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Why Indonesia Is Using Its National Scholarships to Push Students Away From Social Sciences

It's not just because social sciences graduates constantly criticize the government.
June 7, 2018, 8:15am
Illustration by Firman Dicho Rivan

The social sciences get zero love in Indonesia. If you choose something like social studies (IPS) as your major back in high school, people assume you're going to be a failure. Why, they wonder, would anyone waste their time learning skills for some dead-end, unimportant career?

That's why there is so much pressure to go into the sciences (IPA) instead. Sciences open doors and Indonesia, like many developing countries, puts a heavy emphasis on pushing young students toward careers in fields that help grow the country's economy and technical skill set, like engineering, medicine, and research science.

Now, as if all that pressure from our parents, teachers, and community weren't enough, the central government itself is trying to dissuade children from pursuing an education in the social sciences. The Lembaga Pengelola Dana Pendidikan (LPDP), or an educational endowment fund, said that from 2018 on, it plans to focus on students in science and technology majors only. Does this really mean that social sciences students are ineligible for LPDP funding this year? Not really, but there will be far less money to go around.

This is all because of a mandate by President Joko Widodo to focus on growing Indonesia's agriculture and fisheries industries, explained M. Nasir, the minister of research, technology and higher education, told local media. It's an idea that's allegedly been on M. Nasir's mind for some time.

“We will give more scholarships to science and technology students, and reduce the scholarship awards for social studies,” M. Nasir said back in December. “Our core businesses are the food, agriculture, and livestock industries. So we must improve the technology. The tourism sector is really important as well."

Now, if you're one of those people thinking, "great, we need more engineers and less people in public relations anyway," then you're sort of missing the point. The social sciences is way more than the marketing and PR industries (and both of those are important too). It's also archivists, archaeologists, and anthropologists. And, of course, it's journalists too.

Back in 2015, Aghnia Adzkia received a LPDP scholarship to study journalism at Goldsmiths, University of London. But if she applied today instead, it's highly likely she wouldn't have received the scholarship at all. Why? Because the LPDP removed journalism from its list of approved majors.

“They don’t prioritize journalism graduates," she told VICE. "You really have to work hard to apply for the scholarship if you want to take any social sciences majors. I don’t think they hate social sciences students. We're just not a priority for the government at this moment."

Now, before you start saying, oh, of course VICE is complaining about the lack of journalism scholarships remember that a free, independent, and well-trained press is a vital part of any democracy. And since we all live in the world's third-largest democracy, the press is actually really important.

But since it's been cut from the list, it made me wonder, will the LPDP's scholarships cull make national stereotypes about the social sciences even worse? Is that even possible? Indonesia has prioritized hard sciences for decades. And our weird habit of inserting propaganda into children's pop culture back in the New Order means that a lot of us grew up listening to songs about this very thing. Remember the song “Susan Punya Cita-cita," sung by Ria Enes as the puppet Suzan? She sings about how great it is to be a doctor (“kepengen pinter biar jadi dokter”) and an engineer (“jujur biar jadi insinyur”) but not a historian or a sociologist.

"These stereotypes have been around for a long time," explained Ibnu Nadzir, a researcher at the Center for Social and Cultural Research at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI). "In the New Order era people saw engineers or doctors as promising careers because they could actually see their work. Meanwhile, people who studied social sciences were always criticizing the government. They didn't think it was productive."

The social sciences also won't make you any money, most people think (and it's true!). Instead, these graduates spend all their time fighting government impunity and researching injustices while the engineering grads build skyscrapers downtown. Only one of those is a clear symbol of progress to most people, regardless of what human rights groups say about the importance of addressing the nation's dark past.

“For scientists, it’s easy to show the real impact of their research on our country," Ibnu told VICE. "We all can see their work. Meanwhile, social scientists are seen as obstructing governmental operations.”

But there's another side to this whole debate—although the social sciences may be seen as a lesser career track, it's also the one chosen by most Indonesian students. The country, despite all the propaganda and social pressure, hasn't really invested in sciences and technologies.

“It happens really often in developing countries,” Laksana Tri Handoko, the deputy chair of the engineering sciences department at LIPI, told VICE. “That’s why Indonesians are so obsessed with science and technology.”

And a glut of social sciences grads means that there are less available jobs to go around, said Ibnu. The Japanese government reached a similar conclusion back in 2015 when, nationwide, 26 of the 60 national universities with social sciences departments announced that they would shut these departments down entirely. The government at the time issued a directive for universities to "prioritize the areas that better meet society’s needs."

Without a change, Indonesia might find itself in a similar situation where there are too many social sciences grads and not enough skilled technical experts, Ibnu said. In a future like that, it's going to be a lot harder to get a job.

“Things are already becoming harder for social students." Ibnu told VICE. "Their job opportunities are increasingly limited. I assumed that things would be more technical and functional. Their (social scientists) work doesn’t encourage other scientists to do better. Besides, will their work be beneficial for government?"