Nadiem Makarim, the US-educated founder of Gojek, has made enormous reforms as the Minister of Education. Photo by Bayu Prasetyo for Antara.

Indonesia will reach demographic maturity in 2045 – around the time of its 100th anniversary.

The government is preparing for the occasion with a 20-year plan that outlines the country’s domestic and international objectives. It wants to increase per capita incomes to US $30,300 –  a more than 500% increase from current incomes – which would position it as the world’s fourth largest economy.

President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo recognises education will play a pivotal role in helping Indonesia realise its demographic dividend and avoid the middle-income trap.

When he appointed Nadiem Makarim, the US-educated founder of Gojek, as the Minister of Education in 2019, the Indonesian public had mixed emotions.

Despite initial doubts about his background in business, rather than academia, he has gone on to implement a string of radical reforms that have attracted both criticism and praise.

Four years later, the Indonesian education system looks – at least at a surface level – unrecognisable from the president’s first term.

But have Nadiem’s reforms been effective? And what lays ahead for Indonesia’s next education minister?

Technology not a magic bullet for access

Arguably Nadiem’s most significant reforms have been to the bureaucracy itself. In 2020 he established GovTech Edu, the Ministry of Education’s innovation lab, which develops new technology products to expand education access at scale.

Access is a perennial concern in Indonesia. With nearly 400 thousand schools and over 44 million students, the country has always faced problems delivering quality education throughout the archipelago.

GovTech Edu has launched ambitious new technologies, like Merdeka Mengajar, an online support platform for teachers, and ARKAS, a budgeting and management system for schools. However, implementation of these systems has been far from optimum given 40% of Indonesian schools do not even have access to a reliable internet connection.

Policy reforms have also had little impact on access. The school zoning system, for example, only focuses on evenly distributing students throughout cities and regencies – an approach which has raised eyebrows. Affirmative action measures also come across as tokenistic, rather than a concerted effort to make quality education available to all, regardless of geography.

Teachers are still undervalued

While education technologies have developed rapidly under Nadiem, the conditions of the most important educational inputs – teachers – are still being neglected.

As of May 2023, there were still more than 520,000 thousand contract teachers nationwide. Whereas tenured teachers are paid out of the national budget, contract teachers lack a formal funding commitment and are often left to scrounge a wage from local governments and community contributions.

Despite Nadiem’s verbal commitment to convert these teachers to the state apparatus, honorary teachers still struggle with pay packets so low they are being parodied on social media. This drew fierce criticism from Democratic Party spokesperson, Anita Jacoba, who said the minister was not worthy of the people’s applause.

Liberation or neo-liberal exploitation?

Nadiem famously promised to liberate Indonesian education when he first entered office. But even the minister’s signature initiative for schools, Merdeka Belajar, meaning ‘freedom to learn’, has come under fire.

In particular, the school curriculum, known as Kurikulum Merdeka or ‘freedom curriculum’, has been criticised for lacking solid evidence of effectiveness.

The university spin off program, Kampus Merdeka, or Freedom Campus, has also not escaped criticism. The flexible credit system and emphasis on work-integrated learning means students can now be given credits for experiences off campus. But some have suggested the program is a vehicle for modern slavery, packaged as an internship program.

It also remains to be seen if extending university administrators’ extra autonomy drives productivity. Tuition fees remain unaffordable and lack transparency, which has prompted protests from students.

It’s time to focus on the fundamentals

As the final bell sounds on Nadiem’s time as minister, we can say for sure he took risks, modernised technology systems and firmly embedded ‘freedom’ as a new educational buzzword.

It’s difficult to say definitively whether Nadiem’s signature reforms were a success – their full impact will not be known for years. But for better or worse, students and educators now live in a new reality – one that will outlive both Jokowi and Nadiem.

However, we can also say that Nadiem has failed to resolve the underlying problems plaguing Indonesia’s education system. Millions of young people in remote areas still lack access to quality education. And teachers are still struggling to feed themselves

Realistically, Indonesia’s education woes were never going to be solved in one term.

But the next president and education minister will need to come up with a more pragmatic gameplan for addressing these problems. The National Education System bill, which slipped from the 2023 legislation priorities, is an obvious starting point to address teacher welfare concerns.

Fortunately for his successor, Nadiem has left a solid base to work from – and future reforms will look timid in comparison.


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