Reference societies and adaptive development: a conversation with Daniel Suryadarma about Indonesia’s participation in the PISA educational assessment

During a seminar organised by the EduKnow research group at the University of Tampere on comparative education, I came across the interesting concept of reference society. In a nutshell, countries which, like Finland, find themselves at the top of the PISA ranking may become models or references for countries looking for ways to improve their education policies and results.

The PISA ranking has a considerable policy influence internationally but, at the same time, the idea of reference societies seems a bit at odds with the emerging consensus that policy solutions to public policy problems have to be politically-aware, context specific, and that best-practices from elsewhere often lead to failures.


I got in touch with Daniel Suryadarma, who is the deputy team leader for the Research on Improving Systems of Education programme in Indonesia and a Research Associate at the SMERU research institute in Jakarta, to discuss about Indonesia\’s involvement in the PISA assessment and the reference countries which may influence Indonesia’s education policy.

Daniel, maybe we can start by briefly describing what are the objectives of RISE programme and what kind of activities are implemented by the programme.

RISE is a research programme which focuses on how to make system-level changes that can result in improved learning. The research takes place in six countries: Ethiopia, India, Indonesia, Pakistan, Tanzania, and Vietnam. There are country research teams which focus on system-level questions which are adapted to the different country context. In Indonesia, for example, we focus our research and analysis on teachers by evaluating the impact of different national-level reforms on learning. At the same time, we collaborate with some local governments to design, test, and evaluate different policies and programmes aimed at improving learning. At the local government level, we focus on teachers and system-level questions that are relevant for our local government partners. I think that given Indonesia’s decentralized education service delivery, where local governments have significant freedom to design their policies and programmes, this approach is quite appropriate.

Indonesia has been part of PISA for a number of years now. What do you think is the main motivation for the government to be included in this international ranking?

I do not speak for the government, but I think the motivation differs by agencies, even within the Ministry of Education and Culture. The Assessment Research Centre, for example, is probably interested in having an internationally comparable measure of the quality of education to inform the design of robust assessments instruments to evaluate different learning domains. The Policy Research Centre is perhaps interested in an international assessment which can highlight if national education policies are having a positive effect on learning. The Ministry of Finance, for example, is probably interested in looking whether the increased investment in basic education results in improved learning. I have to admit, though, regardless of the motivation, the fact that Indonesia has continued to participate in PISA since 2003, even with all the criticisms directed at them due to the low ranking of the country in the PISA results, needs to be applauded.

I mentioned to you the concept of reference societies. What are the countries Indonesia is looking at in terms of education policies?

I think there is increasing tendency among policymakers in Indonesia, as well as donor agencies, to stop trying to transplant best practices from other countries to Indonesia. There have been hundreds of such attempts over the past forty years, with little success. In any case, with a country as large as Indonesia, with more than 500 autonomous districts spread across more than 17 thousand islands, it would be quite hard to determine what ‘Indonesian context’ means. This was partly the motivation for the decentralization reform that started in 2001 and which shifted the responsibilities to deliver basic education and health services from the central government to the district governments (although the central government still provides financial transfers to the district to deliver these services). This means that districts have some autonomy in designing their education systems and how to implement national education policies. Ultimately, elected district leaders are responsible for the performance of their education system. Therefore, while five to ten years ago we would still hear stories about the success of Finland or South Korea with their education policies and how Indonesia should adopt practices from those countries, we do not really hear those arguments anymore. 

So, the reference society idea does not apply anymore to Indonesia. What policy changes have occurred in Indonesia as a result of PISA which ranks Indonesia against OECD+ countries? 

I think the PISA results in 2003 provided the motivation for the government and the parliament to revise the law on education and the law on teachers in 2005. In addition, the Indonesian Constitution was amended to incorporate the 20-percent rule. Basically, the government has to invest at least 20 percent of the national budget on education. This is the only sector whose level of public investment is set by the constitution. The PISA ranking has therefore had some influence on education policy development in Indonesia. Overall, I think the government has to be praised for continuing to participate in international tests despite the unflattering results, and for their openness to discuss these challenges with researchers, donor agencies, and other stakeholders. I truly believe that eventually, Indonesia will get effective education policies in place.


Thank you, Daniel Suryadarma.

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