IO – Nadiem Makarim can be said to be a phenomenal minister in Indonesia. Many had their doubts when he was appointed to helm the Education and Culture Ministry, since he did not hail from the education sectors, but was rather an entrepreneur who founded the highly successful GoJek. And over the course of time, he has in fact failed to prove that he is capable of the job. This is evinced by his lack of educational innovation and the system’s low quality “output”. Moreover, during the Covid-19 pandemic, he was not able to optimally implement a long-distance learning (online) policy, one which continues to generate public controversy as a large number of students are unable to learn from home due to lack of internet access while many teachers are simply incapable or too lazy to teach online because they are “tech-illiterate”. Now Minister Nadiem faces another complex task to manage two seemingly different fields – education & research and technology. This comes on the heels of President Joko Widodo’s plan to merge the Education and Culture Ministry with the Research and Technology Ministry.

The question on the public’s mind is: Is Nadiem Makarim up for the task? Surely, the answer is predictable, if we look at his leadership thus far. The public can appraise his mostly poor performance in conducting his ministerial duties. Now, with the merger, it will be a bumpy road ahead, even though Nadiem is confident that he can manage, despite the challenges it poses. In his inaugural speech at the State Palace, Nadiem’s professed commitment to accelerate a technology-based education system sounded convincing enough. “Research and technology are matters that are very close to me personally. These were what I had been working on before I was entrusted with managing the Education and Culture Ministry, and I have high hopes to really improve higher education quality and technological innovation,” he said.

However, most people took that as mere lip service as, on the ground level, there are not many achievements that the Education and Culture Ministry can boast of so far. On the contrary, it seems lost in many efforts related to its main duties, with no clear policy direction. As a result, in many regions confusion grows in how to implement the policies, especially related to early childhood education, primary and secondary education, higher education and so on.

The fusion between the two ministries will not be effective in implementing education & research and technology policies, as the philosophies behind the two are disparate. The Education and Culture Ministry focuses on developing human capital, all the way from early childhood education to higher education, while the Research and Technology Ministry focuses on developing innovation in industry. In terms of size, the former is large and ungainly, which makes it even more difficult to carry out the complex undertaking of research and technology, which necessitates speed and efficiency.

There is a substantial difference between education and research. The research & technology component the new Ministry assumes requires it to also manage research, science, technology and innovation policies, in addition to early childhood education, primary, secondary, vocational, higher education, to culture and character building. In other words, it now has a very full plate. As a result, there is a risk that this new ministry may end up being a lumbering and hugely ineffective entity, because it manages too many things at once, and could overlap with the role of the National Research and Innovation Agency (BRIN). The result might be unfinished work or even a complete mess.

Before they were merged, they served two different roles and functions, even though both are in the realm of science and knowledge. The research philosophy is intended to help build thinking, inquiry, and reasoning capabilities. This means that research, science, technology and innovation go beyond merely budget issues, laboratories, and the number of journal publications. Meanwhile, the philosophy of education is to help form a taste, desire, and habit; not just about curriculum, books, and teachers. That is why these two different functions must be handled by a dedicated, separate ministry.

Ironically, in Law No. 11/2019 on the national system of science and technology, there is no minister tasked with its implementation. However, Law No. 18/2002 on the national system of research, development, and application of science and technology stipulate that the minister in charge is the research and technology minister. It means Law No. 18 is annulled by Law No. 11.

The merger has turned the Ministry into a lumbering entity with confusing mandates, tasks and functions in relation to its public service role. There will be many ministerial policies that are difficult to implement properly and public service will lag. Besides, we can see President Jokowi’s previous failure in forming the Research, Technology and Higher Education Ministry, which was wasteful in its budget and low-performing. This time it will be probably not be much different.

In addition, in partnership with BRIN, the Education, Culture, Research and Technology Ministry expects university students to conduct joint research with agencies under the auspice of BRIN. However, in its implementation, it is likely that this will not go down smoothly, given the overlapping authority between the two. “Sectoral ego” may emerge, resulting in haphazard policy.

Reflecting on the vision of President Joko Widodo to realize his “Indonesia freedom to learn” vision, in tandem with technological advancement, of course high standards of human capital and budgets for the national strategic industries are part and parcel of the entirety. Even though it sounds too optimistic, through merger and enhanced partnerships with BRIN, this vision can be realized, as the country reaps its demographic bonus. In other words, the country’s human capital is expected to be able to compete in the hi-tech digital industry starting in 2030.

Logically, the merger is expected to lighten the burden on state finances, while facilitating coordination and collaboration between education, research and technology, on an ongoing basis. Supervision and public accountability can also be improved. As a result, the output can be of higher quality and more competitive. Education, research and technology at the local government level can be easily controlled and arranged to support the local wisdom in each region.

However, the merger will take a long time to complete, as it will need to harmonize its institutional formation, administration, and finance. As the spearhead of research and innovation, the Ministry has a lot of things to sort out. It must be able to integrate diverse non-ministerial government agencies such as BRIN, the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI), the Agency for the Assessment and Application of Technology (BPPT), the National Institute of Aeronautics and Space (LAPAN), the National Nuclear Energy Agency (BATAN) and the Nuclear Energy Regulatory Agency (Bapeten), as well as research and development agencies in various ministries. This is a gargantuan task, time-consuming and budget-heavy.

When the Agency for Pancasila Ideology Education (BPIP) was formed in 2018, for example, it took more than a year to become fully operational. This was also the case with the Peat Restoration Agency and the Research, Technology and Higher Education Ministry during the Working Cabinet (2014-2019). The new Ministry will likely go through the same experience.

Therefore, President Joko Widodo himself really needs to step in to ensure the Ministry’s budget and institutional structure can be completed sooner. If this is not handled, there will be chaos in its implementation because there is a high likelihood of a lack of coordination in research, technology and innovation. The government must anticipate this, so it does not interfere with many ongoing research and innovation activities, including efforts to deal with Covid-19, such as vaccines and test kits, to legacy that President Jokowi wants leave behind, such as electric cars and digital economy infrastructure.

There are not many benefits to be gained from the merger, apart from a wasteful budget. At the regional level, in particular, many regional leaders will be confused and find it difficult to implement education, research and technology programs. In addition, there may be confusion in the execution due to lack of human resources and the potential for the politicization by certain groups acting in the name of local wisdom.

The merger is, to a large extent, very premature, even though the goal is to achieve competitive education and research innovation at a global level. Policies that are counterproductive, hastily hatched and political in nature will certainly not yield the anticipated results. The public will only become disappointed and dismayed, seeing Indonesia’s research and technology not making much progress. Similarly, the public will become anxious and doubtful about the direction of our national education policy in the midst of the devastating Covid-19 pandemic, and its effect on the economy and public health.

Amid the rapid technological advancement in many other countries, such a merger is a setback because it turns research into mere academic activity instead of the means to improve the country’s competitiveness and innovation. The policy has reduced research and innovation as an engine for national innovation. It is feared that the drive to turn research projects into innovative products or services will only drift further away. Meanwhile, issues faced by the Education and Culture Ministry are already aplenty, from early childhood education, fake diplomas, fake universities, to plagiarism. Consequently, the education sector has become inefficient and ineffectual in its management and supervision at the regional level, with less accountability.

On the other hand, technological advancement requires continuous research, sufficient infrastructure and large budgets. If this is not managed properly, it will only result in a huge waste of budget and confusion on the part of state civil apparatus in serving the public interest.

When we look at the objective of the merger, it aims to optimize research & technology supported by sustainable development of education. From the perspective of higher education, this merger will streamline research and development activities because previously they were handled by two separate ministries. Based on Law No. 12/2012 on Higher Education, the function of university, other than education, is the development of science and technology. That’s why the tridharma (three missions) of higher education are defined as: education, research and community service.

The merger will not exert any significant impact on the development of research & technology during the pandemic, where the Research and Technology Ministry is focusing on the development of the Merah Putih vaccine and diverse research projects are being carried out by various agencies.

Universities as cauldrons of innovation do of course require adaptation from time to time. Furthermore, the Covid-19 outbreak needs very serious attention from all parties, including universities that can proactively contribute to the prevention and containment of the coronavirus. Higher education intervention is also crucial in the form of community service activities to help disseminate knowledge, best practices, and in particular Covid-19 precautionary measures.

Since the Covid-19 pandemic gripped the country in early 2020, there have been many strategic activities to overcome it, from health aspects, economic impact, and social assistance by universities in Indonesia. These experiences have served as lessons learned for community service advocates, both by universities and other institutions.

Accelerating digital transformation and research collaboration are an important lesson, especially for Indonesia during the Covid-19 pandemic. The government needs to continue embarking on technological innovations in the handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, which include several aspects, from test kits to vaccines.

In light of the increase in research-based innovations to be managed, the new ministry may need to form an innovation research consortium. Several technological innovations that are now in the mass production phase and in urgent need to be completed are rapid tests, Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) test kit, and ventilators. This consortium – made up of universities, research institutes, the business sector, private industry, SOE, and various government agencies – has yielded positive results, although the capacity and quality need improvement. The Covid-19 rapid diagnostic test kit called GeNose is the fruit of an innovation from Gadjah Mada University (UGM). This tool kit is able to detect viruses using only breath, with an accuracy rate of up to 97 percent compared to PCR, which is regarded as the gold standard. It is also relatively cheaper. There is also the antigen-based rapid test or swab test using RT Lamp technology developed by LIPI, which has been completed – although it still needs refinement. Another innovative product is the PCR test kit developed in collaboration with PT Bio Farma. It has now been mass-produced with around 1.5 million units manufactured per month. These are examples of the local ingenuity that the new ministry can harness to help defeat Covid-19.

Furthermore, as concern mounts over ineffective long-distance learning during the Covid-19 pandemic, it is necessary to find strategic solutions, so that students can have optimal learning. This is to avoid a lost generation induced by a pandemic which has yet to subside. One solution can be in the form of blended learning that combines online and in-person sessions. During the limited school reopening, it should be compulsory that strict health protocols are followed and the number of students in a class downsized, in addition to well-organized scheduling.

Teachers are required to create teaching modules or materials made available in the form of e-books and distributed free of charge to students. The learning evaluation can be done online through continuous school assignments. For areas where students have difficulty accessing the internet, schools and teachers can make teaching materials available in print, to be distributed free of charge to all students.

We all hope that this merger will create a comprehensive synergy and collaboration between education, research & technology both at the national and regional levels. Policy-wise, the merger of the two ministries should produce a strong synergy under one roof, much like the previous iteration of Research, Technology and Higher Education Ministry – one organization, one control and one program — which can optimize research and public services.

For higher education institutions, this merger can strengthen research in universities. Higher education and research are inseparable and must be synergistic. The merger can also enable universities to better conduct their community empowerment mandate, carry out research and development, and facilitate the “Freedom to Learn” program.

The merger will at least encourage a speedier decision-making process. Again, the public has high hopes that the new ministry can “walk the talk” in yielding the best results in the bid to strengthen and integrate programs in education and research, in accordance with the needs of the nation and its tech ambition. (Trubus Rahardiansyah)

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