my stroll through Oxford, I wonder what really differentiates it to our leading universities. Centuries of history? Cleaner drinking water or air? Whatever it is, we must all collectively contribute today to transform our higher education system if we are to make our Indonesia great and internationally relevant in this Education 4.0 era, at least in the ASEAN region.

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The writer is chief partnership officer at HarukaEDU/Pintaria.com, an EdTech start-up. He obtained his doctoral degree in strategic management from the University of Indonesia.

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