THE recently launched Malaysia Education Blueprint 2015-2025 (Higher Education) states that our nation’s “higher education system has grown from strength to strength over the past few decades.”
Its justification, among others, is based on “significant gains in student enrolment” and Malaysia becoming “a top destination for international students.” Both these “achievements” are not reflective of the quality of higher education in Malaysia.
The significant increase of international students, mainly from Third World and Muslim countries, in Malaysia is primarily due to the relatively lower fees and cost of living compared to universities in Europe and the United States.
Undeniably, our public universities have attained global recognition for specific disciplines, such as Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) for environmental sciences, Universiti Malaya (UM) for engineering, and Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM) for forestry and agriculture.
However, the overall quality of Malaysian higher education (public universities) has declined over the past few decades as reflected in the poor global ranking of Malaysia’s leading universities.
Currently, more than 100,000 of our local graduates, with a majority from public universities, are unemployed.
We need to face the stark reality of our higher education system. A recent World Bank study has found that the academic standards of UM have fallen due to race-based quotas and political interference in the university’s management.
In the words of Hena Mukherjee and Poh Kam Wong, “There has been widespread recognition that the implementation of affirmative action policies in Malaysia has hurt the higher education system, sapping Malaysia’s economic competitiveness and driving some (mainly Chinese and Indians) to more meritocratic countries, such as Singapore.”
It is an open secret that many university lecturers lack adequate pedagogical knowledge and competence in teaching. It is not uncommon for lecturers to rely entirely on power point slides provided by publishers to teach students.
Instructional strategies generally promote surface learning (rote learning with students treated as passive learners).
As an example, virtually all of the 2002 examination questions for the Quality Management Course (MPA degree) at one of Malaysia’s leading public universities were based on lower order thinking skills with questions, among others, dealing with definitions of Quality and Organisational Culture; basic concepts of Total Quality Management; ways of changing Organisational Culture; and benefits of implementing ISO9000 in organisations.
Based upon workshops which I have conducted for four local public universities over the last five years in the areas of effective teaching and graduate employability, I was shocked by the poor understanding of critical thinking among our lecturers, including professors.
Not one (out of more than 200 lecturers) of them could provide a proper definition of critical thinking. Only a few could explain the critical thinking skills.
How then can we inculcate critical thinking in our graduates when a vast majority of academic staff themselves have a poor understanding of it?
Another example reflective of incompetent academic staff is that the marking scheme for a Personal Development Course examination of a local public university (2014) had erroneous answers for about 20% of the questions (besides several grammatical errors).
Many university lecturers also have a poor command of English, which is best shown in what is written under “Acknowledgements” in a PhD thesis (2007): “...my father, who always gave a great supports; my wife, and my childrens, Thank you for all your love, supports and encouragements.”
We need to undertake meaningful changes. No amount of educational reforms will bring about substantial improvement in the quality of our higher education system without meritocracy and a competent faculty.
Research worldwide has proven that the quality of a nation’s education system cannot exceed the quality of its educators.
A recent World Bank study also reveals the lack of emphasis on meritocracy wherein only 3% of offers for the Bachelor of Education Programme went to applicants considered high performers.
For the sake of the future well-being of our beloved nation and our “anak bangsa Malaysia”, we need to practise genuine meritocracy and reward educators based strictly upon performance.
In the words of Tan Sri Arshad Ayub, “Appointments (in university administration) should be on merit and apolitical. There should be more women and non-bumiputeras.”
Similarly, Tan Sri Prof Dr Ghauth Jasmon (the former Vice-Chancellor of Universiti Malaya) has reiterated that “We must bring in high quality professors into the system in all fields regardless of who they are.”
I would like to draw the attention of the Education Ministry to a glaring error in the Malaysia Education Blueprint 2015-2025 (Higher Education). I was shocked to note that the word “Ilmu” was used to denote knowledge and skills. “Ilmu” refers strictly to “knowledge” while the correct Malay term for skills is “kemahiran”.
I hope and pray that our political leaders have the courage to promote greater meritocracy and excellence in all fields, including our higher education system.
We need to act now to strike a balance between affirmative action and economic competitiveness.
Let’s not deny another generation of “anak bangsa Malaysia” of high quality education.
Dr Ranjit Singh Malhi Kuala Lumpur The Home News Opinion Letters 16 June 2015