Higher education leaving students unprepared for the workplace

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Indonesian students seeking studies and scholarships abroad attend a forum on applying for overseas colleges and universities in Jakarta. The majority of Indonesian students (66 per cent) give career-related reasons as their main motivation for studying, according to a recent survey. AFP

Over the last year, Covid-19 has put Indonesian students’ lives through a pressure cooker. While virtually all are trying to learn without the normal sources of support, many are also struggling to cover the cost of living.

According to a recent International Labor Organisation (ILO) survey of students and young workers, one in five had to stop working during the pandemic, and more than half (52 per cent) had their working hours reduced.

With around 6.4 million jobs lost in Indonesia due to Covid-19, students are embarking on their careers with far fewer opportunities than previous generations – and that has the potential to mar not just 2021 for them, but the following decades too.

The Chegg.org Global Student Survey gives us a detailed picture of the views, hopes and fears of students in Indonesia and 20 other countries around the world as the pandemic upends their lives. Indonesian students have shown great determination to keep learning – yet the study shows the toll that is being taken on their mental wellbeing.

More than half (51 per cent) say their mental health has suffered during the pandemic, with 41 per cent of all students reporting increased stress and anxiety and almost seven per cent reporting suicidal thoughts. Given that 67 per cent of students say they have struggled to afford housing, food, bills or medical expenses in the last year, financial pressures are likely contributing to poor mental health.

In particular, those students who have a loan or debt related to their studies seem to suffer significant anxiety. Around 54 per cent of those with loans say they lose sleep over them, 27 per cent say it has made them so anxious they have sought medical help, and 63 per cent say the debt makes them wish they had made a different career choice.

If the price of higher education is the loss of one’s health or unmanageable levels of debt, students will eventually seek other routes to their career goals. With the pandemic forcing students to adapt to a new set of circumstances, many will be wondering whether they can justify the huge cost and time commitment of campus based higher education.

The majority of Indonesian students (66 per cent) give career-related reasons as their main motivation for studying, yet less than 10 per cent of Indonesians in work have a university degree – and, according to one Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development study, a large share of those with a university education work in lower-skilled occupations.

In fact, even before Covid-19, Indonesia had the second highest youth unemployment rate in Southeast Asia: in 2020, youth unemployment reached 17.64 per cent, a figure that has been steadily climbing since 2017.

How, then, can universities adapt and survive, while at the same time giving students a fairer deal? It is clear that they need to offer a more flexible and affordable higher education model. Eight out of 10 (80 per cent) Indonesian students in our survey say they would prefer a shorter university degree if it were cheaper – the second highest share of any country surveyed – and 61 per cent say they would prefer their university to offer the option of online learning if it meant paying lower tuition fees.

If Indonesia’s skill shortages continue at present levels, it could lose out on up to $442 billion and 19 per cent of lost growth by 2030. Wider use of online learning would give young people access to a higher education that is more skill-focused, relevant to their career goals, affordable, and accessible anywhere on the device of their choice. It could also reduce the time it takes to graduate, helping to shrink student debt.

About 42 per cent of Indonesian students already use private online educational tools, so there is clearly an appetite for this way of studying – and with nearly 77 per cent internet penetration, Indonesia is in a unique position to take advantage of its potential. It could democratise the education sector, support talented students that might otherwise have been shut out, and help Indonesia to seize the opportunities of the 4th Industrial Revolution.

Despite all the obstacles they have experienced in their education, and the challenges that lie ahead as they enter the workplace, Indonesia’s students remain incredibly resilient: two thirds (67 per cent) say they feel optimistic, while 76 per cent feel hopeful about their future finances and an overwhelming 84 per cent say that all things considered, they feel happy.

The much-needed reform of higher education will allow the next generation of students to benefit from the lessons of today – and will help give them the opportunities that the pandemic has denied to so many.

Christina Lee is vice-president of International Growth at Chegg

THE JAKARTA POST/ASIA NEWS NETWORK