A New Indonesian University Will Train Students to Solve National Problems

Photographs by Donang Wahyu for The Chronicle

Students from the Sampoerna School of Education observe schoolchildren in Jakarta. Classroom experience is a focus of the school's curriculum.
October 31, 2010

There is nothing like the Sampoerna School of Education in the small central Java village where Yosea Kurnianto was raised.

Even after a year of studies here, he speaks of the private college—with its wired classrooms, well-stocked library, and rows of computers lined up like obedient soldiers in formation—with a mix of awe and pride.

"I feel progress in my life already," says Mr. Kurnianto, a bashful 19-year-old. "This is a very big miracle for me."

Indeed, the fact that Mr. Kurnianto is enrolled in college at all is against the odds. The college-going rate in this sprawling archipelago of 240 million people is just 17 percent, a proportion far behind that of its Southeast Asian neighbors. Only 7 percent of the population holds a degree. And while a push to expand universal access to primary education is slowly raising educational attainment, Indonesia's 80 overburdened public universities can admit only a fraction of those who apply.

Into that gap has come a flourishing private education system. But while many of Indonesia's 2,200 private colleges are of dubious quality and relatively high cost, the Sampoerna School of Education stands apart.

Founded by one of the country's wealthiest men, Putera Sampoerna, it is part of a bold plan to introduce the American land-grant-university model to Indonesia through partnerships with foreign universities.

Mr. Sampoerna, working through his foundation, aims to create a first-class university with a curriculum that corresponds to the country's economic needs and a high-achieving student body recruited from the country's lowest socioeconomic classes. Every one of the 190 undergraduates enrolled in the School of Education, the first of the university's colleges to open, is on financial aid.

In drawing disadvantaged students from the country's many islands and in focusing on fields critical to this developing nation, such as teacher training and entrepreneurship, Mr. Sampoerna hopes his institution can help build Indonesia's educational capacity and improve its economy.

"Only 2 percent of all kids that go to university come from rural areas, from the lowest economic quintile," Mr. Sampoerna notes, "and that's what we want to change."

Private Education's Rise

For decades the country has used funds from the World Bank and other sources to invest in educational programs. But attention has frequently been diverted by more immediate challenges: the transition from dictatorship to democracy, the threat of domestic terrorism, and the fiscal devastation of the Asian financial crash.

"When you are dealing with crisis after crisis," says Nenny Soemawinata, managing director of the Putera Sampoerna Foundation, "it's hard to think about the long term."

Still, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has made education a priority, acknowledging that without bettering educational access and outcomes, Indonesia cannot achieve its economic-development goals.

"We have to have a critical mass of educated people to move the country forward," says Irid Agoes, director of the Indonesian International Education Foundation, an organization that promotes educational exchanges, particularly with the United States.

Mr. Yudhoyono's government has committed to spending 20 percent of the federal budget on education and, in the current fiscal year, allocated nearly 20-trillion rupiah ($2.2-billion), or about 9 percent of the budget, to higher education.

But with 4.4 million Indonesian students dropping out of school annually, the government's concentration has been, by necessity, on primary and secondary education. And some experts, like Terance W. Bigalke, director of education programs at the East-West Center, question whether the government can sustain its current level of support.

"Indonesia doesn't have the financial capacity to expand higher education without resorting to privatization," says Mr. Bigalke, whose education-and-research organization is focused on the Asia-Pacific region.

In recent years, the number of private colleges in the country has exploded. While some, particularly those associated with religious orders, are well-regarded comprehensive colleges, many are narrowly tailored institutes meant to train students in specific technical fields, like computer programming.

Still others are "diploma mills and moneymakers" that prey on unsuspecting students and their parents, Ms. Agoes says. In a country where corruption is pervasive, the tarnished image of private education has led to a growing public wariness.

A More Rigorous Model

Mr. Sampoerna, a cigarette and gambling magnate, started his eponymous foundation in 2001, pledging $150-million to improve education. Initially, the group, which also runs several high-school "academies," focused on sending bright, underprivileged students overseas for study.

Mr. Sampoerna himself graduated from the University of Houston, and the foundation leadership is a mixture of expatriates and foreign-educated Indonesians.

But the approach was expensive—the cost of enrolling a single student in a college in the United States could total $200,000 or more over four years. Sampoerna officials began to question whether they could have greater impact keeping those students in Indonesia.

"If we could not afford to send more students to Harvard," says Agung Binatoro, head of program development at the foundation, "why don't we try to set up a school like Harvard, with Harvard quality, in Indonesia?"

The model the philanthropy embraced was not Harvard but America's flagship public research institutions, land-grant universities, founded more than a century ago with the mission to give practical training in fields vital to a nascent nation, to students of all economic classes.

In Indonesia, one of the most critical needs the foundation identified is teacher training. With a push toward universal education, nearly 95 percent of Indonesian children are enrolled in primary school.

The quality of that education is often poor, however. Indonesian students score toward the back of the pack on international science and mathematics tests.

Some observers lay the blame on teachers, many of whom are under­prepared. More than half of all Indonesian teachers do not have a four-year college degree. (Traditional teacher-training schools here offer just a two- or three-year degree.) On any given day, one in five teachers is not in the classroom, one of the highest rates of teacher absenteeism in the world, according to the World Bank.

The government has recently instituted stricter certification requirements, which all teachers, both veterans and those entering the field, will have to meet by 2015.

While existing teacher-training institutes must revamp their syllabi to meet the new standards, the Sampoerna School of Education was created with those guidelines in mind, says Paulina Pannen, the dean.

The school allows students to major in two areas, English-language education and mathematics education, but Ms. Pannen says the institution hopes to add educational technology and education management, to train principals. Like the original offerings, those specialities are in high demand in Indonesia.

The Sampoerna curriculum is distinctive, Ms. Pannen says with pride: From the first semester, education students, many of whom look barely older than their charges, are sent out to elementary- and secondary-school classrooms, initially to observe and then to teach.

"We believe in active learning," Ms. Pannen says.

First-year students must also take a course in research methods; at other education schools, a similar course wouldn't typically be offered until a student's final year, if at all, Ms. Pannen says.

"We want to develop a culture of the teacher as critical thinker, as researcher, as someone who is interested in inquiry," says Nisa Felicia, who teaches in the department of education and information and communication technologies. The difficulty, she says, is that many students come from secondary schools that emphasize rote learning. "It's a big challenge to transform them."

Anissa Pane, a petite English-language major, her face open beneath a snug headscarf, admits she found the research-methods course difficult. But she says the class, along with classroom observation, has made her think about teaching in a different light.

"You have your perception as a student," she says, "but now I see that there are so many things that influence conditions in a classroom."

Mr. Kurnianto, a fellow English-language student, says his first year of college contrasts starkly with the experience of his friends back home. "They come and sit in chairs and listen to the teacher lecture," he says. "They entered university, but they say it's just a replay of senior high school."

Seeking Overseas Partners

To build the program, Sampoerna officials turned to two foreign institutions, Massey University, in New Zealand, and Nanyang Technological University, in Singapore, for help with curriculum development and faculty training.

By working with overseas partners, Mr. Binatoro, the head of program development, says the Sampoerna Foundation can ensure that its colleges offer a rigorous, international-quality curriculum and accelerate the creation of that course work.

Backers hope that such partnerships will advance the new university's international reputation, a hurdle because Indonesian higher education has a low profile on the world stage. No Indonesian university is included in rankings of the world's top research institutions, and political instability and domestic terrorism sharply diminished the number of student exchanges and joint research projects over the last decade and a half. (That could change—in June, Mr. Yudhoyono and President Obama announced a new effort to expand educational ties between Indonesia and the United States.)

To broker international relationships, the foundation has an employee on the ground in the United States, Al Jaeger, who visits American colleges, continuously seeking the best partners for the new university as it seeks to add schools and programs.

Mr. Jaeger says he hopes to interest American institutions in all manner of partnerships, including curriculum development, faculty and student exchanges, shared research, and articulation agreements. Eventually, there could even be two-plus-two programs, in which students begin their first two years in Indonesia and finish up at an American college, earning a joint or dual degree, he says.

Iowa State University is already working with the Sampoerna School of Education and this spring will send a half-dozen students to Indonesia for student teaching, says David Whaley, associate dean for teacher education at the university.

The two institutions are also exploring common research interests and hope to soon set up cooperative projects. And Iowa State would like to start a program to bring Sam­poerna faculty members to Ames for a semester apiece; first, though, officials there must find a source of financial support, Mr. Whaley says.

An Indonesian Institution

The new university may seek to meet international standards, but it remains an Indonesian institution. Space in the school of education's temporary quarters in a Jakarta office building—the foundation is scouting locations for a permanent campus—is set aside for prayer, a must in this Muslim-majority country. Instruction is in English, but on Fridays students and professors wear batik clothing, the traditional textile of Indonesia.

And the institution is centered squarely on responding to Indonesia's economic needs. Thus, it focuses on critical fields—a school of business, opened in September, was the second to be started. Ms. Soemawinata, the Sampoerna Foundation managing director, says a business curriculum was a logical next step because of the necessity of creating more Indonesian entrepreneurs and because multinational companies in the country complain of a dearth of managerial talent.

Officials hope colleges of agriculture and engineering will follow.

Unlike Indonesia's elite state universities, where acceptance is based on a nationwide examination, Sampoerna's students are not chosen on the basis of academics alone. Foundation officials are looking for future leaders, students who are likely to return home and help change the local educational system or encourage other residents to become entrepreneurs. To earn a spot, students had to present high-school scores, prove their English proficiency, undergo psychological tests, and submit to a battery of interviews. For the school of education's first class, of 89, 1,200 students applied.

Faculty members say students are hungry for the opportunity. "Teachers can only open the door for you, but you have to enter for yourself," says Ms. Felicia, the education lecturer. "My students are knocking on the door."

Without the Luxury of Time

While Sampoerna officials are proud of what they've accomplished so far, the university remains a work in progress. Among the most critical issues is how it will be financed going forward. The philanthropy has made clear that its money is meant to seed future work, not cover all continuing costs.

Mr. Bigalke, of the East-West Center, notes that private universities are typically bankrolled by tuition dollars, while the foundation's leaders say they are committed to enrolling a student body that can pay little of the cost—or none of it at all.

"The basic notion is a good one," Mr. Bigalke says, "but where is the money coming from?"

Mr. Jaeger, the American representative, says the group is seeking additional corporate and nongovernmental donors, as well as support from the American and Indonesian governments. But it's uncertain what resources the Indonesian government could commit, and even the funds pledged by President Obama to underwrite increased educational ties between the two countries are relatively modest, $165-million over five years.

Such support could also come with potentially unwelcome strings. Michelle Sampoerna, the foundation's chairwoman and Mr. Sampoerna's daughter, characterized the relationship with Indonesian higher-education authorities as "friendly." Officially, though, the ties are "at arm's length," Ms. Sampoerna says.

The foundation is moving forward on other fronts, starting a new student-loan program, based on Shariah, or Islamic, law, and establishing a new program to aid Indonesian students who would like to study in the United States and to assist American colleges that want to start partnerships and programs in this country.

"We're so used to everything moving fast, fast, fast" in the private sector, says Ms. Soemawinata, a former broadcast and marketing executive whose rapid-fire style is to answer questions before they've been fully asked. "Our approach is no waiting, just keep going, and then perfect it."

"We don't have the luxury," she adds, "to sit back."


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