Do We Really Need 12 Years of School Before Going to University?

Education is an important aspect of most people living in the world, such that it influences quite a significant percentage in determining one’s future career – at least in most cases. What’s even more important is how an education system is designed, because it’s a crucial factor when creating a nation’s standard of education.

In Indonesia, the most generic national curriculum tallies a total of at least 12 years to finish, with 6 years in primary school, 3 years in middle school, and the final 3 years in high school. In these 12 years, students don’t only have the chance to forge life-long bonds, but also obtain knowledge that is crucial to the next stage of their life, be it integrating into society through work, or continuing to a higher level of education.

What thus becomes the question at hand is whether we really need 12 years of school before going to university. While the Indonesian national curriculum does not technically provide a route to graduating school in less than 12 years, there are other systems, like that of Cambridge, which caters to this possibility.



Before I dive into discussing the ups and downs of 12-year of formal education, allow me to share my experience in school. I studied in an institution that implements a hybrid system, combining the Indonesian national curriculum with Cambridge’s curriculum. 

That means, I had to sit for both the national examination on grades 6, 9, and 12, as well as Cambridge’s IGCSE Examinations on grade 10 and AS and A Level Examinations on grades 11 to 12. It is indeed a lot of work to go through, but somehow me and my peers were able to survive the hardship in the past 12 years of school.

Here’s where things become interesting: some of my friends leave the institution after finishing IGCSE in grade 10, since our “middle-school” graduation happens only after grade 10, unlike national curriculum’s that’s usually held after grade 9 (end of middle school). If it wasn’t for the integration with Cambridge’s international curriculum, it might not be possible, in the first place, for several of my peers to leave the school only after grade 10.

The subject catalogue (“Schlagwortkatalog”) of the University Library of Graz.. Dr. Marcus Gossler, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Though their post-school education paths vary, the two most viable options are either enrolling in a special program called Paket C (literally translates to “Packet C”), or continuing their higher-level education abroad. Depending on which route they take, each of them brings about different endpoints.

Those who enroll in Paket C will likely spend an additional year in the program, before getting the substitute of the grade 12 national examination, hence saving a year’s time. After finishing Paket C, most of my friends use their recent examination results to enroll in universities/colleges, mainly in Indonesia.

On the other hand, those who have the chance to continue their study abroad can simply use their IGCSE results as the qualification to continue to higher education, like universities. However, they too need at least an extra 1-2 years of college foundational studies, sort of acting as a replacement to grades 11-12 in the normal national curriculum.

In my case, I finished all 12 years of school as the national curriculum expects, and am currently enrolled in an Indonesian university, using my national examination results as the qualification. Since I’m pretty much unfamiliar with the life outside of the education path I’ve taken, I had to ask several of my friends who experienced the “alternative route”.


Jack’s Choice: Leaving at Grade 10

Jack’s choice of education path is the most common path taken by most of my friends who have the opportunity to continue studying abroad for university. After graduating from grade 10, Jack used his IGCSE qualification to continue to a different institution, still in Indonesia, which prepares their students for a specific university in Melbourne.

In that institution, Jack spent an additional 1.5 years where his subjects have been specialized for the undergraduate degree he’s about to take in university. After graduating from that institution, he can then transfer to the university in Melbourne, where he begins his university-level study in the second year, skipping the first. With that in mind, Jack is expected to graduate university by end of 2020, while those who take the ordinary route as I do, are expected to graduate university by 2023.

For Jack, the route he chose was suitable for his likings: specialize post-grade-10, get a head start in university, and graduate with a Bachelor’s degree early. In particular, Jack high values how his route saves 2 years of formal high school and replaces it with specialization on his planned undergraduate program. 

Now that his undergraduate studies are coming to a close end, his next decision is to continue for a Master’s degree.


Bob’s Choice: Leaving at Grade 11

Campus. Needpix.

Bob’s tale is slightly different from Jack’s, although both of them share similarities here and there. Unlike Jack, Bob left high school only after grade 11, continuing to a foundational college for 8 months in Brisbane. There, he studies relatively similar lessons to the ones I study back home. The plus point of doing so is that Bob has enough time to adapt to the lifestyle and study culture abroad, before starting university.

Unlike Jack, Bob’s foundational studies are still generic regardless of his future undergraduate major. This generic system allows Bob to re-think whether or not he’s going to stick with the undergraduate major he plans to take. Moreover, he does not receive a head start in university, hence starting at the same level as other freshmen in his university.

For Bob, his choice was an excellent one, especially for the exposure he received about higher-level education in Brisbane. During his 8 months, he has enough time to decide on his final undergraduate major thanks to his professors who are equally familiar with multiple undergraduate programs.


12 Years of School

Now that we’ve seen the multiple pathways that are possible in an education system that permits such options, we return to the main question: do we really need 12 years of school? What advantages do students who study for 12 years of school have over those who don’t? Are 12 years too long of duration for school?



Since I spent all those 12 years in school, I gradually realize several benefits in sticking with the mainstream system. The additional 2 years of high school gave me extra time to discover what I’d like to major in later in university, similar to Bob’s experience in his foundational studies. Although I do not have direct connections to professors, I do meet teachers who share their thoughts on the matter, since they were once high school students in a pre-university dilemma.

Aside from that, I cherish the last 2 years in high school for the friendship bonds I get to forge along the way. Before grades 11-12, it was rare for me to appreciate the connections built with my peers, and the last two years gave me enough downtime to build that.

More importantly, the last two years in high school prepared me for university-level education, be it in terms of its demanding time management, the difficulty of subjects, and many others. This difference is even more apparent when I listen to my friends who took the Paket C route right after grade 10. I vividly remember my friends who were exposed to Undergraduate-level Mathematics right after grade 10 – “it was hell,” according to them.

Calculus. Picpedia.

In my opinion, setting the standard of formal education to 12 years is just the right amount of time for students to prepare themselves for the next stage of their lives, be it higher-level education or immediately to the working life. However, this may not be suitable for everyone’s style of learning and personal preference as each person’s capabilities and likings vary from one another.



As emphasized by Jack, the apparent disadvantage of spending 12 years of school is that it’s too much of a generalization, especially for those who are in the national curriculum. Because of that, a few students are frustrated as to which major they would like to enroll in later on. 

That said, schools perhaps need to spend at least the last few high school years fostering this upcoming specialized university-level education, such that their students begin to put in more effort into making the tougher decision of which major to take. This is undoubtedly arguable to a certain extent, but do understand that providing too many choices to a student in an abrupt period is a massive issue to deal with. 

Hence, like Jack’s choice, the last two years of high school can simply be spent in a foundational college that better suits the student’s future major of choice. That way, the student does not only save time but also certainly the additional high school fees which can be transferred to either the foundational college or any other pre-university institutions.


Less Than 12 Years of School

Judging from Jack’s and Bob’s choice, as well as the aforementioned disadvantages of 12 years of school, it shouldn’t be a surprise that a few would prefer to spend the last few years of high school in a different program. But does this bold choice really pay off in the end? Or is it merely a courageous act that spirals the student into a downhill path?



As mentioned earlier, opting for this anti-mainstream route gives a brief sneak peek into the real experience of university life. That includes the higher-level studies involved in almost all majors, the complex choice of picking which major to enroll in, as well as adapting to the “adult life” with greater independence and responsibilities.

Furthermore, if you take the route of enrolling in a pre-university institution, that would certainly give a significant boost such that you won’t be shocked once you’re fully in university majoring in the program you’ve selected. As much as possible, it’s better to avoid changing majors as it would only cost extra time and money, which is the ideal goal of not spending 12 years of school in the first place.

The Early Bird Gets The Worm.

In addition, some would argue that spending less time in school would allow the student to graduate with a Bachelor’s degree earlier and thus work earlier than his/her friends of the same age. While this is indeed a niche preference, some people in fact want to do so, as they seek to obtain financial independence earlier from their caregivers. Skipping the last few years of high school would allow for this big leap, but of course, comes with a big risk.



Despite obtaining earlier exposure to university life, not everyone can necessarily benefit from such a head start. It is not uncommon to find that these students found difficulty adapting to university life, even if they had pre-university foundational studies. This could come in the form of technical issues like adapting to the subjects or simply because of their level of maturity that comes parallel to their young age.

Do realize that graduating earlier from high school would mean that you have a greater responsibility to carry once you’re in university, and once you graduate from there. If you don’t put that to good use, then what’s the use of skipping the last few years of high school? It’s definitely not cheap to enroll in a foundational college which generally costs slightly more than high school.

Furthermore, the student has to ensure that he/she has it all planned, like Jack. Jack planned his career timeline and since he’s all set to fulfill them earlier, he makes his bold verdict. Unfortunately, not everyone’s like Jack such that they might be in a bigger dilemma after graduating from university than they would’ve been in if they completed all 12 years of school.

On a side note, Jack himself was recently in this big “question mark” phase of his education, mainly due to conflicting interests with his caregivers. Jack no longer likes formal education and would prefer to dive immediately into the working industry. However, his parents insisted on him to continue for a Master’s degree, to which he is forced to deal with at the moment.

The biggest takeaway from Jack’s story is that getting an earlier degree might not necessarily translate to a better future if one does not think in the long term. The earlier you graduate, the earlier you’ll face the responsibilities that come with it and after it. Thus, if you plan to make the same choice as Jack or Bob did, be sure to plan ahead and talk things out with your caregivers or the person who’s funding your studies in the meantime.


Alternate Perspective: Singaporean Education System

To put matters in a different perspective, let’s take a step back and learn from our neighbors in Singapore. Their education system is complex, to say the least, in the eyes of a foreigner like myself. 

The Singapore Education Landscape. MOE, 2015.

Nonetheless, the biggest highlight, in my opinion, is that they only spend 4 years in secondary education, which is what my former school tried to mimic. After secondary education, students have numerous paths to choose from, or possibly even decided depending on their grades in school.

There are post-secondary institutions including Polytechnics, Junior College, Institute of Technical Education, etc. After finishing at one of those aforementioned programs, students can then continue to university or jump into the working life. 

Although some question the pressure that the Singaporean education system produces on its students, what I think is more important to notice is that they clearly acknowledge the need to specialize according to the student’s needs and abilities. That way, they at least have a prior image of whatever they would like to do in their long-term career.


Closing Remarks

Talking with my friends and learning about foreign education systems made me realize that long-term planning is crucial in a person’s life-long learning journey regardless of whichever path they take. There are inevitable flaws no matter which system you enroll in and it’s ultimately up to the person to make use of what’s on the table. 

More importantly, the ultimate goal of school and university is to prepare a person for the rest of their lives as learners and as those responsible for their very own future. Greek-born philosopher Plutarch conveys this idea more elegantly:

For the correct analogy for the mind is not a vessel that needs filling, but wood that needs igniting – no more – and then it motivates one towards originality and instills the desire for truth. Suppose someone were to go and ask his neighbors for fire and find a substantial blaze there, and just stay there continually warming himself: that is no different from someone who goes to someone else to get some of his rationality, and fails to realize that he ought to ignite his innate flame, his own intellect, …


Featured Image by Raphael, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Wilson Wongso Written by:

Indonesian Computer Science Student, Private Tutor, and Content Writer. At times I read, game, or watch. My boss calls me Jack of All Trades; I could not agree more.

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