ENGLISH a must-pass subject at university level. That’s like putting the cart before the horse. The intention is noble — to make graduates more marketable or employable. But if the grounding in the language is weak at school level, how on earth are they going to pass English to be eligible for a degree in university, and then on to land a job?
This conundrum could very well be the result of too much tinkering and experimenting in the country’s education policies over the years, to the point that the on-again, off-again approaches are leaving students and parents utterly confused.
No wonder the rich, including policy-makers themselves, have been sending their children to study either abroad or at international schools here. And no wonder private schools claiming to adopt the British public school system are striking it big in Malaysia.
The announcement that English would be made a mandatory pass subject at the university level was made last week but details are not forthcoming.
What does this mean? That universities would have to carry the extra burden of brushing up students’ English besides teaching them to become doctors, engineers or scientists? It could also amount to an admission that the English taught in school to a student even if he passes the subject in Form 5 is not an adequate enough measure of his proficiency. What good is the school system then?
Yes, there is a mention in the latest National Education Blueprint that English would be made a compulsory subject in Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia from 2016. Again, it smacks of ambivalence and misgivings of the fickle minds coming not that many years after the teaching of Science and Mathematics in English in secondary schools was abolished.
I feel very strongly about English proficiency among young Malaysians because when I was a newspaper editor I used to sit in interviews for the recruitment of journalists.
Mind you, the people who came for the interviews were those seeking employment in an English language newspaper, meaning the main communication tool if they got the job, must always be in English.
But sadly, many could not really express themselves beyond the “I come from a family of three siblings” kind of introduction. (Somehow they loved to use that word — sibling). And, they would start to stammer and fidget if more questions were put to them. The confidence level would drop to a minimum even though many had degrees. A few who graduated from universities abroad were no better, but that was just because they had only stuck and mixed with their Malaysian counterparts in the foreign land where they had studied, again, as a result of their lack of proficiency in English.
This is not an attempt to ridicule or look down upon the young Malaysians who cannot articulate well because it is the system that had caused them to be like that. And this explains the lack of marketability and employability of graduates.
If you cannot express yourself and communicate well, your chances of getting a suitable job are less. Which is what policy-makers and the so-called nationalists ought to have considered deeply from the start. There is absolutely no point pushing and demanding for Bahasa Malaysia to be the sole medium every step of the way when ultimately the students would lose in the chase for employment. Especially the rural students who are not in an environment where they can regularly practise English.
Where would we place nationalism when our young are jobless? Really, this is a case of menang sorak kampung tergadai, which means winning the battle but losing the war.
A great degree of concern was voiced out earlier this year by World Bank economist Frederico Gil Sander who reportedly said the poor quality of Malaysia’s education system was more worrying than the level of debt in its households. “More worrying” because the country’s substandard education system would affect the pool of skilled talent it needs to grow its economy to become a high income nation, while high household debt is not necessarily a problem if the economy continues to grow and citizens are gainfully employed.
Shortly after that, it was revealed in the Dewan Rakyat by Deputy Education Minister P. Kamala-nathan that a study on English proficiency among students and teachers had found that a majority of them had a weak command of the language.
The study conducted by the Cambridge English Language Assessment on the teaching and learning of English in Malaysian schools found that a majority of the students did not improve their basic level of English, with their main weakness being conversational skills.
“The teachers are weak in speaking skills to improve on their pedagogy knowledge. They are also burdened with administrative work,” Kamalanathan added.
It must be noted that the learning of a language must be accompanied by not just classroom lessons but regular conversations and communication applications. The teaching of mathematics and science subjects in English would have helped a great deal in enhancing both knowledge and confidence.
One other question about the compulsory pass in English in universities: what if many students, and mainly those from the rural areas, fail to get degrees as they did not pass English and hence not employable? Reduce the passing mark?
That will bring everything else back to square one. SYED NADZRI firstname.lastname@example.org - NST Columnist 9 SEPTEMBER 2014 @ 8:11 AM