Given the disruptions to school systems being brought by digitalisation and the new industrial revolution it fuels, the biggest concern for governments and parents throughout the world should be to work out what the most effective structural and conceptual reforms are.
There is no way out of this. Revolutionary changes are needed. But can these be carried out from within the traditional systems?
Facing this challenge is especially daunting for Malaysia since its education system had already been underperforming for decades. This was despite the investments put into education by eager parents and populist politicians. According to a recent survey by HSBC, Malaysian parents spend a total of US$25,475 on average to get their child educated up to undergraduate level — just above what their counterparts in the UK and Canada do.
Nationally, as much as 90% of four- and five-year-olds are enrolled in pre-school institutions; compulsory primary schooling has ensured that 98% of Malaysian children are in schools; 90% are getting secondary education; and enrolment in tertiary education for the 18 to 23-year-old cohort had already reached 48% in 2012, exceeding the target set by Unesco and the World Bank. Polytechnics, colleges, university colleges and universities are in abundance, and the country’s 20 public universities were educating 532,049 students in 2017, according to the Ministry of Higher Education.
Indeed, these are accomplishments not easily brushed aside. Where the problem lies, however, has been in the uncomplimentary standard of education. In general, Malaysian students lag badly in reading competencies and in science and mathematics when compared with other developing countries such as China, Vietnam and Thailand. A 2012 assessment saw 15-year-old Malaysians receiving 398 points when the average for OECD countries was 496 points. Of 65 countries, Malaysia did so badly in reading that it landed at 59th spot out of 65 participating countries.
Therefore, the most critical eyes have been on the Ministry of Education after the Pakatan Harapan took power last year, and the strongest criticisms from citizens and the mass media have been reserved for the minister, Maszlee Malik. This is understandable — and not quite fair.
Looking the devil in the eye, nothing short of a radical rethinking on education six decades after independence will suffice. A quantum leap of some kind is needed if Malaysian children are not to remain victims of uninspired policies on education and of a school system that is basically from another age. Not only is industrial age thinking obsolete, mass schooling of the kind the nation-building process of earlier decades appeared to require has become a great hindrance to the intellectual development of the young. Furthermore, ethnic and religious quarrels have also found expression in how teaching is done and what teachers should prioritise.
Most important of all, until the coming of the Internet, knowledge and information disseminated within the country — and not only in schools — had ignored the international context as much possible, exaggerating the importance of national knowledge and inter-ethnic contests instead. Not only were Malaysians students not being properly prepared for the world, they were not even being properly prepared for the local job market.
Learning well and being tested well are different things
Changing the way Malaysian children develop their brains and skills to face the digital future racing towards them requires more than decisions about school curricula. It should more exactly be about how teaching and learning are to happen in order to bring maximum benefits to coming generations, given the quickly evolving global infrastructure for knowledge transference that we have today.
Most parents today would agree that their children know more about the world and are interested in more areas of inquiry than their examination results would suggest. Discussing knowledge transference and learning needs, therefore, to be done separately from how learning is to be tested.
Given the technological disruptions hitting all industries and activities — and these definitely include how young people communicate with each other and how they are educating themselves outside the classroom and the home — piecemeal reforms are tantamount to shutting the proverbial gate after the horse has bolted. In fact, some policymakers may not even realise that a revolution is upon them, and are in effect still discussing whether or not the horse is still in the barn.
External impulses are key
Education in the private sector, being mainly profit-driven, appears therefore to have an edge in that the institutions are not as helplessly bogged down by oversized, conservative and tendentiously self-serving bureaucratic and policy-making structures as national school systems tend to be.
They are also internationally connected in ways the national schools cannot be.
In a phrase, educationists and investors in the private sector are unable to survive without radical rethinking for as long as those in public sector schools can, and so, one would expect effective innovations to come from there, rather than from the Ministry of Education.
For parents who can afford it, private education for their children — and this can include home-schooling of different types — is an option to be taken, either on principle or in desperation. Time flies quickly for the young where the ability to learn is concerned, and parents cannot therefore really wait for slow changes in the education system to come.
Fighting over minor changes in the education system, however necessary it may seem to some, does not help the young, whose future depends on adults acting boldly now. Those among the young today who have gumption and imagination can therefore be expected — and would do well — to seek out their own paths with whatever means they can muster, if they are not to be victims of the revolution.
Datuk Dr Ooi Kee Beng is executive director of Penang Institute. His recent books include Catharsis: A Second Chance for Democracy in Malaysia (2018).