This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on December 14 - 20, 2015.
I recently organised a roundtable with some of the top education professionals in the country.The goal was to discuss the way forward for education in Selangor. One thing, unsurprisingly, kept coming up: the declining standards of education.
Malaysia is at a crossroads economically. We can no longer rely on crude oil/natural gas and palm oil to turn us into a high-income nation. Moreover, recent events have shown that our schools and colleges are falling short in producing well-rounded individuals who can survive in the modern world.
So what went wrong? Do we still have hopes of becoming a high-income nation by the year 2020? More importantly, how can we realign ourselves to meet such aspirations?
I think one critical aspect that has to be addressed is what is going on with Malaysia’s educators.
As scholar Dr Siddiq Fadzil said at the roundtable, traditionally, the Malays knew about teachers before they knew about schools. Classical religious students went far and wide looking for the teachers they wanted to study from.
The system, as it stands, expects teachers to be all-rounders — educators, counsellors, administrators and to an extent, caretakers — but does nothing to raise their standards.
While issues like school syllabuses, class sizes and political interference are also crucial, educational reform will fail if the role of teachers is ignored.
It is true that the standards of some Malaysian teachers leave a lot to be desired. And not an inconsiderable number are simply time-servers who do not regard teaching as their vocation. Even worse are those who let their personal dramas or agendas affect their work. But thankfully, many more, if not the majority, are dedicated to their jobs.
Their contribution, not only in raising up future generations but also building our country, is immense. Their sacrifices ought to be justly rewarded.
So teachers who deliver should be treated and paid like professionals. How else can we expect to attract the very best to such a difficult job?
In Malaysia, an average diploma holder will earn less than RM2,000, while those with a degree can earn a starting pay of a little over RM2,000. Compare this, for example, to Singapore, the leading light of education in Asia. Across the Causeway, graduate teachers earn between US$3,010 and US$3,310, while non-graduate teachers earn US$1,580 to US$1,920.
Switzerland has the highest average annual income for teachers at US$68,000. Finland, which is said to have the most efficient education system in the world, offers its teachers an annual average income of US$42,000 while the figure in the UK is US$40,000. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) average is US$31,013.
What about Malaysia? Our average is around US$10,000 to US$15,000. So it’s clear that we are quite far behind. It is true that these are developed nations we are benchmarking ourselves against but you can’t deny all the same that we are still underpaying most of our workers — to say nothing of vital professions like teachers.
Indeed, salaries should go up if for no other reason than that the cost of living has skyrocketed. Malaysians now have the added burden of the Goods and Services Tax (GST) as well as higher toll, public transport and electricity costs to add to already burdensome housing and education expenses.
How can we expect promising young graduates to take the plunge into teaching in light of this?
If wages go up, so should the expectations.
Better pay would not only instil greater confidence and commitment but also ensure that the public will be able to demand higher standards of teaching. We also need to take another look at the way we train our teachers. Society has to change its overall perceptions as well.
A 2013 OECD report on Malaysia’s structural policy cited a 2011 research study which found that only 50% of lessons delivered by teachers were effective. It was reported that applicants for teacher education were of relatively low quality, which had an effect on efficiency.
Furthermore, the report also noted that in 2010, 93% of Bachelor of Education applicants at teacher education institutes scored below the minimum academic requirement.
These are problems of grave concern, which the government has done little to address.
Malaysians need to change our attitude towards the teaching profession as more than just a second-grade occupation. These are people who will groom future leaders, engineers, doctors, lawyers and other high-salaried professionals. Meanwhile, teachers are expected to trudge on, year after year.
Let’s turn to Singapore again. It has been able to attract highly qualified individuals to fill teaching posts. According to the Singapore Education Ministry’s Education Statistics Digest, the standard qualification for school teachers in the republic is a bachelor’s degree or higher, making up about 85% of the total.
In fact, the total number of those holding a master’s degree or higher is almost the same as those with a diploma or lower. This is a highly significant statistic, showing the higher standards attained through the right benefits.
If we are truly serious about improving education, we have to begin by investing more in teachers. What we have failed to understand from the very beginning is that our investment in education can never be short term. Many of the problems stem from the inconsistency of policies brought about by relentless interruptions due to changes of ministers and ministries every few years.
It is true that long term-investments demand greater spending but we need to only look at the most advanced nations in the world to understand the benefits of having strong human capital.
There are many teachers who care passionately about where education in Malaysia is going.
But they need our help and support. Parents and concerned members of the public need to get involved and — on their own or via civil society — have to demand for a change.
Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad is PKR’s communications director and state assemblyman for Seri Setia, Selangor