I contributed this piece in 2013 to the now defunct theantdaily.com.
This piece was written by one of us commenting on the spending of RM270 millions to mentor 7,500 English teachers.
Last updated on 28/10/2013 – 15:51
Posted on 27/10/2013 – 20:00
Chow Yong Neng
COMMENT: The controversy surrounding the Education Ministry’s RM270 million spending on 360 expatriate “native speakers” as mentors for 7,500 Malaysian teachers over three years (from 2011 to 2013) has created a lot of debates. I think we need to break down the figures for a better understanding of the issue.
Firstly, let us break down the RM270 million. To train 7,500 teachers with a budget of RM270 million, each teacher was allocated RM36,000 over three years. In other words, the project allocates RM12,000 per participant per year. This is rather a high figure for mentoring, since most college-level full-time course fees range from about RM8,000 to RM18,000 at private colleges. Full- day corporate training programmes (for eight hours per session) cost around RM1,000 per person. Assuming that training or mentoring was done monthly for the entire 36-month duration, then the training fees would have been around RM1,000 per person per month. This is about twice the rate charged by typical corporate training programmes. Expensive, true, but not really excessive as some high-level executive programmes are priced much higher for half-day programmes.
Thus if we view this RM270 million project as a high-end executive programme, the cost is within that range to train 7,500 teachers. But one should ask this question: were these teachers considered as having the calibre of senior executives? Often for the kind of price, executive training programmes would have been conducted at hotels. Were hotels used as the venue for this teacher mentoring programme? In other words, what kind of training facilities were given to the teachers for these mentoring sessions?
Now we look at the supply side: 360 “native speakers” from overseas to act as mentors. If the entire budget was put to the cost of salaries, then each mentor would cost RM750,000 or RM250,000 per year. However, I think this figure should include not just their salaries, but also the curriculum, venues and cost of travelling and so on. The figure of RM20,000 per month is a salary commanded by people serving as deputy vice-chancellors at private universities. Thus it would be of interest to know the exact “pedigree” of these expatriate mentors.
The salaries for UK lecturers in the higher education sector currently range from £33,000 to £43,000 per year (about RM168,630 to RM219,730). Hence, if we assume that all the mentors were senior academics, then the figure of RM250,000 per person per year was not that far off. However, one should ask the question: why do we need so many mentors, especially if they are giving only one half-day session of mentoring per month? The mentor:mentee ratio was 1:21 (7,500 mentees to 360 mentors). For private colleges and universities, the prescribed lecturer:student ratio for non-technical full-time courses in Malaysia is 1:25. The corporate training sector also has a practice of trainer:trainee ratio of 1:25.
Thus if these expatriate mentors were actually working full-time, giving just one mentoring session a day, five days a week, to cover 7,500 participants (and at a mentor:mentee ration of 1:21), there would be only a need for 72 expatriate mentors. Thus about 20% of the 360 expatriate mentors would have been sufficient for the project.
Let’s be generous, to cover the entire nation especially the rural regions of Sabah and Sarawak, we could add in another 10% of the number of full-time expatriate mentors, and the total number required for the project would still be 110. Thus there is credence to Bukit Bendera MP Zairil Khir Johari’s conclusion that these expatriate mentors were in fact on three-year paid holidays. Someone was really having a good time and profiting at Malaysian taxpayers’ expense.
We next look at the question: what if the RM270 million project was given to Malaysian institutions of higher learning to manage, would it be cheaper? There are many colleges and universities in the country that could do this job well. Government-linked investment company, Ekuinas (Ekuiti Nasional Bhd), actually owns many colleges. It bought over 90% of Cosmopoint Group for RM246 million in April 2012. Cosmopoint can accommodate 11,000 students and has 13 centres nationwide. One wonders why the project was not given to GLC-owned colleges like Cosmopoint or 11 state-funded skills development centres of the Federation of Malaysian Skills Development Centre or even specialist English teaching private college groups such as ELS Language Centres and Erican Education Group to handle. After all, these specialist English language centres have years of experience not only in teaching but in hiring and maximising the talent of “native speakers”. They also have the facilities in multiple locations to enhance the learning of the participants.
Even if we still hire the 110 expatriate mentors to drive the programme at a cost of RM82.5 million for the three years of the project (at RM250,000 per person per year), there would still be a lot of the budget left to ensure that the mentoring skills were picked up by Malaysian institutions (assuming that our lot did not have what it takes in the first place, which I would dispute). At most, I think the operation of the project would have cost another RM82.5 million, thus around RM165 million would have been sufficient to train 7,500 teachers over three years. Thus RM100 million or more could have been saved.
One last point: had the Education Ministry ever thought of making use of the experience, expertise and teaching skills of those retired English teachers in their 60s and 70s? A great many of us in our 40s and 50s were taught by these teachers and many of us had been well taught. This group of retirees must have had what it took to teach their students well. Many would have no problem serving as mentors, one session or two a week to train the current generation of English teachers. I dare say the cost would have been much lower too. It is about time that the ministry learned how to evaluate and value the large talent pool that it has at its disposal.
My personal experience, having been taught by “native speakers” while studying in the UK, is that unless these “native speakers” also have learned a second language at a high level, they often do not have the empathy for people learning English as a foreign language. They are not the most suitable people to teach English to “non-native learners”! I wonder how many of those 360 “native speakers” had one or more language credentials besides English.
Dr Chow Yong Neng has served the education and training industry for over 17 years in diverse capacities.