study hell

Bimbel Blues: How After-School Cram Sessions Became Necessary in Indonesia

When students put more trust and money in private tutors than actual teachers, you know there's something seriously wrong with the education system.
Illustration by Farraz Tandjoeng

Kit Kats. Celebrity tutors. The Bell Curve God. All over the world, there are superstitions and rituals associated with getting good grades on the national exams. But here in Indonesia, stressed out students don't pray to statistical gods or eat foods that sound like success. They visit the Bimbel instead.

Bimbel, short for Bimbingan Belajar, or study guide, are the extra classes students typically need to take in order to prepare for the national exams. These classes are usually held a few times a week, with up to 20 students per class. The point here isn't to learn critical thinking or dive deep into theories and philosophies, it's to learn how to beat the test. Think of something like Kumon, but way more intense and all about a single test.

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Bimbel first hit the market back in the 1970s, when students turned to tutors to ensure a spot in one of the prestigious national universities. But today there are all kinds of Bimbel out there, each of them tailored for nearly every kind of test out there. There are Bimbel that help military hopefuls pass the psych test. There are even ones that guarantee you'll pass, as long as you don't mind handing over Rp 28,500,000 ($1,980 USD)—about ten times the cost of a normal Bimbel.


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And at the other end of the spectrum, there's online Bimbel for cash-strapped students that charge as little as Rp 250,000 ($17 USD) per month.

There are so many bimbel out there that some people are questioning whether all this studying is even worth it. Parents complain that the classes are too intense, and the Ministry of Education has warned parents and students to not trust all the promises bimbel include in their sales brochures.

Still, the truth is: the bimbel helps—or at least it does according to the exam-takers themselves. The national newspaper Kompas surveyed 770 students about the role bimbel played in their exam success and nearly 88 percent of them said that the after-school classes were vital to securing a good grade.

But what's it mean when all these students believe that these supplemental classes—and not their years of education—are the real reason for their success? The popularity of bimbel says something pretty sad about the state of education in Indonesia.

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Most students who choose to cram at bimbel say these classes better prepare them for the national exams. In the same Kompas survey, only 47.9 percent of students ranked their teachers skills as "satisfactory." Why so low? The teachers, the students complained, don't teach the test.

"The learning atmosphere is better, and the teachers are clear when explaining," Yohana, a high school student, told Kompas. "If I had any difficulties, I could ask for help until I totally understand. [The teachers at school] discuss too many theories, but rarely talk about how to answer exam-standard questions."

There's a lot to unpack here. First, it's true that the teachers don't teach the test. But it's also true that the national exams don't actually measure actual intelligence or knowledge. The national exams aren't all that focused on analytical or HOTS (High-Order Thinking Skills) questions—that kinds of questions that require students to thoroughly understand theories and apply critical thinking to solve.

Instead, the exams are concerned with memorization, so students just cram as many sample questions as they can into their heads before the test day—and this is what bimbel does best. But whether or not this is actually useful for the future is up to debate. (It's also a common topic of discussion in East vs. West teaching methods, but the idea that critical thinking is somehow a Western concept is pretty ignorant of history and more than a little Eurocentric.)

Then there's the bigger issues at hand—that Indonesia's national education system is in serious need of reform. As of 2017, 25 percent of the country's 3.5 million teachers weren't fully qualified to teach. Fifty-two percent of teachers weren't certified either.

A lot of the people working in classrooms wouldn't even be teachers if Indonesia was able to find enough qualified applicants to replace them. But, in reality, the country is suffering from a shortage of 756,000 teachers, according to the Ministry of Education. When there's not enough teachers to fill vacant classrooms, schools are forced to accept unqualified teachers instead, usually through informal contracts and under special conditions.

So there's not enough teachers, but how about bimbel? There's more than enough. But what happens when a student can't afford the Rp 9 million to Rp 12 million per semester ($612 to $820 USD) for these after-school classes? Sadly, most of the students who can't afford the classes are left to fend for themselves.

The internet is full of sites offering advice to students committed to doing "UN Tanpa Bimbel," or the national exams without the bimbel. These articles offer step-by-step advice to going it alone, including advice like "set your targets (but not too high)," because you can definitely take the exams without the cram classes, but you probably can't score in the top percentile. That's because the bimbel is a band-aid on a broken educational system. But without costly reform, it's a band-aid we all, sadly, need.