Friday, June 25, 2004

An Alternative Higher Education Policy

Oleh Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad

Education is a vital sector in today’s world that places increasing importance towards a knowledge-based economy. Furthermore with the advent of globalisation and the burgeoning economic prowess of our neighbours, India and China, education will allow a redeployment of resources towards higher-end sectors which should be our focus.

Traditionally, Malaysia has an admirable and highly trained workforce. In the region, our English-speaking ability was among the best, along with Singapore, and the University of Malaya epitomised our standing in the region. Malaysia has consistently sent a large number of students abroad and in the 1970s embarked on a massive development of new varsities. In the 1990s, we embarked on a liberalisation in the education sector, allowing for the mushrooming of private colleges and striving to make Malaysia a regional education sector.

However we begin to see more and more cracks appearing in our educational system. The recent debacle over the 128 students into medical faculty was an unfortunate incident, but not out of the ordinary. Regular outcries of regarding varsity intakes have become a feature of news year in year out, along with worrying statistics of the unemployment of local graduates.

The source of this problem is our antiquated varsity admissions system. Public universities are now hardly seen in high regard by Malaysians in general, but more glaringly, by our own political elite. A number of factors abound, but one of the most significant is the lack of true meritocracy.

Previously there were specific quotas for Malays and Non-Malays in our public universities. For quite sometime, this has been the bane of Chinese and Indian educationists. However, one has to concede that it did allow for huge social mobility to take place among the Malays, or rather, the Bumiputeras. What complicated matters are that many Malays begin to see it as and end, rather than as a means to an end.

Therefore when the party of Malay nationalism, UMNO, announced “meritocracy” would be implemented in Malaysian public varsities, it raised more than a few eyebrows. True enough, it was as what many critics feared – cosmetic, rather than true meritocracy. Malays and other Bumiputeras were still favoured albeit not by direct quotas, but through matriculation programs which were exclusively reserved for the Malays; whereas the non-Malays were restricted through the notoriously difficult form six. With a totally different approach – a more American approach in the matriculation, and a more traditional English form six system – as well as standards of curriculum and examination, the “meritocratic” system still favoured the Malays.

Where lies the way forward? We need a varsity-intake system that focuses on merit, but takes into account of socioeconomic conditions but that ignores race. I have raised this suggestion again and again. For example, we can have 70% reserved for those who excel in SPM or other equivalent qualifications, and the remaining 30% for those who qualify on the socioeconomic strand. As socioeconomic inequalities decrease, affirmative action should be more restricted. This system, will make our education system much more competitive while those who really deserve preferential treatment will receive them. Since the Malays / Bumiputeras make the majority of those who are in the bottom rung of the socioeconomic ladder, they will still benefit. Yet it does not discriminate between race, and will also benefit those who deserve affirmative action from other races.

When such a system is implemented, it will lessen the volume of complaints that emerge every time varsity intake takes place. A letter writer to Malaysiakini commented how even those who score straight As should not complain if they fail to gain places in the medical schools as there are highly limited places. Should we have a more transparent and less discriminatory varsity intake system, we can expect fewer complaints.

Of course, implementing a mix between meritocracy and socioeconomic affirmative action will not be a magic pill that provides instant cure for all the ills in our education system. There need to be a reassessment of curricula, expansion of academic freedom, teaching methods, focus on research and development and trying to balance between the demands of the economy and other academic and cultural imperatives, that will effectively reform our education system. Nevertheless, by changing the admissions system, we can at least give Malaysians an opportunity to put their faith again in our public varsities.

Each country should be proud of their higher education system. In Malaysia, the situation is unfortunately on the contrary. We are proud of being a higher education hub of the region, but that is achieved rather on the franchising of foreign degree programs rather than from our own higher curricula and varsities. We only have to look south of the causeway, at the National University of Singapore, the precursor to our own University of Malaya, at how it has not only maintained its standing, but enhanced it and progressed as time demanded it to – whereas we slide into perpetual mediocrity.

Let’s restore some pride back into our public tertiary institutions.

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