Friday, April 04, 2008

Our education system: Time for radical change

(The writer was in UAE for two years before leaving for greener pasture in Qatar. This is his piece as per published in Malaysiakini)

Our education system: Time for radical change
Mohamed Zain Apr 3, 08 1:31pm

It is quite obvious now that Malaysia is heading towards a two-party system. This is certainly good for the country. There will more checks and balances. The winning and ruling party cannot do things according to their whims and fancies without worrying about the possibility of losing the next election.
Thus, as the country is heading towards a political maturity some drastic changes in our education systems are called for and perhaps are becoming inevitable. It does not matter which of the two eventual political parties rules the country. But the changes that I would like to suggest here are for the benefit of the country.
It is imperative that in this era of globalization and the fact that we want to make Malaysia more competitive as well as to make it a regional educational hub for attracting foreign students, we need to improve the quality of our education so that it is comparable if not better than the best in Southeast Asia.
Let me start first with our school systems. The outputs of the schools are the inputs of the universities. Thus, if we want to produce good products the raw materials must be of good quality as well. Every citizen of the country must have access to education. Hence, it must be made mandatory that every child attends school at least up to the lower secondary level. Thus, the school education in this country must be free for all. And it must be fee all the way up to the high school level.
Next, we need to have good and qualified teachers for our schools. Thus, most if not all the teachers, must have a bachelor’s degree in education. Those without a degree majoring in education need to also have a teaching credential such as the one-year diploma in education offered by some of the local universities.
Lately, we have heard a lot about the need for the country to have a meritocracy system. This can only happen if we have a level playing field for all our school children. Thus, if we are really serious about implementing such a system facilities of the rural schools must be comparable to those of the urban ones.

All schools – whether urban or rural-based - need to have, among others, good Internet access, instructional aides, library, sport, and other facilities.While there is a need for us to have a common national language so that all our citizens can communicate with each other in our multi-ethnic country, it makes a lot of sense that our children are multi-lingual as well. The current situations that most Malays can speak Bahasa Malaysia and perhaps English, but most on-Malays can speak at least two and perhaps three or more languages.

Hence, this imbalance needs to be addressed. Malay students should be encouraged to learn Chinese or another local language as well. Once our students have the choice to choose their additional language (especially their mother-tongue) in addition to the national language in the national schools, then the need to have he separate Chinese and Tamil schools (vernacular schools) in the country will disappear.

The presence of these vernacular schools in the country goes against he spirit of national integration. Of course, the offering of other languages for our students must be based on demand and it must be cost effective. More third language teachers must also be trained.

Bringing back EnglishLater, I will talk about the need to reintroduce English as the medium of instructions in universities. Thus, to prepare for this, the teaching of the English Language in schools need to be upgraded so that when the students enter universities, they will not be handicapped. Hence, more English language teachers need to be trained in the country.
Last, but certainly not the least, we need to introduce a semester system in all ur schools. This system needs to be standardized and synchronized with those of the developed world. In other words, our schools should have fall, spring and summer semesters where most students will go to school during the fall and spring semesters and they will take a vacation during the summer semester.

During the summer the older children, particularly those in cities and towns can start learning to earn money by taking up part-time or short-term employments in such places as fast-food restaurants or shops in the shopping malls. Of course, the system needs to be synchronized with the university system as well, so that on graduation, they will not be idle too long while waiting to enter universities.I will now talk about the required reforms for our universities.
Universities are excellent places for our country to train its citizens and future leaders in its efforts to fulfill the needs for skilled and knowledgeable human resources. University students are excellent change agents for the country. Thus, first and foremost we need to amend the Universities and Colleges ct of 1971 (UCA). The clauses that prohibit or restrict the independence of cademics and students must be removed.
There is also an urgent need for us to abolish the mandatory requirement for the employees to sign the ridiculous and silly “Akujanji”. University employees, particularly the academics, should not be made to obey the instructions of the overnment or political masters’ blindly. Instead, intellectual discourse should be encouraged because it can be a good source of creativity and innovation for the country.
Top and senior management are crucial to the success of any organizations. In the past, the appointments of university vice-chancellor and his/her deputies re made or at least required the approval of the minister.

This practice has not to stop because most appointments were based on the candidates’ political affiliations or inclinations rather on merits. Appointments of someone to these posts should be made based on the suitability and the capabilities of the candidates for the jobs. They should be made by a search committee instead.

Revise salaries

In a big company or a corporation the appointment of the chief executive officer is made by the board of directors. Therefore, the appointment of the vice-chancellor or the president of a university should be made by the board of regents or a similar body. Ofcourse, some of the members of the committee can be appointed by the minister.

Similarly, the appointment of deans can also be made via a search committee. Vacant positions for deans or even departmental chairs could also be advertised and relevant media such as newspapers or websites like the Chronicle of Higher Education to invite more capable candidates.
The salaries of academics should be revised. The current salaries for academics, articularly the starting salary for an assistant professor (someone with a PhD) s pathetically low and very unattractive and need to be increased to a level that is comparable to those in Singapore.
The salary scales of academics should also be different from those of other government servants. After all, the nature of their jobs and the required cademic qualifications are different. The current practice where the salaries or academics are decided by the Public Service Department officers always favour the civil servants, particularly the so-called PTD (administrative and diplomatic services) officers and not the academics.
Attractive salaries will not only attract the best candidates but it will also attract more top graduates to be interested in becoming academics by opting to become tutors after their first degree and to pursue their graduate degree leading to a PhD in their field. Otherwise, as the saying goes, “if you pay peanuts you get monkeys.”
Government should also set aside funds to enable our best graduates from universities who are interested in becoming tutors to get enough stipends and scholarships to carry out their graduate research at the research universities in the country. This will help the country save money by not having to send them to foreign universities.

Nevertheless, top graduates should also be sent to study abroad but they should only be limited to those who manage to secure laces in the top universities of the world or in those areas of expertise that are lacking in the country.
If we look at the list of academics in all our universities, we cannot help but otice that a substantial percentage if not the majority of them are holders of only a master’s degree instead of a PhD. This deficiency needs to be urgently ddressed. Once the salary scheme is revised appropriately, this problem can be overcome gradually as more top students will be interested in pursuing research which culminates in a PhD degree.
We should be aware that before anyone, especially a prospective foreign student, begins to apply for a place in a university, s/he will first visit the niversity’s website and among the first information they will seek is the list of academic staff of the prospective department where s/he plans to study.

Thus, well qualified teaching staff will attract more students. Hence, this should bode well towards making Malaysia an education hub for the region by attracting more foreign students from all over to enroll in our universities, particularly the private ones.The academic ranking of positions in universities should also be standardized across all the universities in the country. It should be based on academic qualifications and experiences in teaching, research, and community work.

A person with a master’s degree should only be given a position of a lecturer. Those with a PhD should start as an assistant professor. As s/he gains more experience and produces more outputs in those three areas of work s/he can gradually climb the academic ladder to associate professor and eventually to the rank of a full professor.
The English language is now regarded as the international language. Just look at he availability of television networks across the world which broadcast free rograms in English via the satellites in their efforts to reach international udiences.

The major and common ones from among the countries whose native language is not English includes Al-Jazeera International (Qatar), DW TV Germany), Euronews (European Union), France 24, Russia Today, CCTV9 (China), and Arirang TV (Korea).

Thus, there is no doubt that our citizens now need to be proficient in English. And the best way to do just that is to revert the teaching of our students in our universities, especially in important fields of specializations such as business, economics, sciences, and engineering to English. After all, most of the text books in these fields are in English.
Here, I am assuming that our school children who graduated from high schools are lready proficient in our national language, in addition to one or two more of ther languages. We cannot compromise on this for the sake on peace and harmony n our country.
Malaysia needs to improve its competitiveness level in order to face the challenge of globalization and to remain relevant in this world. In this globalize world our citizens need to participate meaningfully in whatever international activities, be it business, economic, social, political, legal, or governmental. Thus, they must be proficient in English. Period.Many universities in the Middle East and the Gulf Cooperation Council (Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman, and Bahrain) countries have already switched heir medium of instructions, especially for programs in business, economics, sciences, and engineering, from Arabic to English. It is not too late for us to do the same.

Exchange of academics
The current practice in the country of allowing private universities to offer academic programs in English while not allowing the government ones to do so is ot only discriminatory but it is also disadvantageous to those who graduate rom the government universities since they will be less conversant in English and thus making them more difficult to find jobs in the industry where English is very much in use.

These graduates will depend more on the government for jobs. The current situation where there are many unemployed undergraduates is probably the result of this practice.
Last, but again certainly not the least, there is a need to for the country to introduce the semester system into our universities. Just as I proposed for our school system above, our universities need to adopt a semester system as practiced by the universities in other countries.
Most universities in other, particularly developed countries have a tri-semester system comprising Fall September-January), Spring (February-June), and Summer (June-August).By having a standardized and synchronized system with other countries it will facilitate exchange of academics between our universities with their foreign counterparts. It will also enable foreign students to enter our universities ithout having to wait too long after they graduated from their high schools. This will again help promote making Malaysia as the education hub.
During the summer holiday, summer classes can be offered to those students who want to graduate faster and the academics who are willing to teach classes during that time can earn extra income. Those students who do not take summer classes can take part-time or short-term employments in the town and cities, just like the case for older school students mentioned above, giving them anopportunity to earn and save some money before returning to their school.
Those are some suggestions which I would like to propose to the government in order make Malaysia a better and a more competitive country.

DR MOHAMED ZAIN, PhD is Professor of Technology and Strategic Management in the College of Business and Economics of Qatar University, Doha. He can be reached at or


Zawi said...

I have said it before and I will say it again, English should be the medium of learning while Bahasa malaysia is the National Language.
We were doing well before until a silly patriotic politician decided to change the medium o instruction to Bahasa Melayu and thus setting us back some 50 years.

Yummy said...

It is increasing common for kids to learn more than 1 languages while at a tender age as many researchs have shown that the young ones can absorb better. Therefore all primary students should study Bahasa Malaysia, English Language plus either Manadrin or Tamil or Spanish/Japanese/French. A third should be made compulsory!

wanrosaini said...

Dr Mohamed Zain has attempted to provide a broad perspective of some desirable changes he would like to see implemented. The tectonic shift, in my opinion, will not happen if critical policies are not changed. Let's us look beyond the political rhetorics of repealing the UCCA 1971.
As a start, why are we sending our children to year 1 on the year they turn seven years old. Having continued my studies after a so-called accelerated programme, I entered a pre-university college to sit for a prerequisite university entrance examination at a grand age of 19!( 17 sat for SPM, result at 18 and six months crash course, ready to leave for NZ the following year at 19) I was called the grandfather of the class because my schoolmates were mostly 16 years old with the exception of one student who was 15 and she garduated from that college as a DUX, best student!
The UK has introduced a year 1 entry upon reaching 4th birthday. Let's do something about the entry age and correct the misconception about still being qualified to be a youth at 40!!
Secondly, the curriculum must be drastically changed! The pedagogy must be based on the principle of learning to think and not thinking to learn. The assesment method based on examination must also be reviewed extensively to combine the ability to think and perform and passing the exams.
The facilities at school must include individual shelves for all students. There is no need to spend billions of RM on lego toys or fanciful white elephant laboratories or nice looking buildings built to suit the budgets of greedy crony contractors.
Yes, by all means raise the salaries, but for heaven's sake. please get suitably qualified teachers and teachers assistants, the two being in the classroom at all times and the students go to them rather then teachers going to the students classroom.
The school model, both in terms of physical layout and pedagogy including instructional method, which I am impressed most is that of the Alice Smith school.
At the tertiary level, both the Commonwealth and the US standards can be combined for greater room of creativity, innovation, technology and intellectual growth.
Most of all, are we still at talking stage and talk some more for the next 50 years or are we ready to do something about this sad state of affairs which I personally think are irreversible??

rascal r us said...

With Chinese and Tamil languages learnt at school where does religious education be slotted in? This is too much. Let the kids roam free so that they can trap butterfly at the longkang. We din't turn out too badly did we???

ummuhanissa said...

Everything u said about weaknesses in our education system is true.

Everyone knows that. Everything u said about what should be changed in our school is true.

The bottom line is this : What do parents want for their children in school? Good grades! No matter what the price. We teachers are sometimes forced to compromise our teaching philosophy, to grant the parents' wish. Math teachers speak English one moment, translating to BM the next moment..or else the students will complain they can't understand the their parents...and parents will call up the school authority saying the teacher is no good...Teach creative thinking? Forget it. Drilling/rote learning is more effective if good grade is the aim.

Teachers who can 'perform' is amply rewarded. 'Guru Cemerlang' are made up of those who had been involved in marking the papers in public exams..thus they know the 'marking scheme'ie 'the right answer'. Students are taught to learn all these right answers by heart...and bingo! Excellent grades! School authorities congratulate the teachers, recommend them for promotion to 'master teacher'...

When these rote learners can't fit in today's job market, well, it's someone else's fault, and the blame game starts...