November 14th, 2013

Higher education in flux

The aim of education should be to teach us how to think than what to think.

A CREATIVE ferment characterises the global higher education scene. The question is being asked: is higher education about knowledge or utility?

Dichotomy: Actually, this dichotomy is quite naïve. The great aim of education is not knowledge but action. Sublime thoughts must be accompanied by practical solutions to the felt necessities of the times. The essence of knowledge is to apply it. At the same time the “idealistic aims” of education must be kept in mind.

Idealistic aims: Any university worth its name must be a storehouse of the knowledge and wisdom of the past; a receptacle of art, culture and science and a mirror of humanity’s great heritage. It should, in the words of Whitehead, be a place for activity of thought and receptivity to beauty and humane feeling.

A lively educational system must be geared towards creative exploration, independence of thought, willingness to cross intellectual borders and to challenge ingrained beliefs. The aim of education should be to teach us how to think than what to think.

A university should be an incubator for a culture of research; for generation of new knowledge; for testing out a new vision of the future. Regrettably most syllabi, pedagogical and evaluation methods strangle curiosity and inquiry and seek to indoctrinate and capture the mind into conformity. Universities have become places “where pebbles are polished and diamonds dimmed”.

Besides imparting professional skills, universities must build character and provide all-round development of the individual. They should impart a social conscience and a social perspective.

The curriculum should be so devised that staff and students are involved in the amelioration of the problems of society and in social service. University faculties must straddle the divide between being profession oriented and being people oriented. The curricula should highlight the need for reform and change and for social engineering.

The university should assist in nation-building and in fostering the understanding of and respect for each other’s cultures and traditions. In an age of internationalisation, university education should impart global perspectives.

At the same time, in an Asian context, third world perspectives must not be ignored. Asian universities must build their citadels of knowledge with flowers from many gardens. That would be true globalisation.

The university must democratise education because education is the great equalizer of the human condition. A broad range of students should be sought. Some allocation must be made for the poor, the marginalised and the minorities. The “quest quotient” should excite educational administrators as much as the “intelligence quotient”.

Cusp of change: Though many of us cradle an idealistic and holistic vision for our tertiary institutions, we cannot be blind to the changes swirling around us. Idealism is giving way to pragmatism and functionalism.

The primary aim of universities today is to build careers and not characters. Education today is for earning, not learning. We have become mistresses to the Qualifying Boards of our professions. They dictate the character and content of our curriculum.

Liberal education in languages, literature and humanities is being ignored. Over-specialisation has replaced broad-based education. Students know more and more about less and less.

In Asia and Africa there is a problem of high graduate unemployment. The millions being churned out have no jobs waiting for them. Skepticism is growing about how much tertiary education can do to liberate lives.

Should emphasis be shifted towards vocational training? Should tertiary education be reformulated to facilitate self-employment and entrepreneurship so that graduates of vocational institutes and universities create jobs for others and not flood the job-market themselves?

Industry-varsity synergy is the new buzz word. Universities have become obsessed with markets, businesses and student employability. Students have become reduced to consumers concerned only with getting jobs.

The Wilson Report in the UK shamelessly speaks of universities as part of a complex “skills and innovation supply chain business”! The modern trend is for universities to force academics to promote enterprise and entrepreneurship as part of their work. The dilemma is that some of us chose to be teachers because we abhor trade and commerce and wish for an idealistic, non-commercial profession.

Vice-Chancellors, deans and lecturers are being evaluated for their entrepreneurial skills and the number of grants they bring in. Universities are developing business models and are being forced to run like commercial organisations even though they are not primarily a business entity.

Research has become the new raison d’etre of a university’s existence. Emphasis on research, while desirable, is leading to a number of adverse tendencies. Teaching is being neglected. Administrative posts are being turned down. Committed teachers are bypassed in tenure and promotions in comparison with entrepreneurial researchers.

Universities have become obsessed with rankings and the buccaneers in the rankings industry are reaping huge rewards.

The Internet is transforming education like the way it has the media, entertainment and retail markets. New methods of teaching and learning have evolved. Some of the search in research has become unnecessary. Distance learning and web-based courses have become common. With these courses, self-learning has been extended to adult “encore learners”.

A negative development is the ease with which Internet facilitates plagiarism. There are ethical issues galore in the use of common information in the public domain.

In sum, higher education is in flux. New developments are bringing about radical changes in the way we conceive the role of a university in society. Not everyone will rejoice about the changes. But it is our job to face the realities; to moderate them where we can and to reconcile with them where change is inevitable.

Shad Saleem Faruqi is Emeritus Professor of Law at UiTM. The views expressed are entirely the writer’s own. The STAR Online Home News Columnist Reflecting the Law 14/11/2013

Why is their English better?

I REFER to a recent report in the media which says that Malaysia is the best in English proficiency in Asia.

The Swiss company that conducted the survey stated that Malaysia was better than Singapore in terms of English proficiency.

Either the Swiss company is having an April Fool’s joke or simply want to pull our leg!

We cannot actually blame them as they don’t really know the real situation in this country.

An ex-staff of Legoland related to me how impressed she was with Singaporean youths who visited Legoland where proficiency of English is concerned compared to our youths.

She could see the level of confidence and self-esteem the Singaporean youths had whenever she interactacted with them in the course of her duty.

This is not to belittle our youths for we have to accept reality that our youths lack self-esteem resulting in poor command of the English language.

A simple litmus test can bee seen where an English newspaper will hardly be touched in schools compared to a vernacular newspaper.

The Second Minister of Education Datuk Seri Idris Jusoh had admitted that 75% of our English teachers are not fit to teach English. So how can we expect the students to be proficient in English when the teachers themselves are weak in English!

Whenever I see a group of students from international schools at the conveniece store and students from the national schools, I can see a big difference in their faces where self confidence is concerned.

The self confidence in international schools students is built around the school’s culture. Like the national schools in the 1960s, international school students have their own uniform. The school’s attire gives some semblance of pride in the school which make them different from others.

The teacher-student relationship in international schools is one of “partner”, “friend”, “mentor”, where there is open communication and not one way and condescending.

Our national schools which use Bahasa Malaysia can instill self confidence in the students if we are willing to adopt the international schools model.

Perhaps we have to go back to the good old days where every school had their own uniform. Convent Bukit Nenas used to be blue, Assunta Girls’ School was brown, St. Mary was light chequred blue, Victoria Institution was white.

As for teaching methodology, our national schools should have more class discussion rather than teaching. There should be more role play, group discussion, debates and quiz. Where possible, the class should not have more than 35 students.

As English is becoming more important, teachers should always speak English with their students as practised in the 1960s and 1970s.

Of course this is not possible as national school teachers are mostly Malays who naturally speak their mother tongue which include teaching English in Malay!

If the Swiss, Swedish, Finnish, Norwegians, Germans and Danish can speak English, then there is no reason why our national school teachers and students cannot speak English.

What is in their school system that makes them proficient in English? Closer to home, what is it that makes the Singaporean youths more proficient in English than their Malaysian counterparts.

Hassan Talib Gombak The STAR Online Letters to the Editors 14/11/2013

Student Evaluation: The schools can do it better

THE central-based Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia examination is being conducted now. Tomorrow, the results of another central-based evaluation, Ujian Pencapaian Sekolah Rendah, will be announced. Finally, next month, the results of the third central-based evaluation, Penilaian Menengah Rendah (PMR), will come out.

This is the last year for the PMR. From next year, Pentaksiran Berasaskan Sekolah Menengah Rendah (PBSMR), an "improved version of PMR" (NST, Oct 4), will be carried out. All three central-based evaluations have been part and parcel of the education system for a long time.

As their names imply, these evaluations are standardised (meaning all students in Malaysia sit for them), questions for subjects are set by the Examination Board, exams are conducted simultaneously across the country by teacher-invigilators not in the school they teach in, answer scripts corrected by examiners (not from the students' school), and finally, the results are supposed to be reflective of the students' achievements.

The rigour of precautions taken by the Education Ministry indicates that students' grades are reliable. For example, an "A" grade of a student who studied in a rural school is equivalent to an "A" of a student who studied in an urban school.

In short, Malaysian society will have an overall view of the success or not, of students having gone through the education system with a common curriculum.

However, the trend around the world is to move from central-based to school-based or aspects of school-based (taking small steps at a time so to speak) student evaluation or assessment (SBE).

The Malaysia Education Blueprint is taking these small steps when PMR becomes PBSMR. The main features of SBE is that the central Examination Board will only give guidelines. As such, the schools run the examinations, formulate the examination papers (questions), school teachers mark these papers and accordingly grade and provide the students' results.

Generally, therefore exam questions from one school to another can be different. Positively, this is empowerment: schools become more responsible for student evaluation and no more dependent on an "outside" body/agency.

Why this trend? Top of the reasons, I suppose, is that there are real disadvantages to some students in central-based evaluation.

For example, it is said to be unfair as students in rural schools differ from those in urban schools; grading them with a standard instrument is not reflective of actual ability.

For a student in a rural area to get an "A" in English Language would probably mean more hard work for both student and teacher, while the urban student with access to tuition, exposure to spoken English via media (books, television) and speaking English with friends, has an advantage to score an "A" easily. As such, the ability to study harder, to allocate more time to study or have less help are not known elements in the score/grade.

However, for the blueprint to make a move from central to school-based evaluation is indeed a paradigm shift!

The ministry has to be absolutely clear about implementation. The stakeholders (students) must not unwittingly be "losers". Conducted incorrectly, SBE can be abused, manipulated and any grades/results of students may be worse i.e. less reflective of what they are, than from the central-based evaluation.

But let us not be pessimistic. Generally, teachers say that the most important objective of SBE is to enable them to evaluate their students in a diagnostic manner whereby learning weaknesses and strengths can be detected. This allows teachers to help overcome the learning problems so that these do not accumulate, thus making learning more and more difficult and lead the students to fail and drop out of school.

At the same time, students' strengths can be harnessed and lead them to lay the foundations of their interests for career purposes.

So, the stress on SBE essentially is that students' learning is constantly monitored which is not possible with the central-based evaluation. The latter is a "one-shot do or die" thing -- if you score well, your future is brighter but if you do not, you are deemed "not too smart" which can be far from the truth actually. Maybe you are just not an "exam person" or you just did not know how to overcome your learning problems.

As with many educational ideas, teachers know the worth and potential of SBE but telling them to actually practise and implement it is a tall order. The fear is if it is not properly conducted, the SBE will take the form of a mini central-based evaluation where the goal of being diagnostic in nature is lost.

Finally, innocent students should not be "victimised" if SBE cannot be used to measure their capabilities. Instead, it might be better and wiser to improve the central-based evaluation strategy.

Zaleha Izhab, Kuala Lumpur   New Straits Times Letters to the Editor 13/11/2013

English proficiency: Return to old school ways

IREFER to the report "Malaysia No. 1 in English proficiency in Asia" (NST, Nov 9), which said a survey by a Swiss-based company had found Malaysia to be better than Singapore in English proficiency. But the situation on the ground is different.

A former staff of the Legoland theme park in Johor related how impressed she was with young Singaporean visitors as far as their mastery of the language is concerned compared with our youths.

She could see the level of confidence and self-esteem the Singaporeans showed when she interacted with them.

This is not to belittle Malaysian youths but we have to accept reality that our youngsters lack self-esteem, resulting in a poor command of English.

A simple observation can be seen in schools where English newspapers are hardly touched compared with vernacular ones.

The second education minister has openly admitted that three quarters of our English teachers are not fit to teach the language.

How can we expect the students to be proficient when the teachers themselves are weak?

Whenever I see students from international schools and local ones, I can see a big difference where self-confidence is concerned.

Self-belief in international schools is built around the establishments' culture. Like national schools in the 1960s and 1970s, international school students have their own uniforms which give a measure of pride.

The teacher-student relationship in international schools is one of "partner", "friend", "mentor", etc., where there is open communication and it is not one-way and condescending.

Our Bahasa Malaysia-medium national schools can still instil self-confidence in students if we are willing to adopt the international school model.

We have to go back to the good old days where every school had their own uniform.

Convent Bukit Nanas used to be blue, Assunta Girls School was brown, St Mary's was light chequered blue and Victoria Institution, white.

As for teaching methodology, our national schools should have more class discussions rather than teaching.

There should be role plays, group discussions, quizzes and such.

Where possible, the class should not be more than 35 students.

Since English is becoming more important, teachers should always speak in the language with their students.

If the Swiss, Swedish, Finnish, Norwegians, Germans and Danish can learn to speak English, there is no reason why our school teachers and students cannot do so.

What is in their school system that makes them proficient in English?

Hassan Talib Gombak New Straits Times Letters to the Editors 14/11/2013

More to life than becoming a doctor

RE-CONSIDER: School leavers should be prescribed other equally respectable career options

IN Malaysia, a medical degree is more coveted than yak cheese is to Himalayan herdsmen. Every year, the public university intake announcement will be met with grouses and recriminations when students fail to secure places, especially for medical degrees.

Many of those not allotted places seek alternative routes to their ambition.

This huge demand has led to a mushrooming of private medical colleges, almost 40 now for a population of about 28 million "probably one of the highest per capita in the world", the Malaysian Medical Association told the New Sunday Times last week.

MMA president Datuk Dr N.K.S. Tharmaseelan said with an astronomical 5,000 medical graduates every year and only 132 hospitals, there would no place for these graduates to undergo training by next year.

It's bloodcurdling, but unlikely to deter the legions of students, and their parents, intent on a medical education. It's not difficult to comprehend why many are willing to give their eye teeth to become doctors.

It's a noble and selfless profession, after all.

Doctors are put on a pedestal by society at large, and more importantly, by prospective in-laws.

And the money can be good. Surgeons and specialists are highly-placed in annual lists of top-paying jobs, with salary levels and career advancement depending on the years of practice, skills and reputation.

A doctor's job can, however, also be stress-inducing and soul-sapping.

There are those who don't want to be doctors but are goaded or threatened by persistent parents to join the medical assembly line.

This is unhealthy. School leavers should be made aware that there are other equally respectable career options. Many blindly chase a medical degree the way zombies would a group of screaming humans, without considering whether other offerings might be even more palatable.

Nothing else is notable or interesting except those options that have been drummed into their heads by well-meaning parents from childhood.

The nation does not only need doctors, or indeed, dentists, and pharmacists, but also those with the skills to maintain machines and construct homes. It needs teachers, scientists, and artists. And yes, it also needs lawyers and journalists.

Students need to know that the world is their oyster, and that there are jobs beyond those they have been conditioned to covet from childhood.

At the top of the heap on the Forbes' best jobs for 2013 list: actuary.

Highly-paid actuaries analyse statistical data on mortality, accident, sickness, disability and retirement rates, and construct probability tables to forecast risk and liability for payment of future benefits.

The second and third spots belong to the biomedical engineer, a "hot, new profession" requiring work with physicians and medical experts in designing new equipment, and the software engineer, "a low stress profession with good pay and a positive hiring outlook", thanks to our infatuation with apps and cloud computing.

If it's all about the money, then students should take a look at these other career options, which according to job placement agencies, are the top three highest paying in Malaysia: pilot, strategy director (business planning), and senior accountant.
 Others professions that are capable of fattening up wallets include geotechnical engineer, data architect  and chief executive officer.

Educationists advice students to take into cognisance fields such as information and communications technology, engineering (oil and gas, telecommunication, aviation and marine), and sales and marketing.   Besides these more conventional options, there are those that are less so but have been described as being among the most fulfilling in the world.

They may sound quirky, but do exist -- chocolate consultants, Lego sculptors, television watchers and bounty hunters.

Those with a penchant for sleeping on their jobs can contemplate becoming professional sleepers.

Typically, professional sleepers participate in university studies on sleep or dreams, but others make sure beds are comfortable in hotels.

And then, there's "the best job in the world": an island caretaker. The role was created in 2009 by Australia's Queensland Tourism Board to help promote the Islands of the Great Barrier Reef to the world.

Briton Ben Southall secured the job, and was paid STG73,400 (RM374,000)  to live on an island in the Great Barrier Reef for six months, swimming, exploring and generally enjoying himself while filming and blogging about all the fun he was having.

So, do you still want to be a doctor?

Chok Suat Ling | Instagram@suatling27 New Straits Times Online Columnist 14 November 2013

Creating OSH awareness amongst students

THE National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) is offering help to the Education Ministry to create awareness on occupational safety and health (OSH) in schools through its school programme.

Its chairman, Tan Sri Lee Lam Thye said the subject (OSH) should be introduced in schools beacause of accidents involving teachers, students and staff arising from the collapse of roofs, building structures, ceiling fans, goal posts, toilets and even chemical explosions.

“Safety and health are of paramount importance in schools. Such accidents are unacceptable, more so in schools where parents can trust their children to be safe,” he said in a statement recently.

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Lee said the application of the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) to schools, which in effect are places of work, aims to make it safe for teachers, students and visitors.

It is aimed at ensuring the safety, health and welfare for those at work as well as protecting the students against such risks when they deal with others at the work place.

He said very little is known about “The OSH in school programme” which covers another dimension and views the school as a workplace, in accordance with OSHA 1994.

Through the programme, Lee said the institute hoped to recommend good OSH practices through education, training and exhibitions in ensuring that employees know the risks they are facing at work.

They should also know how to work safely in order to deal with such risks.

“Apart from that, instilling awareness at an early stage is of utmost importance to creating a safe and healthy workplace. It is hoped that the programme will benefit the students,” he added.

The institute had successfully introduced the programme as its corporate social responsibility project to more than a dozen schools with sponsorship from corporate organisations. — Bernama

The STAR Online Home News Education 10/11/2013