As 2020 deadline looms, Malaysian students fail to shine in science

by Boo Su-Lyn
The Malay Mail Online
November 2, 2015

KUALA LUMPUR, Nov 2 ― Less than 13 per cent of those who sat for the Form 3 PT3 examination last year scored at least a C in both science and mathematics, Putrajaya has revealed, despite Malaysia’s aim to achieve developed nation status in less than five years.

The Education Ministry also said that the average percentage of secondary school students who qualified for the science stream, based on their results of the previous Form 3 PMR examination, only hovered around 30 per cent over the past 10 years, though Malaysia has been aiming for a 60:40 ratio of science/ technical/vocational and arts students since 1970.

“The most probable reason for this could be the new format for the PT3 science and maths papers,” Education director-general Datuk Seri Dr Khair Mohamad Yusof told Malay Mail Online in a recent email interview, in explaining the PT3 science and maths results.

“There were very few multiple choice questions which most students are very familiar with; and the test items demand a lot of thinking on the part of the students to gauge their understanding of the subject matter rather than regurgitating rote-learned concepts.

“It does not encourage teaching to the test and teachers need to engage the students in the learning process by asking more higher-order thinking questions. It is hoped that this kind of format will encourage the students to learn meaningfully and in future, the PT3 results will become better,” he added.

PT3, which replaced PMR last year, sparked controversy with a plunge in the number of students who scored straight As to reportedly just 83 out of 450,000 PT3 candidates, from thousands over the past years in the previous PMR exams. All PT3 papers had subjective questions unlike PMR.

Khair said students who scored at least a C in both science and mathematics in PT3, at least Band 4 in the school assessment in both subjects, and who showed an interest in learning science based on the psychometric test, were allowed to enrol in the science stream.

The Education Ministry official also said there could be “special cases” of students who get at least a C and D in both subjects in PT3, at least Band 4 in the school assessment, and who show an interest in learning science based on the psychometric test, who would be allowed to enrol in the science stream.

Local daily The Star reported last December that the school assessment ranged from Band 1 (the ability to recall information) to Band 6 (the ability to have higher order thinking skills and knowledge). The new school-based assessment system (PBS) was introduced to reportedly decrease the focus on examinations, with students now being continuously assessed in academics, evaluated on co-curricular activities and sports, as well as going for psychometric tests to identify their interests and aptitude.

Khair said the Malaysia Education Blueprint 2013 – 2025 has outlined strategies through various initiatives to enhance science teaching and learning, including pre-service training and ongoing professional development for teachers.

“The focus of science teaching and learning is Inquiry-Based Science Education (IBSE), which has been a worldwide trend for quite some time now, and teachers have to ensure science practical/experimentations as well as project-based or problem-based learning are implemented in the classrooms.

“When students solve real-life problems and can relate the science concepts to their everyday lives, only then will they actually enjoy learning science and motivated to pursue science at the tertiary level,” said Khair.

Declining students in hard science

The National University of Malaysia (UKM) said the number of science students in its science and technology faculty has been dropping due to the lack of job opportunities, though there is still “very high” demand for its engineering, medicine, dentistry, pharmacy and allied sciences programmes.

“The demand for accounting graduate is much more than physics graduate. While accounting graduates can get a good job just after graduating, the physics graduate sometime has to wait for several months,” UKM deputy vice chancellor (Academic & International Affairs) Prof Datuk Ir Dr Riza Atiq Abdullah O.K Rahmat told Malay Mail Online in an email interview.

Other public universities ― University of Malaya (UM) and Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM) ― however said the number of science students has not been declining at their respective institutions, pointing out that they had intentionally opted to take in fewer science undergraduates to focus on postgraduate programmes.

“A few years ago, we decided to take in fewer undergrad science students to concentrate on postgraduate programs. However, this 2015/16 session we decided to take in a higher number of undergraduate students to ensure that we would have sufficient numbers for our postgraduate programs,” UM deputy vice-chancellor (Academic & International) Prof Dr Awang Bulgiba Awang Mahmud told Malay Mail Online in an email interview.

“We are also now opening our programmes to students with qualifications other than the usual matriculation/ Form 6 qualifications like A-levels, Diploma and International Baccalaureate. Ideally, we would like to see sufficient students to form the feeder for our postgraduate programs,” he added.

UTM deputy vice-chancellor (Academic & International) Prof Dr Rose Alinda Alias similarly said the enrolment of undergraduates in UTM’s science faculty halved from 1,887 students in the 2005/06 session to 981 in the 2014/15 session not because of a lack of demand, but due to the university’s strategy to reduce the undergraduate intake for all programmes upon becoming a research university in 2010.

“What has changed is that the balance has shifted from a 87 per cent undergraduate (UG), 13 per cent postgraduate (PG) in 2005; it is now almost equal between UG and PG,” Rose Alinda told Malay Mail Online in an email interview, pointing out that the number of master’s and PhD students in the science faculty totalled 1,026 in the 2014/15 session.

“There has been a significant six-fold increment in postgraduate enrolment, especially for PhD programmes in science stream. There is no quota for postgraduate enrolment and there has been a significant increase in number of applications for (the) PG programme,” she added.

According to Rose Alinda, the enrolment of postgraduates in UTM’s science faculty more than tripled over the past decade from 291 in the 2005/06 session to 1,026 in the 2014/15 session.

Lack of scientists

Academy of Sciences Malaysia (ASM), an agency under the Ministry of Science, Technology & Innovation, said Malaysia currently only has 85,000 science and technology graduates, but 500,000 are needed by 2020 if Malaysia wants to achieve developed nation status.

“Until today, we’ve yet to have proper planning for science graduates. What kind of jobs can they get? What are the salary schemes?” ASM council member Datuk Dr Halimaton Hamdan told Malay Mail Online in an interview.

She said in the 1980s and and 1990s, the government did not encourage students to take up hard sciences as there was a greater need for engineers, architects and doctors then.

“We’re lacking in physicists, chemists, biologists and mathematicians,” she said.

ASM acting CEO Hazami Habib highlighted the lack of research and development (R&D) in industries in Malaysia, noting that in other countries, their governments only contributed to basic sciences like chemistry, physics and maths, while businesses funded applied science.

“In Malaysia, it’s still very heavy on the government contributing to all because industries have no R&D,” she said in a joint interview with Halimaton.

According to Halimaton, the government should spend 3 per cent of the GDP on R&D, noting that R&D spending comprised only 1.16 per cent of the GDP in 2013.

In Budget 2016, the allocation for higher education next year was cut by RM2.4 billion from RM15.785 billion this year to RM13.378 billion.

Perception of no money in science

Parent groups blamed the lack of science students in Malaysia on the perception that there were no jobs available in science fields and also on the abolition of the policy of teaching science and maths in English, known as PPSMI.

“When we read newspapers or see the news or see who is successful, students hardly get to see or relate success to the subject of science ― creating a perception that there’s no future or money in science-related professions,” Parent Action Group for Education (PAGE) chair Datin Noor Azimah Abdul Rahim told Malay Mail Online.

“While the government speaks of available jobs, parents don’t see them. We haven’t got sizeable corporates like the US to undertake research, then produce. We still heavily rely on the government for that. Government hospitals too are a major consumer of medicines. We should be creating, producing and exporting,” she added.

Shamsudin Hamid, coordinator of Association of Parents and Individuals Towards Revising the Education System (Aspires), said school students found it difficult to understand science textbooks in Malay as internet resources were in English.

“Their main difficulty is understanding the definitions,” Shamsudin told Malay Mail Online.

He also said there appeared to be no science labs in most schools nowadays.

“How can you have experiments when you don’t have labs? It’s all theory, theory, theory. If you go back to the 60s and 70s when every school had science labs, that’s different. Now they don’t. They may have a computer lab; even that is perfunctory,” said Shamsudin.

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