LET’S look at some figures: 77% of Malaysians are qualified up to SPM level, 23% are tertiary educated and 40% of public university graduates are jobless or stuck in a mismatched job.
The top reason for unemployment is language proficiency. There seems to be a glaring mismatch between the type of human capital that our schools and universities churn out and the type that are industry- and nation-building worthy.
What is the purpose of having an education that is mismatched to market demands? The labour market requires that workers be equipped with good English language skills, both communication and written. The 11 years of primary and secondary school expose students to English only as a subject but fail to develop Malaysians who are operationally proficient in English as desired by the Malaysia Education Blueprint 2013-2025 (MEB).
The MEB contradicted itself in stating that 15% to 20% of instructional time in English may be insufficient for students to build operational proficiency in English. This statement strongly supports the teaching of other subjects in English.
The learning of science and mathematics in English in primary and secondary schools should therefore be maintained; moreover we have the capability to do this for the two subjects, compared with the others. Furthermore, at tertiary level, STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects are taught in English to students pursuing science courses at Form Six, college and even public universities.
The aim of our education system is to level the playing field for the majority of Malaysians and to ensure that more of them are able to move up to tertiary level. The medium of instruction is therefore kept to one that is comfortable to them.
But what will happen to them when they graduate and are not able to seek employment, not because they lack paper qualifications but because they are not able to meet employers’ expectations with regard to their industry-needed language skills? If even the graduates are deficient in language skills, what about those who studied up to only Form Five or SPM level?
According to an Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) report on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) 2012 test, 51.8% of 15-year-old Malaysian students failed to reach the baseline level performance in reading, mathematics and science. This means that they can only handle the simplest and most obvious of tasks; most of them are expected not to continue beyond compulsory schooling.
It is not just English language skills that they lack; even after 11 years of schooling, they would find it difficult to use mathematics, science and reading concepts throughout their lives. One wonders what actually transpires in the classrooms if these students are not able to learn effectively.
The very people that the country is striving to protect are the very people that it has let down. After 40-plus years of the New Economic Policy and its variations, the income disparity between the rich and the poor is at its widest. We only need to look around the country to see the many Ferraris and Mercs on the roads, yet there are people in the villages who are so poor that they can barely afford a basic motorcycle for an entire family’s use.
Education is the key enabler of economic growth, thus the right type and quality of education is of utmost importance. Our country started out in the right education direction. We made sure that the teachers were selected from the best, that they had the best training and were supported by an immaculate team of civil servants.
There were many in the rural areas in those days who became successful because they had a good education in English. If they could make it, it is unacceptable that people from a similar social background today are not able to cope with an English-medium education in this day and age. They need only be given the same opportunity as their predecessors and not be discriminated against, just as their parents weren’t.
The deterioration of our education system will not be corrected by any amount of glossy blueprints and whatnot. The situation is made worse by political hypocrisy. Our dismal performance in education and race relations has become so worrying that for the first time ever, a ruler, the Sultan of Johor, has decreed that he would like to see the establishment of English-medium schools. The formula worked then and it should work even better in this day and age with the advent of technology.
The establishment of English-medium schools must be detailed at policy level — and not under the radar for fear of repercussions from a political standpoint. We must start churning out graduates who are industry-worthy. We need to produce teachers and, most importantly, high-calibre principals who are bilingually proficient to make schools the bedrock of thinking and learning.
Our country is in desperate need of leaders who will do the right thing in educating the nation without fear or favour.
Tunku Munawirah Putra is honorary secretary of the Parents Action Group for Education. PAGE is an education lobbyist that serves as a channel between concerned parents, the Ministry of Education and other educational stakeholders.
This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on June 29 - July 5 , 2015.