Why measuring only academic inputs causes academic decline in Malaysia

With the discontinuation of The Heat as a print version and a more reduced Focusweek taking its place in October 2014, I was given about 10 days of “breathing” space. At that time (around late September / early October 2014), some officials in the Ministry of Education threw a “bomb” into the higher education industry: the use of forecast results from the national high school graduation examination, Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM) for the purpose of granting conditional acceptance for high school graduates to enter private colleges was disallowed. This practice which can be traced back for over 20 years allows students to commence their college studies without having to wait for months for the SPM results to be announced.

The reason cited in the press was IMHO not really credible, some students whose actual SPM results were not up to par were accepted into college studies based on a more favourable forecast result and hence this 20-year-old practice had to stop. It is like saying that because of some cases of accidental injuries due to the kitchen knives, we now make it illegal to have it in the home! The person making the recommendation to the power that be to ban the use of forecast results perhaps was not familiar with the dire consequences to private colleges for any failure to “weed” out students without the correct SPM credentials. This gave me an idea about this article. 

Is the obsession with inputs one of the key contributor to the lackluster academic performance of Malaysian students? That was the question I asked in the following article.

Our system also has very little flexibility when it comes to tapping into the expertise of renown sons and daughters of Malaysia to impart their wisdom to the new generation of learners. By disregarding the professional and industrial attainment of a person when it comes to measuring the academic credential of a person to teach at college level makes it very restrictive when we want to tap on many very established and renown professionals, designers, creative talents to impart their wisdom to our students.

In early 1980s I was taught mathematics at GCE “A” levels by Mr. Gowland who did not go to university. He was better in teaching us and guiding us to score grade A’s than many of his colleagues with Masters and PhDs. A person with a string of degrees does not necessary make a good lecturer. In the same technical college, tucked in the small town of South Shields, Tyne and Wear, England, our head of department, a nuclear physicist with a PhD was having great difficulties in making us understand topics in nuclear physics at GCE “A” level! I remember this lesson well and when I was hired as a  lecturer in 1996 (without any formal training in teaching) by the now defunct Sepang Institute of Technology. I quickly learned the rope by sitting in on classes delivered by senior colleagues especially those from the collaborating university, University of Adelaide. I also was not shy in asking for pointers from senior colleagues and did a “learn as you go” for the first few months.

It is about time we move to an “outcome-centric” education system. Why should we care how and what kind of inputs a student’s learning journey involved? We should only use SPM grades as an “indicative” measure to accept students into higher education. We should provide a “challenge route” for those whose grades may not be sufficient to follow a course of study of their choice so long as they can take the challenge and prove that they can do just as well as others by passing the relevant subjects (in which they did not attain the necessary grade as SPM). We should worry a lot more about what the student can do after taking a subject (the output or learning outcome) and not about the amount of work he put into studying it. We should care less about the different “learning journey” of individual students and more about their reaching their “learning destination”. Each student’s ‘learning journey” is different from the other but it is their ability to demonstrate the attained skills and knowledge, that is the “learning destination” that counts.

I am glad the re-published article in theantdaily.com (in English, Chinese and Malay), at the time of writing this article  has generated 5 comments (all, I am glad to say being favourable to the author!), 170 Facebook “likes” and 6 tweets on the news portal.

The great 20th century statesman who transformed China from an economic basket case to soon-to-be the World’s largest economy, Deng Xiaoping said in 1961, “it doesn’t matter whether a cat is black or white, if it catches mice it is a good cat”. Perhaps educationists in Malaysia, especially those advising the power that be should ruminate on the wisdom of Deng.

Last updated on 11 Jan 08:29 AM

by Dr Chow Yong Neng

OPINION: Parents, students and owners of private colleges and universities are relieved now that the powers that be have concluded that it serves no purpose to prevent the use of forecast Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM) re­sults for conditional admission into private institutions of higher learning.

Students admitted using forecast re­sults, whose actual SPM results fell short of the required minimal grades, have always been prevented from enrolling into their desired course of study. Private colleges know too well that if they allow them to remain, sooner or later, approving authorities like the Malaysian Qualifica­tions Agency (MQA) will catch up with them. So long as parents and students are well informed of this fact, there should not be any issue of anyone “slipping” through the net.

But what if a student’s actual result does not “qualify” him for enrolment into his desired course of studies but he did well in the first semester of the foundation programme? For instance, student Tan used his SPM forecast result of five credits to enter a foundation programme. But he only scored four credits in his SPM and failed to get a credit in mathematics.

However, since being admitted to his foundation programme, Tan had worked hard and scored grade A for mathematics in his first semester examination. Under the Ministry of Education (MoE) policy, Tan will be denied his quest to be formally enrolled in his foundation studies prog­amme.

However, a true educationist will be persuaded by the fact that Tan’s SPM grade for Mathematics is immaterial as he has proven himself by scoring in Math­ematics in his foundation studies, which is at a higher academic level than SPM. Tan has “made up” for his lack of credit in SPM mathematics and should be allowed to continue his foundation studies.

But Malaysia over-emphasises inputs. We are obsessed with measuring inputs in academia, from the admission of students to institutions of higher learning, to quality assurance of delivery and learning of aca­demic programmes – the key emphasis is just on inputs and more inputs.

We do not have a concept of learners’ ability to “catch up” as we do not have much faith in evaluating our learners’ outputs. So scoring a credit grade in SPM mathematics in Tan’s case is considered more important than his scoring a grade A in an academically higher level math­ematics. Thus Tan’s desirable foundation studies output for mathematics is ignored.

Tan’s case is a classic example of, “the proof of the pudding is in the eating” but Malaysian education policies are more into “what was done to make the pudding”. It is this kind of input-centric mentality in our education system that has held Malaysians back from excelling academically for decades.

Even on the input-side, Malaysian educational policies are overly input-cen­tric as well. Someone once had an idea that to teach at diploma level, the lecturer must have a minimum of a Bachelor degree. This idea eventually made it to be the “standing policy” to evaluate the suitability of a person to teach. Thus for Bachelor level studies, the teaching staff must have a Master’s level qualification and for Master’s subjects the lecturer must hold a PhD in the same field. Our educa­tion system seems not to have the ability to recognise the importance of experience, exposure and achievements over paper qualifications.

If there is a Master’s level class on modern shoe design, Datuk Jimmy Choo would not be allowed to deliver it. This is because Choo, even though he is the world’s most renown shoe designer, does not hold an earned doctorate in this field. Yet a freshly-minted PhD holder in the same field who has never worked beyond academia would be found suitable to teach the same class. Such is the idiosyncrasy of Malaysia’s higher education system.

This obsession with input is the major cause of the lack of transmission of wisdom, insights and experience by successful professionals, industrialists and master craftsmen to the new generations of learners at Malaysian institutions of higher learning.

If our young learners are denied the opportunities to learn from great masters in their respective fields and are instead constantly fed an academic diet of book-knowledge, it will not take a genius to figure out why our universities have been lacking yearly in the various universi­ty ranking systems compared to our peers.

Unless Malaysians collectively get out of the shackles of our input-centric mental­ity, we will always be chasing the tail wind of our competitors

Dr Chow Yong Neng once argued successfully for MQA to allow a few of his students with inadequate SPM grades to continue with their studies by emphasising the satisfactory output of their diploma studies.

This article was first published in the Oct 18, 2014 issue of Focusweek

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