Skills Fetishism Trap and the Merdeka Belajar Kampus Merdeka Initiative

The Government of Indonesia’s (GoI) vision to develop human capital and talents with certain set of skills to be competitive in global markets through education is not a new story. Nevertheless, we need to admit that it’s getting aggressive in the past few years.

The Merdeka Belajar Kampus Merdeka (MBKM) program is one of the major GoI’s initiatives in this matter. The MoECRT Decree No. 3 in 2020 established a policy for the National Standard of the Higher Education. The verse 18, in particular, is the foundation of the MBKM implementation, in which, to date, at least 12 group of programs are available for Indonesian higher education students to participate. Not to mention various programs initiated voluntarily by higher education institution and its companies and organization partners are also can be chosen.

Indeed, this MBKM program initiative were praised by many, but also challenged by others. One of the issues, in my opinion, is that some initial programs sounded as mainly focused on employability. With this perspective, it will position higher education institutions to be perceived only as a ‘factory’ of workers to be supplied to the industries. Seeing this track, obviously the next stage after graduation will be transaction between workers and industries to buy and sell their skills for certain production and services for the industries.

Leesa Wheelahan from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto recently published an article in the British Journal of Sociology of Education entitled “Challenging the Skill Fetish”. This article published in 14 February argues that skills is widely used as the basis of discourse around education policy, in which strongly connecting the education to human capital theory. Within this discourse, many countries will perceive that human capital is the driver of economies and societies; and without skills, counties will be left behind. Therefore, investment in human capital to participate effectively in more competitive global markets seems inevitable. The investment in human capital continues to vary, in a way that return on investment might be different if you invest in generic, specific employability, or any attributes to 21 st century skills.

The skills fetishism was drawn by the article in reference to Marx’s explanation of commodity fetishism back in 1990. In short, the article argues that under this perspective skills would be perceived such a commodity to be bought and sold. This drives the policies discussion focus on the right kind of skills – not merely on skills development per se.

Minister Nadiem addressed this issue in various opportunities, including an education to employment leadership forum that my team and I organized at the end of 2021. Minister Nadiem envisions that through MBKM programs, students are expected not only to understand workforce context, but realize that to be a professional in whatever career path they choose later, it will need a continuous learning process.
He underlined that lifelong learning for everyone involved is the real essence of MBKM. In other words, MBKM programs should not only facilitate students’ learning only, but also the lecturers, industry professionals, even the government. This collaboration of lifelong learning is expected to sharpen everyone’s competency, mentality, and characters to be able to contribute to the wider society.

Today, after 2+ years of MBKM program implementation, at least in my opinion, it started to provide more complete picture on what Minister Nadiem’s envision on lifelong learning, beyond industrial-related transactional context. However, to ensure that everyone involved in the MBKM program is not trapped into skills fetishism, the MoECRT might want to do several actions as follow:

First, continuously implementing the vision of MBKM comprehensively. This will require concrete actions to proportionally, if not equally, distributing resources to facilitate various types of skills – not only the ones directly connected to employment skills.
Second, consistently communicate the impacts of MBKM in developing lifelong learners, not employee. Quantifying such impacts and presenting them to the public might not be easy, but this can be started from somewhere. At least telling stories of the MBKM alumni.
Third, involve partners beyond profit companies to facilitate and to participate the learning process. It is indeed noticeable that MoECRT has involved government institutions and various non-profit organizations. However, the ratio might be better to be balanced between partners or stakeholders. Adding cultural organizations, think-tank institutions, or even community / village-based organization would be beneficial.
Lastly, design and implement 360-degree program evaluation to ensure this MBKM initiative is for the good of everyone – and for the betterment of Indonesia. This is indeed tricky, as many said that we cannot please everyone. Nevertheless, to at least not being trapped in the skill fetishism, we will need to facilitate skills development not only to be a commodity for industries, but importantly to the wider society.

@kuryosea – Ps. this opinion is a personal view and not representing any group / organization’s view.

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