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Low point for high achievers

It is a perennial problem each year as students with high scores compete for limited places and choice courses at public universities.

WHEN student Choong Yong Sheng put in his application to study medicine in March, he did not expect to be rejected.

With a cumulative grade point average (CGPA) of 4.0 in last year’s Sijil Tinggi Persekolahan Malaysia (STPM), the 20-year-old from Penang was confident of securing a spot in one of the local universities (IPTAs).

“In the application form, I stated that I would not accept any other course because I had only one goal — to study medicine.

“I studied very hard ... but it turned out to be a disappointment because my hard work did not really pay off,” said Yong Sheng.

Now stuck in a limbo with no offers at all, Yong Sheng added that he was told that the Students Admission Divison (UPU) would not entertain appeals for competitive courses such as medicine.

“So if I were to appeal, I have to appeal for other courses which are not of my interest,” he said.

“The only option available is to study at a private college or university, but most private universities have already begun their programmes,” he said.

The Friday before last, MCA Education Bureau chairman Datuk Dr Wee Ka Siong stressed that top scorers should be given the courses of their choice, and not “leftover courses”.

“Students who have applied for medicine are offered veterinary science, it must be understood that treating human beings and treating animals are two different things,” he told reporters in jest.

In a separate press conference on the same day, MIC’s Higher Education Bureau chairman Mahaganapathy Dass also made the case for top scorers who failed to receive any university offers.

“These are among our brightest students — are you telling us that they are not good enough for any university despite their results?” he asked.

In response to the hue and cry over the issue, StarEducatesought to shed more light over the student selection process for IPTAs and sent a list of questions to the Education Ministry on Monday evening.

Among the questions asked were: the total number of applicants with a CGPA of 4.0 right up to 3.6; whether STPM students were at a disadvantage compared to their matriculation counterparts due to the way marks were counted; the total number of CGPA 4.0 students who did not receive their courses of choice or any offers at all; as well as the racial breakdown of these statistics.

We also sent to the ministry a supplementary list of questions later in the week, namely on whether the UPU sends to universities the full list of applicants who meet the minimum academic qualifications of courses applied for, and if the UPU has the final say on which applicants are successful.

While the ministry agreed to reply, we have yet to receive any answers as of press time. We hope to publish the answers in next week’s pullout.

According to an earlier press statement, a total of 68,702 students with STPM, matriculation or foundation studies applied for spots at public universities this year — a 7.6% increase compared to applications made last year.

Of this total, only 41,573 applicants were offered places.

During the IPTA application process, students were allowed to select a maximum of eight courses, including up to four courses at four research universities — Universiti Malaya (UM), Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM), Universiti Putra Malaysia and Universiti Teknologi Malaysia.

Students were also required to state their top three preferred fields of study and whether they would accept courses that were not in their options.

Being an apex university, Universiti Sains Malaysia has its own application process that is separate from the UPU system and students may apply up to eight courses.

The Education Ministry has clearly stated earlier that students may only appeal for a place in university if they did not receive any offers at all.

This means that students cannot appeal for a change in course or university through the UPU system if they had already received an offer.

Since 2002, students’ applications are processed by merit, with a 90% weightage for their CGPA and 10% for extra-curricular activities.

Mismatched choices

Rejected by all the medical programmes she applied for, Leela* said what irked her most is the single offer she was given – animal husbandry.

“The three preferred fields of study I listed were pure sciences, dentistry, and pharmacy.

“With my CGPA of 4.0 (in matriculation studies), I thought that I might be offered a course in biology.

“When I went to the UPU counter in Putrajaya to inquire about why I was given this programme, the officer there told me that animal husbandry was a pure science discipline,” she said.

Meanwhile, Chai Yee Lin was offered veterinary science at UPM instead of medicine.

“Yes, I did list veterinary science as one of the secondary courses in the admission form, but I was confident that with my good results, I could get medicine or dentistry,” said Yee Lin who scored CGPA 4.0 for her STPM examination last year.

Although she was actively involved in co-curricular activities during her matriculation studies, student Y. V. Lim discovered to her dismay that even the 9% score she received from her co-curricular performance on top of her CGPA of 4.0 was not enough for a place in dentistry.

“As far as I know, CGPA 4.0 should be the cut-off point for students to enter medical courses. I want to know why students with lesser grades managed to gain entry,” said the student who was offered optometry at UKM.

She initially thought that she had high chances of getting a place for dentistry in USM after being called for an interview by the university.

“I believe that I had performed well during the interview.

“When asked why I had applied for dentistry, I explained that I had always wanted to be a dentist and that it was a suitable job for me because I loved interacting with people,” said Lim.

The UPU said on its Facebook page that over 2,500 applicants with a CGPA of 4.0 had applied for courses.

Of this figure, a substantial number had applied for competitive courses such as medicine, dentistry and pharmacy.

Based on the admission results released last week, the places allocated for the three courses in all IPTAs were 699, 119 and 260 respectively.

More than just scores

Earlier in the week, USM Medical Faculty dean Prof Ahmad Sukari Halim said CGPA 4.0 was just an entry ticket to the admission interview for the medical courses.

He added that some students, despite their perfect scores, may not have been admitted to the university because they failed their interviews.

Meanwhile, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) also had stiff competition for the 150 spots in its medical undergraduate programme.

UKM deputy vice-chancellor (Academic and International Affairs) Prof Datuk Dr Noor Azlan Ghazali said that the university had additional processes that applicants have to go through.

“The academic requirement of a good CGPA is just one of the conditions – having a CGPA of 4.0 only tells part of the story.

“We require students to first sit for an aptitude examination to give us a better picture of who they are and where their talents lie.

“Candidates also attend an interview session to further strengthen their case for admission.

“I won’t say that this process is entirely perfect, but it increases the chances of us getting the best candidates possible,” he says.

Aside from medical courses, several other UKM programmes also required students to undergo an interview process. Some faculties even had subject specific requirements that go beyond just achieving a good overall CGPA.

As in previous years, the Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery (MBBS) is among the most sought after programmes in Universiti Malaya (UM) for this intake.

UM deputy vice-chancellor (Academic and International) Prof Dr Mohd Hamdi Abd Shukor said all students seeking admission to any of the university’s courses had to pass an interview process.

He added those applying for the MBBS programme were further required to sit for a qualifying test.

Elaborating on the importance of the interviews, Prof Mohd Hamdi said that the university looked for applicants who were able to communicate effectively in both Bahasa Malaysia and English. Candidates were also assessed in thinking and problem-solving skills, communication and interpersonal skills, Prof Mohd Hamdi said.

He added that while some programmes do not require a CGPA of 4.0, attention will be given to students’ performance in particular subjects as determined by the respective course’s demands.

While declining to be interviewed for this article, a retired medical professor noted: “Some students think that a string of As and saying ‘I wanted to be a doctor since I was five-years-old’ is enough to be a good doctor... my experience with medical students indicates otherwise.”

Allegations

The complaints of top scorers that were brought to public attention by political parties had indirectly lent a racial undertone to the debate.

Going by the comments left by unhappy applicants on UPU’s Facebook page however, it appeared that top scorers from all races and qualifications seemed to be left without any university offers.

A number of applicants, particularly those with diploma level qualifications, lamented their failure to gain entry into any university for the second or third year in a row.

While the full breakdown of applicants based on qualifications is not known, a screenshot uploaded by the UPU on Facebook has indicated that as of a week before the application deadline closed, almost 27,622 diploma-holders had also applied for university places.

Some took to the Facebook page to complain that the online system had switched their information with other applicants because they had used either the same computer or the same Internet Service Provider (ISP) address as that of their friends.

The somewhat opaque nature of the selection process, as well as the despondency felt by the students themselves, led commenters to wildly speculate as to why they did not gain admission to their university of choice.

A common allegation was that “well-connected” applicants had “pulled strings” to secure a place in certain universities.

The UPU gamely responded to this on its Facebook account by saying that this was baseless and that it was brought up every year.

“We receive letters of recommendation from ‘important people’ every year, but we only process applicants’ information following the existing procedure,” said the post.

While some were appeased by the answers given, many others continued to voice their dissatisfaction.

One especially sarcastic commenter took to reposting a link over several comment threads. The link led to a photograph of a man holding a sign, reading: The system isn’t broken, it was built this way.



PRIYA KULASAGARAN AND KANG SOON CHEN EDUCATE@THESTAR.COM.MY The STAR Online Education 21/07/2013
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