The Catholic Church of Indonesia may be an exception. Although it has not given up on its mission, it falls short in terms of human and material resources and this appears to be undermining its capacity to attract and train the future elites of society.
Sadly, we came to realise this in our latest trip to the country. Our initial goal was to assess how scholarships are granted to Indonesian religious and priests. We then broadened the scope of our mission to include education in Indonesia as a whole, conscious of our own limited abilities to analyse a situation as complex as that of Indonesia. With more than 13,000 islands, and stretching across 5,000 kilometres, the country is mosaic of a thousand ethnic groups and a population of 250 million. Its recent history is one of many challenges, like the earthquake that hit the city of Padang (Sumatra) in September 2009 killing thousands, or the tsunami of a few years ago that killed as many as 50,000 people, or the religious clashes that undermined traditional good relations between the country’s Muslim majority and its small Christian minority (9 per cent of the population).
In two weeks, we took the plane 18 times and saw as much of the land as possible, from Aceh to Ambon. We did not however make it to Papua-New Guinea or many other regions of the country.
The first thing we noted was the concentration of universities and specialised schools in the capital of Jakarta, at the expense of other big cities and outlying regions.
Access to quality education has become increasingly a prerogative of well-to-do families; indeed, many families are hard-pressed to come up with the money for tuition fees. With an almost privatised system of higher education, this is no minor feat in a society already badly affected by recent economic crises.
For the sake of brevity, we will focus on medicine. Until a few years ago, the state provided medical students with financial support. In return, new graduates would serve in rural areas for a number of years. When the government decided to stop providing medical scholarships, it saved money on the short run but in doing so, it deprived itself of an important resource that could benefit the country as a whole.
In our stay in Ambon, on the Maluku Islands, a nun working as a nurse, told us how the departure of one doctor almost paralysed the diocese-run hospital where she is employed, and how it proved almost impossible to find a replacement.
Another trend created by globalisation deserves attention. A number of foreign schools (especially American and Australian) have opened up branches in Indonesia. They offer programmes based on US and Australian curricula, and many of the Indonesians who train in them end up pursuing professional careers in these countries. This is a way of training future professionals on the cheap (since Indonesians pay school fees) in educational fields that are of interest to the West and countries in the northern hemisphere.
Indonesian students thus end up opting for degrees in economics and management, law and medicine. Even fields like the natural sciences, political science and psychology find some favour, but they tend to open doors to professional careers in Indonesia.
Conversely, the humanities and philosophy attract few students because of the limited job opportunities they provide. Indeed, as a high-ranking official told us, Islam and Muslim religious practice teach and monopolise ethical issues.
The state also encourages public and private universities to integrate more management-oriented principles in their structures. This has certainly given them a dynamic edge, but the drawback is that it has favoured faculties prised by the business community. Marketing “education” as a product has become paramount. The Education Ministry certifies universities if they pay professors a minimum salary of 3,500,000 rupiahs (US$ 350), which is good if one considers that only the most qualified and renown professors could aspire to such remuneration in the past.
At the same, universities and specialised schools face financial challenges, an issue that concerns the whole of the education sector, including compulsory education. From this point of view, Catholic schools are no different since they too have to cope with financial difficulties. In their case, the reason is the progressive loss of Muslim pupils, who are increasingly drawn to Muslim or state schools, which have improved the quality of the education they offer.
Admittedly, this is a good thing because it means that these institutions have improved their level of teaching. However, in the opinion of more than one of our academic interlocutors, the declining number of Muslim students in Catholic schools is also due to a Muslim world that is increasingly turning inward. As the number of paying students declines, Catholic schools have to fight for their survival. In rural areas, schools are also threatened by the lack of teachers. For some years now, Church-run educational institutions have been caught in a vicious cycle. In order to survive, they have to increase school fees, but if they do, they directly penalise Catholic families who are often the poorest among the poor.
A weaker Church in a field in which it has traditionally excelled raises serious concerns and this for two reasons. First, education has always been a privileged means to pass on the evangelical message to people of other confessions and religions. This has fostered good relations between Christians, a minority often threatened by persecution, and Muslims. Second, not only have Catholic schools provided a useful service to Catholics, but they have also benefitted society as a whole. They have passed on expertise and knowledge, something that has been recognised and appreciated by all.
A great number of local priests and religious play an important role in all this, with foreign missionaries making a decisive contribution. However, that is not enough. If it is true that we have met many worthy people who are doing a heroic job for the Church, it is also true that they cannot cope with a situation that far exceeds their scope of action. Training Indonesian priests, religious and lay people is paramount. We must provide them with solid bases and adequate knowledge in fields like philosophy, theology and the humanities, which, in Indonesia, are at risk of disappearing. The alternative, as one bishop put it, would be to have them taught by poorly trained teachers or by people who failed in their studies or careers. These disciplines are not only necessary to strengthen Christians’ faith, but they are also needed to help society address all the problems that touch man’s heart and affect his dignity. Were that not the case, Indonesian society could end up dehumanised by unfettered capitalism or destroyed by the violence of a religion increasingly centred on Sharia fundamentalism. In Indonesia, bishops and top Church leaders are quite conscious of the challenges ahead, and that, in our view, is a good omen for both the country and its educational system.