June 8th, 2015

A lot more to learn

THE Education Minister recently expressed shock at the poor performance of Malaysian students in the PISA 2012 survey of over 500,000 15-year-olds in 64 countries on their levels of knowledge and skills in reading, mathematics, science and problem solving.

In every single domain, we are ranked at the bottom 10% to 15% of countries surveyed.

For a high middle-income country that prides itself in spending at least 20% of its annual budget on education, something is seriously wrong with the way these resources are allocated and used. The return on investment is dismal.

I visited the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) website and found the summary page for Malaysia. The findings are scary.

The Government owe the rakyat answers as to why we continue to perform so badly in spite of all kinds of reforms that have taken place over decades and the money spent annually on education.

Somehow we still have not gotten it right, while our competitors in the region are flying high.

Yes, we now have the Education Blueprint, yet another reform effort.

Obviously the 2006-2010 Blueprint did not achieve the results planned for given the rock bottom performance of Malaysian 15-year-olds, and the need for yet another Blueprint. One can only pray that those in charge have the will, dedication and passion needed to ensure the outcomes of the 2013-2025 Blueprint address the dire weaknesses identified by this comprehensive survey.

Let’s look at the scores and ranking. In terms of reading, Malaysia is ranked 58 out of 64 countries. About 52.7% of those surveyed could not read beyond the minimal Level 1. In Singapore, only 9.9% of its 15-year-olds are at that poor performance level. At the top proficiency levels 5 or 6, only 0.1% of our students made it there, compared to 21.2% in Singapore. Only two other countries have a lower percentage of top performers than Malaysia.

In spite of the annual parade of students scoring double digit As on the front pages of our newspapers, by international standards our education system is actually not producing top performers.

Our examinations obviously measure content knowledge, not analysis and interpretation, the real skills needed to survive and thrive in a knowledge economy.

This is not surprising in a culture that punishes those who do not conform, who ask difficult questions, who give answers out of the box. And in the domain of religion, it can actually be a criminal offence to ask questions or have a different understanding of Islam than the one sanctioned by the religious authorities.

In a society where those with power are obsessed with maintaining control, dominance, compliance, uniformity and conformity, it can only be expected that our education system eventually reflects those values, in spite of attempts at reform.

I looked at the assessment framework of the survey and found that what PISA measures is not just the capacity to read and understand literal information, but how students retrieve information, form a broad understanding, develop an interpretation, reflect on and evaluate both the content and the form of a text.

How do you teach a student to interpret, reflect, analyse, evaluate a text?

How are the teachers trained to be able to impart these skills? A friend who has a son in Form 1 is shocked that his English literature text book on the Swiss Robinson Family is not only so thin, but also filled with pictures fit for a nine-year old. Are we dumbing down our students and the syllabus so that more can score strings of As?

The PISA test requires students to read selected texts and answer a series of questions to evaluate their capacity to interpret and analyse. From reading an extract from a novel to a product notice on peanut content and the right of the buyer to return the product.

What PISA evaluates is called “reading literacy” whether the Malaysian 15-year-old is understanding, using, reflecting on and engaging with written texts, in order to achieve one’s goals, develop one’s knowledge and potential, and participate effectively in society.

At level 1, the reader is only asked to locate explicitly stated information, recognise the main theme of a text or make a simple connection between information in the text and common every day knowledge.

In the 2009 PISA survey, 44% of Malaysian students performed at this level. Instead of doing better in the 2012 survey, a further 8.7% dropped into this level.

At level 2, the reader is asked to locate information which may need to be inferred, understand relationships, or construe meanings when information is not prominent. Only 31% of the Malaysian students could perform at this still low level.

PISA also measures students’ engagement, drive and self-belief. Again not surprisingly, the survey finds Malaysians at the bottom.

They are less likely to report that they are quick to understand, seek explanations, link facts together easily, and/or like to solve complex problems. Malaysia ranks 55 out of 64 countries.

The dismal findings of the level of knowledge and skills in mathematics (rank 61/64) and science (55/64) reflect similar distressing realities of the Malaysian education system.

While 40% of Singapore students performed at the top level in mathematics, only 1.3% of Malaysians achieved that level.

The only piece of good news is that Malaysia is one of the few countries where girls outperform boys in all three subject areas – reading, mathematics and science, with the biggest gender gap in reading.

PISA conducts an assessment domain in the area of problem-solving competency. It believes the study of an individual’s problem-solving strengths offers a window into their capabilities to employ basic thinking and other general cognitive approaches to confronting challenges in life.

It provides a basis for future learning, for effective participation in society and for conducting personal activities.

Again, Malaysia scores close to the bottom. Of the 42 countries surveyed, Malaysia ranks at 37 with half of the students reaching only level 1 performance.

Only one other country did worse than Malaysia in terms of the percentage of top performers at proficiency levels 5 or 6.

While our mathematics mean score has improved since the 2009 survey (still, only three other countries did worse than us), the scores for reading and science have fallen. A significant percentage, if not the majority of Malaysian students, continue to perform at below minimum proficiency level as defined by PISA.

While the Government might tout that its education budget is high, the survey found that the cumulative expenditure by educational institutions per student aged six to 15 is actually one of the lowest among PISA-participating countries and economies (rank 45/49).

Obviously, either the money went largely to tertiary education and other expenses or the total budget is just not high enough to produce the outcomes envisaged.

Another disturbing, but not surprising finding, is the gap in performance between Malaysian students in government and private schools – one of the highest gaps in participating countries, with the gap in Mathematics the biggest.

So obviously the rich who are able to afford private education for their children are getting a better deal in setting up their children for life, while over 90% of those surveyed who go to government schools are being disadvantaged because of a failing education system.

In the 2009 PISA survey, 80% of the participating schools (121/152) fell into the poor performance bracket. About 13% made it to fair and only 7% entered the good performance bracket. None was great or excellent. I could not locate this score in the 2012 survey.

Just comparing Malaysia’s performance to Singapore (which ranks second in mathematics, third in reading and science and first in problem-solving), what these scores and rankings mean is that 15-year-olds in Malaysia are performing as if they have received the equivalent of almost four years less schooling in reading, mathematics and science compared to the Singapore 15-year-olds.

If these data do not wake up our authorities to the dire straits we are in, I don’t know what else will.

If we are serious in believing in the PISA philosophy that learning outcomes at school are a powerful predictor for the wealth and social outcomes that countries will reap in the long run, then those in charge of the education system and the parents who worry about their children’s future must crack the whip.

The Education Blueprint promises a major transformation by 2025. By then, Malaysia will be in the top one-third of the PISA ranking, it states. And standards for student outcomes and learning practices will be benchmarked against the high performing education systems.

The focus will be on higher order thinking skills such as application and reasoning, and not just content knowledge. This means looking at the success of the top five countries and economies – Shanghai, Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea, Taiwan – and even Vietnam, ranked a high 17.

Almost two years have passed since the Blueprint was launched. Is performance on track? How has recruitment into teachers training colleges changed to attract the brightest? How has pedagogy changed to enable students to develop high order thinking skills?

There must be better transparency and an annual progress report presented to the public.

I hope the Parents Action Group for Education Malaysia will take up the cause in demanding and monitoring the implementation of the Education Blueprint and access to the full results and analysis of the PISA survey and how the Government uses this data to guide implementation and monitor outcomes.

The Blueprint notes that internationally, education system reforms fail for common reasons – insufficient will, time and commitment from all political and ministry leaders; inability to stay the course under intense challenges from those opposed to the changes; paralysis in the face of polarising debates led by teachers and other stakeholders, resistance to change amongst teachers, or capacity gaps within the ministry.

It points out that while these obstacles are daunting, research shows it is possible to overcome them and deliver fundamental improvements in as little as six years.

So please get cracking and transform these words into deeds. Zainah Anwar The STAR Home Opinion Columnist Sharing the Nation 7 Jun 2015

Businessmen have a role to play in education

HOW many times have we heard company bosses declaring that people are their greatest assets? Are we not a tad too familiar with CEOs grumbling about the quality of the graduates who turn up at job interviews?

And if we get a ringgit whenever a businessman moans about the state of education in Malaysia, we would soon have enough capital to go into business ourselves.

Without a doubt, education matters a lot to the world of commerce and industry.

The business community relies immensely on the public education system, but are businesses doing enough for education?

Some business leaders believe they are already doing their part by dutifully paying taxes.

They insist that it is the Government’s job to ensure that our children finish school with the right skills and attitude.

That thinking is a cousin of the parental delusion that all we need to do is get the kids through the school gates and they will learn well.

A country’s education system can do with all the support it can get, and there are so many ways for the private sector to help other than the usual philanthropic gestures such as donating to schools and handing out scholarships.

After all, some problems cannot be solved purely by throwing money at them.

That is why the involvement of entrepreneurs and executives in education can make a difference.

Businessmen are pragmatists and goal-oriented.

They are men of action, problem-solvers, go-getters, movers and shakers.

This is not to say those running the public education system have none of these characteristics.

The point here is that people who are good at operating in a profit-driven environment can bring something different to the government sector.

Businesses that are seeking effective ways to contribute to public education should start by looking at the Malaysia Education Blueprint 2013-2025, which covers pre-school to post-secondary education.

The document suggests 11 strategic and operational shifts to transform the education system.

The businessmen should be particularly interested in Shift Nine: Partner with parents, community and private sector at scale.

The Education Ministry points out that international experience has proven that learning happens well beyond the school walls and can occur at home and in the community.

Between the ages of seven and 17, a child in Malaysia spends only about a quarter of his time in school.

“The priority is thus to shift from ‘school learning’ to ‘system learning’ by engaging parents, the community, as well as the private and social sectors as partners in supporting student learning,” says the ministry.

It adds that research has found that schools that engage with businesses, civic organisations and higher education institutes enjoy benefits that include higher grades and lower student absenteeism.

The private sector has already demonstrated what it can do for education through school adoption programmes and sponsorship of organisations such as Teach for Malaysia.

There are many more opportunities for innovation and collaboration.

The businessmen must put their money, time and effort where their mouths are. The STAR Home Opinion Columnist 7 Jun 2015

In good times, in tough times

IT’S been quite a while since I attended a church wedding where the traditional Here Comes The Bride (Bridal Chorus from Wagner’s Lohengrin) is played.

Today, more contemporary songs are the order of the day. And at the wedding dinner, you will probably be even more surprised at the selection of music that the happy couple, and their wedding planners, can come up with.

In contrast, there is still a very strong traditional spirit to the Malay weddings, especially those that are held in community halls or at the houses themselves, where the bride and the groom can be the prince and princess for the day.

My good neighbour, Pak Yusof, is very popular when it comes to being the emcee at these weddings with his running commentary as guests make their entry. Every VIP and every ordinary person is welcomed by name.

Weddings can be simple or expensive, but however memorable that day may turn out to be, we have to acknowledge that it is just one day. The marriage, however, is a different story altogether.

I am at an age where I am attending weddings of my friend’s children, and if they care to listen to me, this Uncle will invariably tell them – the wedding is just a day, the marriage is forever.

On Tuesday, I will be attending a ceremony where two dear friends are renewing their wedding vows to mark their 50 years together. It will not only be nostalgic but a wonderful reflection of how this loving couple who came together as one grew together as one.

There is another reason I want to be there. It was also at the same sanctuary, 29 years ago today, that my wife and I declared our marriage vows.

In this current world of easy divorces, broken relationships and same-sex marriages, some may wonder if the original institution of marriage that brings a man and a woman together can really withstand the test of time.

What then is the secret to a long and fulfilling marriage that only ends with that final line in the vows that Christian couples make – till death do us part?

It is a question that cannot be easily answered because every relationship is unique. Bringing two different people – and probably also two families – together is a challenge in itself.

But when I look again at the marriage vows my wife and I took, I am reminded that it is indeed about staying together “for better, for worse”, “for richer, for poorer”, “in sickness and in health” and “to love and to cherish, till death do us part”.

Today, I celebrate 29 years of being married to a woman I have known for 30 years.

Half of this time, she has been alongside me in my battles with cancer (sickness) and for a good number of years with me as a househusband drawing little or no income (poorer).

On the flipside, in happy times, in times of good health, and in times of plenty, we have never taken our love for granted.

Only when we can love in good times will we able to love in tough times.

Now that is one lesson about marriage I love to pass on to all who intend to tie the knot one day. Soo Ewe Jin The STAR Home News Opinion Columnist Sunday Starter 7 Jun 2015

A steady rise for Malaysian varsities

The Government has put in place initiatives to strengthen the country’s higher education system, which is showing signs of improvements and soaring upwards.

EARLY one morning last week, I received a call from Prof Datuk Seri Dr Zaini Ujang, who is the Education Ministry’s secretary-general II.

“Sir, I have good news,” he said.

“Our national higher education system ranking has improved from 28th to 27th spot out of 50 nations according to the Universitas 21 Ranking of National Higher Education Systems (also known as U21)”.

“And, we are ranked 21st when it was adjusted for GDP and levels of development, ahead of Singapore, Japan, Germany and Hong Kong”.

I said: “That’s good. I believe we can still do better.” “I agree, sir,” said Zaini.

Just over a month ago, Quacquarelli Symmonds released the QS World University Rankings by Subject 2015. There were improvements in those rankings too.

Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) and Universiti Malaya (UM) each had one subject in the world’s top 50. USM ranked 31st for environmental science while UM ranked 32nd for development studies (this is a new subject included in this year’s ranking).

Nine subjects were ranked within the top 51 to100 in the world across five of our public universities, namely USM, UM, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM), Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM) and Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM). Coincidentally, these five universities hold research university status (RU), a project which the then Higher Education Ministry started in 2006.

UM leads the pack with six subjects in the top 51 to 100, including English and literature, linguistics, architecture and built environment, chemical engineering, electrical and electronic engineering, and mechanical, aeronautical and manufacturing engineering.

USM has five subjects within the top 51 to 100, which are architecture and built environment, chemical engineering, electrical and electronic engineering, development studies as well as mechanical, aeronautical and manufacturing engineering.

UTM has two in architectural and build environment as well as chemical engineering, while UPM and UKM have one each with agriculture and forestry, and development studies ranked within the top 51 to100 in the world.

If we were to expand the list to the top 200 subjects, we would see the inclusion of two private universities, namely Multimedia University (MMU) and Universiti Teknologi Petronas (UTP). In total, 10 of our public and private higher learning institutions are ranked within the top 200 in the world across 26 disciplines, including geography, pharmacology, business studies, economics and law.

It is heartening for me to see that most of our engineering faculties are ranked within the top 100 in the world.

Beyond the QS subject ranking, our universities have fared well in other discipline rankings. For instance, UPM ranked 54th in the world in agricultural science according to the Best Global Universities Rankings, while according to research group Elsevier, the International Islamic University Malaysia is tops when it comes to Islamic Banking, in particular in terms of authoritative articles published (11% of the world’s total publications).

Subject rankings are an important indicator of the growth and improvement of our higher education system.

In an insightful report titled An Avalanche is Coming: Higher Education and the Revolution Ahead published in 2013, it mentions that the future of higher education will be about the ‘niche university’.

This is where focusing on specific areas of knowledge and skills, as opposed to spreading too widely, will be key towards remaining relevant and competitive in the global higher education landscape.

The report, published by a United Kingdom think tank, Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) in collaboration with the Pearson group, also mentions that the survival of universities and its ability to attract students will depend on making the most of comparative advantages and this is influenced by geography, environment and the strength of localised content.

In this regard, I believe that we are on the right path and will need to maintain our focus as we move forward.

In early April, a Thai newspaper, The Nation, reported that Malaysian academics ‘surprisingly’ beat Thais and Singaporeans in research papers.

The report stated that Malaysian researchers produced 47,000 articles or nearly twice their Thai counterparts. Singapore on the other hand produced 34,000 articles.

According to the report, “the sharp growth in the number of researchers was because the Malaysian government dramatically boosted funding compared to the Thai government.”

As mentioned earlier, this coincided with the Malaysian Research University Project in 2006. It is starting to bear fruit and this is an encouraging sign.

Many have pointed out to me that quantity doesn’t necessarily mean quality. I agree.

Quality is an ongoing process and usually indicated by the number of citations a publication receives (it shows faith and confidence in the work produced).

In 2014, Thomson Reuters released a list of the world’s best and brightest scientific minds. The report, entitled The World’s Most Influential Scientific Minds: 2014, analysed data from the last 11 years using the Web of Science and InCites platforms to determine which researchers around the globe have produced work that is most frequently cited by peers.

Among the 3,200 notable individuals were three Malaysian researchers: Prof Dr Saidur Rahman Abdul Hakim from UM’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, Prof Dr Ishak Hashim from UKM’s School of Mathematical Sciences and Prof Dr Abdul Latif Ahmad from USM’s Department of Chemical Engineering.

In my view, we have the quality. Undoubtedly, this needs to be ramped up.

There are many ways to measure the success of Malaysia’s higher education system. Above, I’ve highlighted a few – by way of national ranking, subject ranking and enhancing publications.

These certainly aren’t the be all and end all. Perception, of employers, parents and society, as well as the reality of our graduates’ performance in industry is vital too.

But let’s not stray away from the message here. Our education system is improving. And as I’ve said in the past, we are soaring upwards.

We have many reasons to be proud of what we’ve achieved, but we are aware there’s still effort to be made. With the recently launched Higher Education Blueprint (2015-2025) and continued support of all stakeholders, we can continue to soar. Dato Seri Idris Jusoh Home News Education June 7 2015

New system for teacher transfers

THE Education Ministry has come up with a new system that gives teachers a better picture on the prospects of their transfer requests.

It promises to ease the concerns of many whose postings have taken them away from their families.

Second Education Minister Datuk Seri Idris Jusoh said under the new “traffic light system,” teachers who had applied for transfers home will be able to see “the real situation” on their requests.

“Green marks options and schools which have vacancies and teachers can apply for them.

“If the appeals meet the vacancies, they will be given a green light,” he explained.

Idris said the ministry however, was not able to approve every teacher transfer request.

“We cannot place teachers in the state they ask for if their options are not available,” he said after presenting Excellent Service Awards to teachers, school staff and Federal Territory Kuala Lumpur State Education Department officials last Tuesday.

Bernama reported earlier that states with the highest transfer requests are Kelantan, Kedah and Terengganu.

Kelantan topped the list with over 4,000 appeals from teachers who want to move to primary or secondary schools within the state.

Idris said the ministry was still looking for the best way to solve the problem.

“I was very moved when I heard stories of husbands not being able to be with their wives, and children with their parents,” he said, referring to comments on his recent Facebook post.

National Union of the Teaching Profession secretary-general Lok Yim Pheng said the system was a corrective measure for the teacher transfer problem, which has been going on for years.

“We need to give it some time. Don’t expect it to be 100% perfect yet,” she said when contacted.

Lok also stressed that priority should be given to more senior teachers.

Cases involving separated spouses or family members with critical illnesses should also be given special consideration, she said.

“But, if a newer teacher has an option needed by the school, I don’t see why new teachers can’t get the school they want.

“A Bahasa Malaysia option teacher can’t be teaching English, even though he or she wants to teach in that school. It won’t be fair to the students,” she said.

Lok was referring to allegations that new teachers were posted close to their hometowns while senior teachers were sidelined.

“Teachers can always come to us if their option is available and their transfer gets rejected.

“We will investigate the case and help them,” said Lok. Ann Marie Khor The STAR Home News Education June 7, 2015

Reaping returns the Malaysian way

A Johor native finds success in the hospitality sector after taking on a non-traditional route at a university in Finland.

RAISED by her grandmother in a small kampung, entrepreneur Evon Söder­lund (pic, above) is a proud example of Finland’s vocational system.

At age 19, the dancer left Johor Baru to explore what Europe had to offer.

Laughing at her naivety then, she shares how she had expected to be hired even without a solid education and zero knowledge of foreign languages.

Her life changed after she got married and went on to study hos­pi­tal­ity manage­ment at Haaga-Helia University of Applied Sciences in Helsinki.

“I struggled. When I moved to Finland, I begged for a job at the Malaysian Em­bassy. I just sobbed because I was so desperate for an opportunity and the ambassador at the time gave me one. I will never forget his kindness.”

After two years, she left her secretarial job to study.

Most Asians she met were either cleaners or servers and she was adamant to do better. She wanted to be an entrepreneur.

“My husband Jussi and I wondered why there were no fun event venues like our karaoke outlets in Finland.

“It was a business opportunity I wanted to pursue so that’s how I ended up at Haaga-Helia. I got a second chance at making something of myself because education here is free,” she says.

After her graduation in 2012, Huone, an award-winning events ho­tel offering space, food and entertainment facilities, was born.

She credits her stubborn streak for the many accolades received.

“I am very stubborn – that’s my secret. You must have a clear vision of what you want and live in tomorrow, not today.

“After I graduated, I wanted to start my business but the financial crisis hit and no bank wanted to loan me money.

“Jussi and I sold our home and emptied our bank accounts. And here we are now.”

Calling her study experience a “good cultural shock”, she advises Malaysians not to be cliquish if they want to study abroad as it’s important to reach out and make friends.

“There’s no hierarchy. Educators are very approachable but it was weird calling them by name, which is the local culture.

“Students are not competitive with each other here. It’s about achieving success as a team,” she shares.

In 1985, Finnish education was ranked alongside Malaysia and Peru, Haaga-Helia managing director Lars Eltvik says.

He feels that Finland’s advancement was because of a flexible education system (see graphic).

He says Haaga-Helia, present in some 20 countries including China, Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam, was not keen on “just doing consultancy work and writing reports” because the transfer of knowledge and joint development of the education system requires at least five years.

Eltvik says there are no quick fixes but the right foundation could speed up a country’s progress.

Flexibility advances individuals, he says, adding that to promote vocational education, quality teacher training and a strong primary and secondary education system must complement a flexible regulatory framework.

Eltvik says in Finland, vocational and academic education are equally valued by parents and society.

Evon Söder­lund

And, students can easily change their career paths because education is free and flexible.

Commenting on the Malaysian scenario where vocational education is often dismissed as a second-class field because of its non-academic nature and the belief that the vocational track is only for those who are financially deprived, he says the situation was similar to Latin America.

In Chile, however, the perception is changing. When parents see their vocationally-trained kids do well, they’ll encourage the other kids to pursue the same career path. Change must happen at the family level, Eltvik adds.

“A national campaign to have hairstylists and other vocational professionals as telenovela heroes has helped to increase the ‘cool factor’ of vocational education in Latin America,” he says, adding that Finland’s vocational teachers must have an academic degree, at least three years’ work experience and pedagogical qualification.

“Pedagogy studies are mandatory because it lets the teachers detect and facilitate the individual learning styles of each student. Teaching is a craft,” he says, believing that the connect between home and school is a crucial element to successful learning.

About 1,000 of Haaga-Helia’s 10,000 students are foreigners.

Eltvik says the university is focused on exporting education, specifically in the area of teacher training and vocational studies.

There is a disconnect with what universities are offering and what the industry needs, he observes.

The goal is to improve teachers and bridge the gap between educational institutions and the workplace, he says.

“We don’t export the Finnish education system as is – we translate and adapt it to suit the local scenario of countries we are working with.”

Haaga-Helia (export of Finnish higher education) programme manager Pasi Halmari says the Malaysia Education Blueprint 2015-2025 is good.

The higher education blueprint, aimed at nurturing well-rounded individuals capable of taking up jobs in any high-income economy, must however be properly implemented, he says. Teacher training is key, he adds.

“We must invest in people to succeed.”

The Ministry of Education and Culture is very open to international collaborations on all levels especially in the fields of higher education, research and vocational teacher training, its permanent secretary Anita Lehikoinen says.

As an ageing nation, Finland wants to attract foreign talents, she says.

Extra Government funding is given to universities that attract foreigners, she says, adding that a new culture of start-up companies driven by fresh graduates is emerging. Education for foreigners is free but students must pay for their own living expenses in Finland.

“Whether we should continue to provide free education for those outside the European Union is something that will probably be a point of debate in the near future,” she adds.

The ministry’s Centre for International Mobility (CIMO) will launch a new international mobility and co-operation programme next year after its North-South-South and Higher Education Institutions Institutional Cooperation Instrument programmes end this year. For details, log on to www.cimo.fi/english. This is the second and final segment on Education in Finland.