IN 2011, about 55 per cent of the Malaysian University English Test (MUET) candidates achieved Bands 1 and 2. These bands respectively translate to very limited and limited proficiency in English. Only two years later, the number has risen to 70 per cent. It is hardly surprising, really, given that a similar proportion of English teachers in our schools are incapable of teaching the language.
|The painful truth to be told, if students have a limited ability to use and understand English even after eleven years of learning the language, perhaps they should not be admitted into the ivory tower in the first place.
Universiti Teknologi Petronas graduates waiting to receive their scrolls at the convocation recently. If we are serious about moving away from a low-wage economy, moving up the value chain and competing for foreign investments, we can no longer live in cosyland and pretend we can still go global without English.
Perhaps that was the reason for the relatively muted resistance against a tougher MUET requirement for public universities, proposed during the Budget tabling earlier this month.
Public approval is good news. The bad news is it confirms a common knowledge of a critically declining English proficiency among our graduates.
Among the few concerns raised, reservations by the public against the new ruling centres on two main premises.
First, that the new policy would lead to a lower number of graduates in the country, and would ultimately defeat our aim of having more Malaysians with a tertiary degree. Rural students, in particular, would be put at a disadvantage.
In the short run, there may be some truth to this. But the world is not static. Stakeholders are responsive social actors. Students, parents and teachers may finally be serious about stepping up on English proficiency. That includes no more pressing the I-II button on the TV remote control. The government has also recognised current shortfalls and is intensifying efforts to improve proficiency, not just among students, but more crucially, among the teachers.
This includes the quality of English teaching in rural schools. In fact, the hoo-hah about rural children being denied the opportunity for higher education if the new requirement is pushed through, not only ignores the bigger picture, it is akin to taking them hostage in return for inaction. As the statistics have shown, it is no longer a question of rural-urban divide.
More importantly, if we are serious about moving away from being a low-wage economy, moving up the value chain and competing for foreign investments, we can no longer live in cosyland and pretend we can still go global without English.
Apart from the low-wage advantage, Philippines and India are the preferred choice of business outsourcing destination mainly because of the workforce’s high proficiency in English.
Innovative products will be hard to implement and sell if we still stutter during marketing presentations. Similar can be said of the sales of sophisticated and technical products, which have a limited local market.
In short, we should give graduates no false hope. The painful truth to be told, if students have a limited ability to use and understand English even after eleven years of learning the language, perhaps they should not be admitted into the ivory tower in the first place.
On the brighter side, maybe the economy doesn’t need as many degree holders as we think it does.
Kenneth Gray and Sang Hoon Bae argued, in their book Skills Shortages, Over-Education and Unemployed Youth: An International Dilemma, that there is a global surplus in university-educated engineers but a critical shortage of technicians. In other words, more graduates with diploma and advanced diploma are needed.
The upside from this new ruling may well be a growing public acceptance towards the other pathway to success — the vocational path — where English proficiency is not a must, yet it can equally offer a high future payoff.
The second but no less significant argument is the position of English vis-a-vis the national language. Many have argued that the national language should be given precedence over English, and therefore slammed those with poor command of the national language. They have thus called for an equally tough, if not tougher, requirement for Bahasa Malaysia.
This is a delicate problem. Indeed, the development of both English and the national language must go hand-in-hand. But the lack of proficiency in the national language among citizens takes place largely beyond the public university sphere.
General admission requirements in public universities should have already filtered out applicants without a credit in Bahasa at the SPM-level. The sensitivity of the issue notwithstanding, it is still imperative to address.
As it stands, most public universities have already imposed tough entry requirements in fields such as law and medicine.
For example, a MUET Band 4 is generally required for admission into law faculties and so will not be greatly affected by the new rule. Most medical programmes, while require a minimum of Band 3 at present, are extremely competitive, so little headwind is expected in requiring a notch higher either.
The same, however, cannot be said of entry requirement into other programmes. Currently, requiring a minimum of Band 1 means that candidates need to do no more than to sit for the exams, effectively making the process meaningless. Here is where the new rule will add significant value. MAZLENA MAZLAN NST Columnist 31 OCTOBER 2014 @ 8:09 AM