Quality, Quantity, and Equity in Malaysian Education #1

By M. Bakri Musa

[First of Three Parts]

Quality Education and Economic Development

In referring to the low quality of our labor pool, the New Economic Model Report cites statistics showing that 80 percent of our workers have only SPM level (11 years) of schooling. That surprises me, not the figure rather the fact that the SPM is now viewed as inadequate.

That observation reflects more on the quality of our education system than it does of our workers. For had our education system maintained its quality, and today’s SPM is of the same caliber as the old Cambridge School Certificate “O” Level, then I would argue that our workers are among the most highly educated.

Members of the National Economic Action Council (they wrote the NEM Report) are old enough to appreciate that when they obtained their O-level certificate, they were in command of sufficient intellectual and other skills to prepare them well for life. The same cannot be said of today’s SPM, as the Report clearly implies.

In suggesting that Malaysian workers should have more years of education, the folks at NEAC are falling into the same trap that had ensnared others, of confusing quantity with quality of education. For if our education system stinks (it certainly does!), then it does not matter whether our workers have college degrees; they still will not be well prepared for the workplace, as attested by the already thousands of unemployed graduates.

As declared in the Center for Global Development’s A Millennium Learning Goal: Measuring Real Progress in Education, we should “focus on the real target of schooling: adequately equipping the nation’s youth for full participation as adults in economic, political and social roles.” School completion alone is an inadequate indicator of this. Likewise, generous funding, low pupil/teacher ratio, and physically grandiose schools and universities do not necessarily reflect quality education.

Consider years of schooling. One can readily appreciate that a year at an Indonesian high school is not the same as at a South Korean one. Even within a country, there are significant variations, as with an inner city school in South Chicago and one in the heart of Silicon Valley, California. In California, the students are challenged with calculus; in inner city Chicago they struggle with “consumer math.”

As for pupil/teacher ratio, South Korean classrooms are more crowded than American ones, yet that does not negatively impact the learning of the Korean children.

Earlier cross-national studies attempting to relate workers’ educational levels with a country’s economic performance used such readily obtainable data as the level of funding, pupil/teacher ratio, and years of schooling. Even with such crude measurements economists were able to conclude confidently that workers’ educational levels correlate well with a nation’s economic development.

That however, could be the effect and not the cause. It could be that when a country is rich, it could afford to spend more on education rather than the investment in education making that country rich.

Such studies also exposed some glaring anomalies. Latin American countries have universal education yet their economies have been underperforming. Egypt and South Korea spend proportionately the same on education, with their young having comparable levels of schooling, yet their economies are a universe apart. What gives?

The OECD made a cross-national study of its labor force focusing specifically on cognitive (in particular reading and mathematical) abilities rather than years of schooling. As can be appreciated, this was a much more formidable undertaking than merely comparing national statistics that may or may not be actually comparable. The findings of this much more rigorous study are even more impressive, confirming not only the earlier findings but also explaining the anomalies.

OECD has since refined and expanded its studies to include developing countries. The resulting Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) survey is sufficiently rigorous to conclude that workers’ cognitive skills are causally (not just statistically) correlated with economic development across a broad spectrum of countries, from developing to developed ones. Meaning, a country could not develop economically if its workers are cognitively not up to par, regardless of the number of years of formal education.

The relevant cognitive skills relate to critical thinking, language abilities, mathematical competence, and science literacy. It should not surprise us that Indonesia, Bolivia and Peru remain economically backward considering that, as per PISA findings, the average reading ability of Indonesian students was equivalent to that of the lowest seven percent of French students; the average mathematics score of Brazilian students was equal to the lowest scoring Danish students; while the average science score of Peruvian students was equal to the lowest five percent of American students, despite the same number of years spent in school.

Malaysia was not included in the PISA study but it did participate in the Third (1999) International Mathematics and Science Studies (TIMMS – R). We scored somewhere in the middle, way behind Singapore, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan. And so is our economy.

Malaysian leaders and educators do not like to be reminded of this; instead they would prefer us to focus on the fact that we are still ahead of Indonesia, Bolivia and Peru.

The American performance in TIMMS was not impressive either, and that prompted much soul searching. By way of contrast, in Malaysia I have not heard of any official pronouncements or seen academic papers on the subject. The only analyses done on the Malaysian performance on TIMMS were conducted by Malaysian-born American scholars.

Americans realize that they need a skilled workforce to create innovative products and start new entrepreneurial ventures that would drive economic development.

The American performance at TIMMS illustrates another apparent anomaly. While American students lag behind those of Asia and many OECD countries, the American economy outperforms theirs. At first glance this would negate PISA’s conclusion.

Two factors explain the apparent American anomaly. The first relates to the American curriculum and system of teaching. Since this is more important, let me dispose quickly of the second factor, that is, American industries, often supported by public funds, devote substantial resources to training and continually upgrading their workers’ skills.

My hospital has a department devoted entirely to the continuing professional education of its nurses, doctors and other personnel. American editors for example, regularly send their reporters to writing classes and to hear from luminaries in their fields.

For contrast, query any Malaysian civil servant on when was the last time he attended a course that would contribute to his professional development, and you would draw a blank. The response would be the same if you were to ask what professional journals he subscribes or reads regularly.

Returning to the more important first factor, while it is true that American students do not do well in science and mathematics, they shine in the critical and creative thinking department. Unfortunately these skills are not tested by TIMMS or indeed any pencil-and-paper test. The American curriculum, both at school and college levels, does not emphasize rote memory and regurgitation at examination time. Instead the focus is on critical and independent thinking. Thus American students have “open book” and “take home” examinations, a concept incomprehensible to Malaysians. American test questions probe your ability to think critically, not regurgitate textbook or lecture contents.

For those who find an “open book” examination incomprehensible, let me suggest some examples. If Hikayat Hang Tuah were a text in an American course, a typical examination question would be:

The central injunction of our Quran is to “command good and forbid evil.” To what extent have the three main characters (Hang Tuah, Hang Jebat, and the Sultan of Melaka) followed this creed?

For Shahnon Ahmad’s Ranjau Se Panjang Jalan, a suggested question would be:

Describe three major ranjau (obstacles) faced by Lahuma (the central character). Imagine yourself the assigned caseworker. How would you guide him to overcome them?

Come to think of it, this would also be a good intellectual exercise for my readers who have read both great works of Malay literature!

As can be seen, those questions make you think. Further, there is no right or wrong answer. Such exercises in critical and creative thinking are the norm in an American classroom. It is this that accounts for the continuing innovativeness, remarkable resilience, and entrepreneurial vigor of the American economy.

Consider this. The American University in Cairo, which has an American curriculum and teaching style, has an enrolment of about 5,000, less than one percent of the total undergraduates in that country. Yet at the Egyptian embassy in Washington, DC, a prestigious posting where only the best get chosen, 40 percent of the staff are AUC graduates. The Egyptian establishment has rendered its judgment as to the quality of that institution, and by implication, the rest of the country’s universities, including its most famous and oldest, Al Azhar.

Undergraduates at AUC are required to take a course, “The Human Quest: Exploring the Big Questions,” where they pursue such queries as, “Who am I?” and, “What does it mean to be a human?”

The Asian ‘tigers,’ their robust economies notwithstanding, appreciate the value and uniqueness of the American system of liberal education; they strive to make their own more ‘American.’

Singapore consciously does this, but is burdened by the fact that it relies on current personnel (teachers, administrators, and policymakers) and institutions to effect these changes. Unfortunately they have been brought up under the old rigid system. I never underestimate the power of inertia, systemic as well as personal. It is especially difficult for individuals to change as that would mean repudiating the very system that had brought them to where they are today.

South Korea imports wholesale American schools, complete with the teachers and texts. As these schools are expensive, only the children of the elite could afford to enroll. In a way that would be a quick and effective channel of changing the whole system as those students are destined to be influential in their country.

Japan brings in thousands of young Americans to teach English under the JET program. Although they are primarily for teaching English, nonetheless their teaching methods and styles would inevitably spill over to the ‘native’ teachers.

Thailand recognizes the limitations of its current personnel and institutions to effect changes. Consequently it attacks the problem frontally by opening up the system. Thus international schools, primarily British and American, are mushrooming there. As in South Korea, these schools are affordable only to the elite. However, because of the ensuing competition from the sheer number of new entries, the costs have come down substantially and these schools are now within the reach of the middle class. Such schools would spawn a new revolution in education in that country.

These countries realize that they have to go beyond the numbers, as with the number of school years or universities, and focus instead on quality. These excellent schools are still far from being the norm; those countries still face the major challenge of access, and thus equity.

How should Malaysia approach the dilemma of quantity versus quality, as well as the issue of equity in her education system? The rest of this essay is my attempt at answering this.

Next: The Trinity of Quality, Quantity, and Equity

  1. #1 by k1980 on Monday, 10 May 2010 - 12:23 pm

    Who is the infamous minister who complained, “Cannot compare apples with oranges?”

  2. #2 by johnnypok on Monday, 10 May 2010 - 1:26 pm

    Bad culture, poor up-bringing, warped education policy, cheating, low-class teachers/lecturers, money-can-buy phds … these are the real problems.

    Go and learn something from Singapore.

  3. #3 by dagen on Monday, 10 May 2010 - 1:59 pm

    Our education from primary all the way up to o-levels are suppose to give kids a good general knowledge, to equip them with competent language skills and some sound but basic arithmetic skills.

    One generation ago people who were equipped with just these three essentials were good enough and were able to progress in their profession all the way to the position of managers. They could even set up banks. Look at public bank.

    Bakri Musa said this:

    “For contrast, query any Malaysian civil servant on when was the last time he attended a course that would contribute to his professional development, and you would draw a blank. The response would be the same if you were to ask what professional journals he subscribes or reads regularly.”

    Guess what? Umnoputras would immediately seize on the opportunity to organise all sorts of compulsory courses for civil servants, teachers and policemen to attend. They could even get a slot in the next Malaysia Plan so that they could legitimately milk the country in the name of helping the people to improve.

    Jib Jib Boleh.

  4. #4 by k1980 on Monday, 10 May 2010 - 2:58 pm

    Let today’s SPM candidates sit for the 1960s/70s Cambridge O-Level English Language papers 1(Essay-writing) & 2(Comprehension) and see if 5% of them could pass.

  5. #5 by Motorist on Monday, 10 May 2010 - 3:27 pm

    Keep your peasants stupid lest they revolt – has always & will always be the motto of Ketuanan Party.

    In order to make the ketuanan feel good about themselves, just lower the standards. Overnight you have cermerlang, terbilang, temberang students. There were rumours of only 20 marks to pass SPM English !!! Fears of rural children not being able to catch up with urban children in understanding Science & Maths in English would cost them votes is more important than national development.

    So what if we fail to measure up to other countries. By keeping the peasants poor & stupid, ketuanan can manipulate the story to make them feel good about themselves. Keep them ignorant of the outside world. Only this small kampung matters (never mind the global village). Believe what big brother tells you.

    Graduates are not allowed to think, just conform. Spoon feed & regurgitate is the education model. Better yet, dont encourage learning in English, for that is the language of oppression. Rewrite history to exclude the contributions of ‘pendatang’. Ignore historical facts of past Hindu civilization (Johor), Chinese Muslim settlers (East Coast), origins of Hang Tuah, Hang Jebat, Hang Lekir (Melaka). Ketuanan culture is superior & pure (no influence from ‘pendatang’ culture).

    At this rate, we might just as well breed as slaves for the Ketuanan Party. The elite will be our masters & we slaves will beholden to them for our very existence.

  6. #6 by k1980 on Monday, 10 May 2010 - 3:49 pm

    Hang Tuah, Hang Jebat, Hang Lekir are no longer taught during sejarah lessons?

    Then they will soon be replaced by Hang Mamak, Hang Dollah and Hang Jibby, who protected the country from the evil designs of the pendatangs

  7. #7 by frankyapp on Monday, 10 May 2010 - 5:03 pm

    All I can say about our education is “from good to bad,from cream to scram and from rubber to scrap. No wonder,most of our minister’s and rich people have sent their children to overseas.

  8. #8 by ablastine on Monday, 10 May 2010 - 10:27 pm

    IF the Sibu Chinese after all these years still cannot decide that the BN government is the cause of all the evils in the country, there really is very little hope left for the country.

  9. #9 by kpt99 on Monday, 10 May 2010 - 10:46 pm

    Just make an analysis on the intakes of Matrikulasi.They are many gaining entry with just 6 credits where as those with 10As can be rejected.As these students are main feeders of local universities,why is it rankings of local unis not keep dropping.Bahagian Matrikukasi has nothing to be proud of their low quality programs.This is an easier and fast track program to help to churn up the intakes of bumiputeras students in U without thinking much the importance of quality.It is just a modified program to replace the racial quotas intakes to IPTA base on meritocracy.If there is a stress on quality human capital,the best should be taken.

  10. #10 by waterfrontcoolie on Monday, 10 May 2010 - 11:41 pm

    Without doubt the level of English has fallen. I came across an English graduate who made so many grammatical mistakes in her writing, I bet she would not score a credit at the O level of the previous Cambridge examination. For that matter my girl’s English teacher was an MA from US, she too made mistakes which I used to correct and told her so! When the foundation is poor, nothing much can be done to change it. BN , in reality UMNO is pulling wool over their own eyes, those As are merely to feel good and to make the rural folks happy until they graduate and start to look for jobs that are really competitive. We have come across so many examples that we can only conclude that without a total revamp in the educational sector, we will compete with Zimbabwe!

  11. #11 by chengho on Tuesday, 11 May 2010 - 12:22 am

    America’s “is a talent meritocracy, ours is an exam meritocracy. There are some parts of the intellect that we are not able to test well — like creativity, curiosity, a sense of adventure, ambition. Most of all, America has a culture of learning that challenges conventional wisdom…..we are chasing how many ‘A’

  12. #12 by ekompute on Tuesday, 11 May 2010 - 4:58 am

    I wonder whether grades also have a quota. I wonder be at all surprise if there is.

  13. #13 by monsterball on Tuesday, 11 May 2010 - 7:14 am

    k1980…These is because those three are proven Chinese and not Malays.
    For years..UMNO tried to promote Malay heroes and destroy real heroes of other races.. like Chin Peng..and crated false Malay heroes.
    From the start..UMNO politics is not helping Malays or Muslims…but twist all facts to make sure Malays depend on them for their living..as if the minorities are invading and capturing Malays…to throw Malays out of Malaysia.
    Malays by nature have weaker brains than Chinese…because of their very devoted simple livestyles based on Islamic religion….as we can see all over the world.
    UMNO B took advantage of that weaknesses..and instead of feeding them with strength and educating them for better minds…they do educated them better but with false history…with subjects to make Malays easy to read and pass…thus maintaining no progress for Malays minds.
    For the new stage of mind controls and depending on UMNO B…expanding their race ad religion dirty politics with half truths and twisted facts…totally shut out oppositions opinions…no freedom of speeches.
    More and more factual and seen shows UMNO B know they cannot fool Malays any longer….so third phase..how to win the hearts of other races..that were once insulted…ridiculed and warned….clearly….we need to obey UMNO B or else.
    Worst of all..SUPP…MCA and those balless selfish corrupted politicians support UMNO B for personal benefits….on and on.
    The 12th GE results changed everything…and lets hope SIBU voters wake up to the truths….on so many more evidences that SUPP selfish crooked politicians carry UMNO B balls…exactly like MCA and Gerakan…not to mention…sickening low class MIC too.
    UMNO have been fooling his own race for decades….and SUPP and all BN parties know all that too well….yet they tag along….shows what kind of politicians BN are comprises of.

  14. #14 by monsterball on Tuesday, 11 May 2010 - 7:49 am

    Ah yes….the new phase of UMNO B is trying to be nice to the minorities that once they give warnings after warnings…and arrest all …as seen on “Operation Lallang”
    The new style is “1Malaysia” and “People First. Performance Now”
    The new style are SLOGANS!!!
    Sibu Foochow voters…your past with no choice….understandable.
    Living in East Malaysia…you have news that are slower and you take life easy..understandable.
    After 1 year from the 12th GE…you still have out-dated news and mindsets?…that’s no more excuses.
    You vote for change cor be slaves to Najib and UMNO forever….your choice.
    However your wrong choice will have the sins of millions rests upon your souls…if the choice make by you to elect the devil and not freedom for all.
    That is a very terrible sin you can ever get in your life.
    Just look at Mahathir. You think he is blessed?
    Come on…he cannot eat this…cannot do that but stuffs with energy stuffs to make him look healthy and well.
    He eats like ordinary people…..he is dead long ago.
    Can’t you differentiate a devil …a living dead and a human like Tunku who enjoyed life to the fullest?

  15. #15 by Bunch of Suckers on Tuesday, 11 May 2010 - 8:11 am

    We had quality and quantity of educational systems in the past! Now, we have quantity without quality systems that produce many suckers like Hanjin Chengho with chicken brain, who often suck a lot of…

    What do we expect from BN/UMNO suckers with those crappy NEP’s, NEM & etc… They suck, rip, brag, murder, rape, bully & etc… etc…

  16. #16 by MGR1940 on Tuesday, 11 May 2010 - 11:12 am

    #6 Parameswara will also be removed for he is a Hindu and Mamak for being an Indian. My daughters Form3 history book is only from 1957.

  17. #17 by peacemalaysiaforall on Thursday, 13 May 2010 - 1:03 pm

    Compare to USA, that have 40% university graduate before and now have 70%

    The Japan have 98 % unversity degree holder in new generation.

    How many % malaysian now?

    we need to accept the fact that not all bangsa kita smart enough to enter local university.

    Suggestion as below.

    (1)Increase the University seat available
    (2)Quata issue, 50% is under quota, to make Malay and bumiputra happy, the rest seat should open to elite selection
    (3)Increase more seat that help economic and technology growth, like science major,
    (4)Inprove efficiency especially in secondary to bring up more elite student that pass the Unversity enter level.
    (5)Spend more funding for public unversity,
    (6)Control fee cost for private university, this must be a price control item
    (7) All university must have good R&D departnment, with yearly R&D invention every year, Government body should set up to commorcialise these R&D product under IP Interlecture property protection and petterning.Returning monetory benifit tio re invest into unversity.
    (8)More study load with low interest rate shoiuld be provided, all new graduate to be force to pay loan direct from salary (with new goverment law enforcement) deduction from salary, this train them more responsible.And to ensure banker get back money to loan for next generation.

  18. #18 by PoliticoKat on Sunday, 16 May 2010 - 2:27 am

    Sadly there is very little we can do. UMNO is now a force unto itself. If you are non-malay and disagree with UMNO-BN policies, you are a pendatang and have no say in workings of this nation. If you are a Malay and disagree with UMNO-BN policies, you are a traitor and traitors have no say in the workings of this nation. And thus UMNO-BN has a system of absolute rule.

    Ignorant peasants are the easiest to rule. They have no understanding of their rights and the obligations of their government. You fix a pothole in the road and people are grateful showering the local MP with praises when it was his job to ensure that there were no potholes and we paid taxes for the fix.

    People who are so poor that RM100 can buy their support for 5 years is pure gold.

    Why should UMNO-BN even consider reversing the process of down grading our education system. They attacked our education system in the 1970s, and perhaps this was their objective all the long… ignorant sheep.

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