Techtalk - Education: Are our universities lagging behind in their tech-related courses?

This article first appeared in Digital Edge, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on February 8, 2021 - February 14, 2021.
Techtalk - Education: Are our universities lagging behind in their tech-related courses?
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Many parties have complained about the lack of technology talent in Malaysia. Some attribute this problem to universities, saying they fail to equip students with the latest skills. However, the pace of technological development is rapid, and universities need time to update or introduce new courses, which also require approval from the government. This can take a long time, which is another grouse that some industry players have. What can be done to ensure that universities in Malaysia can generate enough talented graduates to support the tech industry?

 01  A less prescriptive approach 

Given how quickly digital technologies develop, it is quite likely that by the time students graduate from their three-year courses, the content would already be outdated, says Datuk Dr Parmjit Singh, CEO of Asia Pacific University of Technology and Innovation and president of the Malaysian Association of Private Colleges and Universities.

But as much as universities need to review the curriculum for tech courses more frequently than they do for other programmes, this alone is not enough. 

“A tech degree programme should be more than just about technologies. It should be focused on transforming students into highly employable, competent professionals prepared not just for their first jobs but for long-term careers in the tech industry,” says Parmjit.

“This entails ensuring students develop into competent and adaptable problem solvers, critical thinkers and independent learners, and also that they grow into capable leaders and communicators equipped with a global mindset.”

This requires a strong, sustainable tripartite relationship between students, the universities and the industry, he adds. The industry needs to help universities give students real-world experience, as well as internship and employment opportunities. 

What about the government? He believes regulatory agencies such as the Malaysian Qualifications Agency (MQA) and the Ministry of Education should play a role that is more facilitative than regulatory.

“To their credit, agencies such as the Ministry of Higher Education and the MQA have been evolving to embrace this facilitative role. However, this really needs to be accelerated,” says Parmjit.

“For example, MQA may need to adopt a less prescriptive approach in aspects such as programme nomenclature, content and structure, and allow for greater flexibility and innovation to enable universities, particularly private ones, to respond more quickly to industry requirements.”

Universities, he adds, “should not be constrained by regulations and the personal preferences of individual regulatory assessors in designing and delivering their programmes”.

 02  Focus on both skills and foundation

To Eric Ku, co-founder and executive director of iTrain Asia Pte Ltd, a digital skills training company headquartered in Singapore with a branch in Malaysia, there are several factors contributing to this problem.

For one, the time taken by universities to generate new course content and obtain approval from the Malaysian Qualifications Agency (MQA) can be too long. But this is not a problem only faced in Malaysia, he points out.

“Universities need to go through their own version of MQA to vet course changes. I’ve worked with some universities as an industry adviser, and it took them almost four years to get it done. The universities took a year to pass the content through their internal standards. After that, they had to talk to the industry to get information, and then submit it to MQA,” says Ku.

Universities need to submit their content for MQA to vet if up to 30% of an existing course is altered or a new course is proposed. After MQA vets the content, the universities take roughly another two years to implement it. “By then, the industry has changed a lot,” he says. 

Second, some universities may focus on overly niche subjects based on what they think the industry needs. For instance, they may offer a degree or diploma in cybersecurity, says Ku.

“But this group of people will face another issue when they graduate. It’s hard for them to get a relevant internship here. 

“Another example is people who have a degree in mobile app development. In the next few years, will this degree still be relevant? People are already developing everything on the web, server and cloud.”

Universities also cannot just focus on what is on-trend. The foundational skills of programming and mathematics are crucial for students who want to get into machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI).

“We do a lot of training for fresh graduates and I always realise that we can produce super users of AI and ML tools but not the problem solvers who can create solutions using AI and ML models. To do that, you need a very strong foundation in mathematics and science,” Ku points out. 

What should universities do?

It can be difficult for universities to strike the balance between providing a strong educational foundation and making sure students can be hired after graduation.

Ku believes having a national skills framework, like the one introduced by the Singapore government, could be helpful. Universities, training centres and employers will refer to the framework to understand what kind of skills are needed for what roles in the digital economy. 

“A lot of companies complain that they cannot find talent. But when universities ask them what exactly they want, the companies cannot answer either,” he says.

Universities must also work with industry experts, which could be employers or training centres. iTrain currently offers a digital tech micro-credentials programme together with Asia e University. Since the company trains tech staff regularly, it is able to advise universities on what skills are needed in the market, says Ku. 

“We work with a lot of universities to incorporate our programme as a lab or tutorial session. Also, if your courses cannot be changed fast enough, lecturers or professors can take their own initiative to expose their students to the latest technologies.”

Some universities allow their lecturers to introduce additional materials into courses or attend industrial events. “That’s why we give a 50% discount to lecturers or anyone with a .edu email address (university email addresses typically end with .edu) who signs up for our courses. A lot of lecturers attend our Internet of Things and data science classes,” he says.

Are university degrees still relevant for tech workers? Ku says tech companies nowadays ask universities to give them their top students with good attitudes and then train them on the job as “they know that what the university is teaching is likely out of date”.

Additionally, while certification is still important to employers, hiring managers in this sector tend to ask job applicants to solve a tech problem on the spot during an interview, rather than just look at the paper qualifications, he adds.

But universities still have a role in nurturing talent, Ku believes. “If you go through a three-year degree, completing assignments and projects, you will be resourceful and have analytical skills,” he says. 

 03  Work with industry players

Howie Chang, founder and CEO of Forward School, a digital skills training centre based in Penang, believes it is not fair to expect universities to always be up to date on the latest technology. 

Additionally, universities tend to be more focused on research activities as their global ranking is largely influenced by the number of papers that their lecturers and professors publish in journals.

“There’s a place for that obviously, but what is needed by the industry is not limited to research, so there needs to be some reforms. I also believe that education is continuous; you need to always upskill yourself, especially in the tech industry,” says Chang.

What universities can do, he believes, is complement their strength in research by collaborating with industry players and digital skills centres to give students that hands-on experience. 

University degrees will continue to be essential as employers still value paper qualifications as a means of hiring and promoting staff. 

“We serve a lot of students from underserved communities. Telling them that they don’t need a [university degree] would be irresponsible. However, we see that the future of work will be based more on competency than on paper qualifications,” says Chang.

Currently, he is applying for Forward School to be an accredited centre under the Department of Skills Development, an agency under the Ministry of Human Resources. If he is successful, students enrolled in Forward School’s two-year programme can graduate with a Diploma Kemahiran Malaysia (Tahap 4). This programme will be based on an updated National Occupational Skills Standard (NOSS), of which Forward School is one of the expert panellists.