Dec 25, 2013

Much ado over rankings

The nation’s low rankings in a world educational assessment has caused an outcry, yet our schools have nurtured many young Malaysians who have at the global level, excelled academically. 
I REFER to recent comments made on the poor performance of Malaysian students in the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa).
Many seem to agree with the declining standards of the Malaysian education system.
If the “leaning indicator of Pisa” is to be accepted as the true picture, Malaysian education seems to be heading towards a calamity.
There was also talk that since Malaysians were not up to the mark, there were none who earned a spot in Harvard University in the United States.
Is failure to gain entry into Harvard the measurement of failure of education in a country? However, let us give credit where credit is due.
Malaysia has done relatively well in using her natural wealth to build her economy.
We managed to transform from a country that relied on the export of natural resources to one that exports manufactured goods.
The success of our transition can be credited to our heavy investment in education.
Education gives birth to human capital. The 25% allocation for education in the budget simply means the importance stressed by the Government on human capital.
Economists have come to believe that the central determinant of a nation’s economic growth is the skill and entrepreneurial courage of the population.
Just look at countries like Japan, Korea, Taiwan and Singa-pore. They are successful for the simple reason that they have put so much emphasis on the quality of their schools.
Comments and actions taken by the pessimists have been shocking. We see parents sending their children to international and private schools.
Well, it is their right. They have the means. Most of them flock to schools that use English as the medium of instruction.
So where does that put Malaysian schools as a start to creating human capital?
If one reads and scrutinises the criticisms on the Malaysian school education system, one will think it produces dullards of the worst kind.
The criticisms seem to show that our school system is a national disgrace.
The strings of As every year in the SPM have been branded as over inflated and not reflective of the actual academic standards of students.
If that is the case, then how is it that local students can achieve excellent results when they sit for pre-university exams conducted by foreign agencies, prior to pursuing studies at high-ranking institutions abroad?
How can this paradox be explained?
Their performance shows that the education system here is a lot better than what the critics say.
So, there must be something right in our school system that contributes significantly to human capital later on.
Simply put, the education system is not as bad as it is painted out to be.
We are a pessimistic lot. We are ever so willing to criticise despite the dynamism and sustained growth performance in many sectors shown over the years.
Compared to many countries, those in our cohort could envy us. Had our education been poor, we would not have been where we are today.
Some may say that the good performances by several sectors may be due to them being highly populated by officers who graduated from overseas’ universities.
If that is so, how did they gain entry into these universities?
The A-Levels, Edexcel, International Baccalaureate and other matriculation exams sat by governing bodies abroad are tough.
So how did our students manage to get the high grades needed in these exams to gain entry into many good universities in the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and the United States?
Nobody questions over inflated grades simply because they are conducted by foreign agencies.
Didn’t the formative years in the primary and the secondary schools here contribute to their good performance in those exams?
If so, it shows that our education has helped the students have what it takes to gain entry to reputable colleges and universities.
Many may argue that the excellent performance of the students at the pre-university exams may be because of the good colleges they attended.
My answer is simple, those entrusted to teach at these colleges were no wizards. They could not do wonders within one or two years.
The argument could then go on to the high standards that the foreign universities they attended had maintained.
While we accept that not many were able to make it to the Ivy League, our students and many from around the world have made it to other established varsities.
What does this all mean? If our students are bad, they would not have gained entry into these institutions.
Yes, there is a decline in the standard of English among our students and graduates.
There is much to be desired in communication and social skills. Their general knowledge is very embarrassing.
These are also the type of comments made by other countries on their present generation of graduates.
Malaysia is not alone in facing the drop in the standard of education. Yes, even the British and the Americans are complaining that their students’ command of grammar of their own mother tongue is shameful. Their general knowledge is abysmal.
All these should heighten concerns about the quality of the teaching of language and subjects like history and geography, as well as the syllabuses in those subjects in their schools as well as ours and in stressing a two-way communication in classes and improvement in soft skills.
Those skills that are lacking can also be acquired as the graduates move along in organisations they work in.
The problem with organisations is that they expect graduates to be perfect from the first day that they step in as employees.
Organisations expect all shortcomings of the graduates to be overcome at the universities they attend but do not realise that universities too have their limits.
The rest is up to the graduates and the organisations to turn potentials into real human capital.
We can never be complacent about our duty to education.
All must take responsibility to ensure that what is best is passed to the next generation. Every generation is a product of its environment.
My parting shot. On several occasions (not only based on Pisa), the Americans and Western Europeans have lagged behind East Asians in academic performance in elementary education.
Somehow, several Nobel Prize winners consistently every year are Americans and Europeans.
Where are the scientists and thinkers from East Asia? The test scores such as in Pisa may not display the shape of people to come.

Dr. Azmi Yaakob