It is about time politicians and policy planners acknowledge shortcomings and bring about changes in raising the academic excellence in schools and public universities.
AS a percentage of the Gross Domestic Product, Malaysia’s budget for education is among the highest in the world.
While we are proud of this, we expect positive returns on our investment. For example, we expect our 15-year-old students who participated in the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) academic assessment to do better than their counterparts in Vietnam and Thailand.
Both states have topped Malaysia in the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) in Maths, Science and Reading. In 2012, Malaysia was placed 52nd out of 65 countries in Pisa. Vietnam ranked 17th.
We also expect our public universities to do well in international rankings.
Sadly, in 2013, our premier public university was ranked among the bottom in the Shanghai-Jiao Tong University’s 2014 Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU). The National University of Singapore came among the top 30.
By the 2014 QS University Rankings: Asia, the National University of Singapore was first; Universiti Malaya (UM) ranked 32nd in Asia.
The academic achievements in Pisa and university rankings speak volumes of the quality of education in Malaysia.
Opting out of the ranking system is not the solution; the solution lies in raising academic excellence in schools and public universities.
It is time for our political masters to acknowledge the sorry state of our education system. We can no longer behave like ostriches, burying our heads in the sand and hoping the problems will go away.
There was a time when Malaysians could walk tall in the world’s academic corridors.
Back in the 1960s and early 1970s, many Malaysians from government schools excelled at Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, Yale and Tufts among other varsities.
In those days, our medical graduates had automatic entry to post-graduate studies in the United Kingdom, as our degrees were at par. Sadly, this is no longer the case.
Local graduates in social sciences and humanities are now required to sit for examinations in many Commonwealth countries before they can pursue post-graduate programmes.
The same institutions, which used to recognise our local degrees as being at par with theirs, no longer do so. Those who still do, do it with a caveat.
Many graduates from public universities cannot land jobs in the private sector because they cannot communicate, according to job surveys, at an acceptable proficiency level in English and lack adequate interpersonal skills.
Currently, there are over 40,000 unemployed local graduates. The rot begins at schools.
The teaching of English in our government schools leaves much to be desired.
Recently, Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin who is also Education Minister, admitted that the key challenges to higher education in Malaysia revolved around “graduate employability” and “availability of skilled lecturers”. He was spot on.
Clearly, the challenge is to remedy the quality of education, especially higher education.
The World Bank has produced reports on the sorry state of education in Malaysia in 2007, 2011 and 2013.
Politicians and policy planners should take heed of the recommendations in these reports, if we hope to achieve the goals for the 2020 vision.
Among the recommendations are the need to improve on the quality of teaching, raise the quality of education, ensure greater decentralisation of decision-making in the education system, greater accountability to the stakeholders, and introduce policies to improve English proficiency, Maths and Science among teachers and students.
With good teachers and higher proficiency in English, our students should do well in Maths, Science and Reading in Pisa.
Studies have shown a positive relation between the future economic prosperity of a country and the academic achievements of primary, secondary and university students.
Their skills are critical to the development of an innovative, knowledge-based work force, to drive not only economic growth, but also the much-needed social engineering policies in the country.
The 15-year-olds and graduates are our guarantees for a more competitive global market and the only hope for a more comprehensive, inclusive and effective programme in rebuilding the nation.
If our youngsters fail to excel in their studies, the whole nation may fail in producing the much-needed human capital to meet the challenges ahead.
Hence, the challenge is to improve the quality of education that ensures jobs for Malaysians and more importantly, provides the bond for a united nation that transcends racial bounds and sectarian lines.
If we continue with this policy of downgrading English, Mathematics and Science, there is a possibility that our 15-year-olds will be at the bottom of the heap in Pisa, just like our public universities attainment in international rankings.
A decade from now, if we continue to neglect Maths, Science and English in schools, UM, being the extension of the public education system, may grace the bottom 500 in the ARWU ranking!
When Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad was Prime Minister, he made it compulsory for secondary school students to learn Mathematics and Science in English; later this policy was revoked.
The blame for the sorry state of affairs must fall squarely on the shoulders of our politicians and policy planners whose perspective on education has put the nation in this quandary.
Education is not about attending schools, but attaining knowledge to improve one’s opportunities, to be able to think critically and be able to advance the common purpose of the community, society and the polity together.
When nations fail to invest in quality education, the rakyat or people suffer.
According to Prof Amartya Sen, Nobel laureate in economics (1998), poverty in some parts of India is man-made and not God-inflicted. The drought does not kill animals and displace people; poor resource management does.
Management is about applying knowledge and education. Education helps break the poverty cycle.
Education builds cognitive skills and provides the necessary foundation for a resilient nation state.
Education is also the bedrock for our nation building and a cornerstone for the current economic and social engineering transformation programmes.
The nation can be spared the tragedy of further ignominy if politicians from across the political divide acknowledge our shortcomings and take effective remedial steps to redress the problem of quality education in a holistic, all-inclusive and honest manner.
Our business model in education is no longer sustainable, even in the short run.
B. A. Hamzah is a student of regional geopolitics and pedagogy. These are his personal views. They do not reflect those of the institutions he is attached to. B.A.Hamzah The STAR Home News Education 4 January 2015