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Questioning Indonesia’s recent ministry merger: how do other countries manage their national education and research agencies?

Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo recently decided to merge the country’s Ministry of Research and the Ministry of Education. Yesterday, Education Minister Nadiem Makarim was tapped to lead this combined ministry.

Jokowi took this step in tandem with his government’s decision to make the National Research and Innovation Agency (BRIN) – an umbrella body created to co-ordinate national research which was previously attached to the Ministry of Research – into a fully fledged independent agency.

Mergers and splits involving ministries related to education and research, such as this one, have happened before under the Jokowi administration.

These kinds of overhauls have consequences – from influencing how the education system is run, to determining the nation’s research priorities.

That is why the recent merger shows the Indonesian government seems confused in deciding what kind of institutional format the country should take when it comes to education and research.

In this article, I explain and compare some models that other countries have adopted to govern national education and research policies. I then recommend which option is better for Indonesia.

How other countries manage education and research

Southeast Asia’s scientific titan, Singapore, manages its education and research policies through two different agencies.

Education falls under the purview of its Ministry of Education. The National Research Foundation – directly under the prime minister – manages research.

This model allows countries to better focus on strategic research priorities as there is no one super-agency that oversees too many things. Through this separation, national research bodies can have more freedom to improve links between research output and its development in various industries.

Singapore, for instance, has become a magnet for global research. Its higher education system is also an attractive destination for research collaboration and overseas studies.

Singapore’s investment in global research and development has grown tenfold over the past 25 years. Over US$19 billion was allocated to its 2020 plan. (Shutterstock)

The United Kingdom (UK) has also applied this separation model.

The UK has even gone further by integrating research policies and industrial development under one roof – particularly energy, under the Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy. This integration has resulted in the UK becoming the second-largest producer of renewable energy in the world.

Countries such as Germany and Russia, on the other hand, manage research and education and research under one national agency. This is similar to Indonesia’s recent move.

Through this model, Germany aims to improve the capacity of its universities to produce industry-oriented research.

Although Germany is among the most productive countries in terms of research output, most of this is dominated by non-university research agencies – of which the three largest producers are from public research networks such as the Max Planck Society and the Helmholtz Association of German Research Centres.

A large portion of university research in Germany focuses on basic research, which is primarily driven by scientific curiosity and not easily applied by industry actors.

In this sense, institutional mergers can simplify bureaucracy. As they fall under one organisation, it becomes easier for governments to co-ordinate policies – especially to strengthen the link between higher education and research development in industries.

However, these benefits don’t appear instantly. A 2017 study of the merger of Malaysia’s education and higher education ministries, for instance, found the country needed two years to organise the budget and allocate resources, staff and facilities before being able to effectively execute its national education and research strategy.

Which model is the best for Indonesia

It may seem easy to conclude that Indonesia’s merger of its education and research ministries is a good decision to improve university-industry relations, similar to what is being done in Germany.

However, contrary to the European giant, Indonesia’s research ecosystem in general is still weak and underdeveloped.

Around 80% of Indonesia’s research output comes from universities. But a large portion of this only goes as far as publication in scientific journals (and often times only as conference proceedings) with low citation numbers and minimal contribution to the scientific community.

The rest comes from Indonesia’s many government-related research agencies, which also struggle for funding.

This means linking applied research from universities through the merger model will only become feasible when Indonesia’s research ecosystem is perhaps as developed as Germany.

In Germany, for instance, the private sector contributes more than two-thirds of the country’s total research funding – around €104.8 billion or 3.13% of Germany’s GDP. This also creates appealing career prospects for talented researchers.

Read more: Moving Indonesian research forward with more private sector support: lessons from Germany

In contrast, Indonesia’s science spending is no more than 0.28% of the country’s GDP. Only around 20% comes from the private sector.

Considering this condition, I think Indonesia should look at how Singapore and the UK separate their education and science policies. This will help the Indonesian government develop the country’s research industry first, so future attempts to link universities and the private sector can be better supported by a robust scientific environment.

Indonesia’s science budget amounts to only 0.28% of its GDP. Of that amount, only about 20% comes from the private sector. (Shutterstock)

For instance, the government can strengthen independent non-university research agencies that focus on applied research and commercialising prototypes, without compromising its national education strategy.

In the end, separating research and education is still the wiser choice for Indonesia.

Academics have even noted a number of other problems that might arise from merging the two ministries – ranging from philosophical differences between education and research, to institutional uncertainties about the newly independent BRIN that might not be resolved in the final two years of the Jokowi administration.

If Indonesia takes the wrong step, the country will compromise the progress in both education and research that it has achieved so far.

This article was originally published in Indonesian

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