The trouble with input-centric education system

The move in September 2014 by the Malaysian Ministry of Education to disallow private higher education institutions (PHEI) to use forecast results for the national high school examination, Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM) as a provisional entrance qualification for high school graduates to enter college caused a big row.

The key justification cited by the power that be was that there were abuses by PHEIs and students who did not score the required SPM grades (5 credits for Foundation Studies and 3 credits for diploma, along with specific requirements such as credit in Mathematics etc.) were found to be allowed to continue their studies by some institutions. What was never mentioned in fact was the statistics of such non compliance and what was done to these affected students and PHEIs.

In my column in the first edition of Focusweek (October 17, 2014) I highlighted the issue of Malaysia’s obsession with inputs in all education policies and neglected to evaluate learners’ output, that is, what they have learned and can applied in policy decisions.

Using input-centric policy to be the sole deciding factor on learners’ suitability to be admitted to college is just but one of the idiosyncrasies of Malaysia’s education system. In this system, there is no provision for learners who marginally missed a cutting point for admission into college to have the opportunity for a “second” chance in proving their academic ability. While I was working for Pearson plc as its Regional Quality Manager, I was exposed to the concept of the “Challenge Route” practised by UK’s university for its very popular MBA programme. Anyone, regardless of their academic credentials, if he or she wishes, is given the chance to study for the MBA. Those who did not have the prescribed academic credentials would be given the opportunity to pass three of the 9 required modules as a condition for acceptance. The “Challenge Route” measures the output of these learners. The idea is, if anyone could pass these three MBA modules demonstrate that they have acquired the core knowledge to undertake the remainder of their studies. I think this is a better way to foster a learning culture and pulling down barriers to academic attainment for many people.

Another area I covered in my column is the other grouses of the PHIEs: the insistence of the approving and accreditation authorities on strictly prescribing the input-centric policy of the teaching staff must have a qualification higher than the level of the class that they are teaching. This doctrine of education policy shows that those policy designers really could not tell the difference between academic qualifications, teaching abilities and the value of industrial experience. The policy, at one stroke disallows the great contributions of master craftsmen, artists and designers from imparting their great skills, experiences and insights to younger generations of learners.

Having a PhD does not make one a great teacher. In fact when I started my career in Malaysia’s academia after my postdoctoral stint in Singapore, I did not have any training to be a lecturer. The only teaching I had done was when I served as a demonstrator in laboratory classes and later tutor for undergraduate students. I think the same goes for many PhD holders. People like me, learned quickly on the job and observed how experienced lecturers teach and emulated them.

In 1979 when I was studying for my G.C.E “O” levels at South Shields Marine and Technical College, UK, we had a very good pure mathematics lecturer by the name of Morris Gowland. Gowland did not have a degree. He went to a teacher training school. Yet, compared to other pure mathematics lecturers with Master’s and PhDs, Gowland was far superior in his teaching skills. One look at a struggling student’s work on a pure mathematics question, Gowland would say, “There, you have miscalculated this step,”  As a results, most of us, 4 Malaysians and 5 Hong Kongers passed our mathematics with flying colours. On the other hand, when we working on our G.C. E. “A” levels, our head of Department Dr. Croucher who holds a PhD in nuclear physics was struggling to teach us nuclear physics in our Physics class. Thus measuring a person’s teaching ability by solely judging if his/her has a degree, Master’s or PhDs is like measuring the size of one’s waist when buying shoes. Thus solely measuring the input (in this case the kind of qualification a teaching staff has) to determine a person’s suitability to teach is a very inaccurate way to reach a crucial decision. It is much better to have an evaluation of a teaching stuff “live” teaching ability rather than his/her having an academic qualification a level higher than the class he/she is teaching as the only gauge. Sadly this is what happens in practice in Malaysian PHEIs.

So why should we be alarmed every year when world university ranking by various systems are published with Malaysian institutions either languishing at the rear end or being “no shows” on the list.

We are not tapping into the vast expertise of our own people. Who would be best to teach business subjects especially entrepreneurships (even as guest lecturers for a few sessions each) than the captains of the respective industries? Yet unless these high flyers have the requisite academic credentials (at Master’s level at least!), the PHEIs would not be allowed to engage them. What a waste of talents! What a loss to the younger learners in Malaysia!

As I  said in my column, unless we as Malaysians break free from our shackles of input-centric mentality, we will always be chasing the tail wind of our competitors.

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