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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

My Photo
Location: Morgan Hill, California, United States

Malaysian-born Bakri Musa writes frequently on issues affecting his native land. His essays have appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, Asiaweek, International Herald Tribune, Education Quarterly, SIngapore's Straits Times, and The New Straits Times. His commentary has aired on National Public Radio's Marketplace. His regular column Seeing It My Way appears in Malaysiakini. Bakri is also a regular contributor to th eSun (Malaysia). He has previously written "The Malay Dilemma Revisited: Race Dynamics in Modern Malaysia" as well as "Malaysia in the Era of Globalization," "An Education System Worthy of Malaysia," "Seeing Malaysia My Way," and "With Love, From Malaysia." Bakri's day job (and frequently night time too!) is as a surgeon in private practice in Silicon Valley, California. He and his wife Karen live on a ranch in Morgan Hill. This website is updated twice a week on Sundays and Wednesdays at 5 PM California time.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #44

Chapter 6: People: Our Most Precious Asset (Cont’d)

Tertiary Education

Once we have the schools in order, only then should we focus on tertiary education. Universities are even more important in the K-economy for the creation of new knowledge (research) as well as the dissemination (teaching) and application (development) of existing ones. Universities and other tertiary institutions are needed for training higher-level workers like professionals and managers.

Malaysia is aping the Western fad in democratizing higher education. Higher education is not for everyone. I do not know what the optimal number of high school graduates who should go on to universities, but certainly the American figure of 60 percent is too high. On the other hand, the Swiss figure of 15 percent is too low and makes universities unnecessarily too elitist.

The consequence of this democratization is the “dumbing down” of higher education. While studies regularly indicate that university graduates consistently earn more than those with only high school diploma, the more significant but less widely known fact is that there are wide variations in the earnings of graduates depending on the quality of their universities.

My guess is that the optimal number of high school students who should go on to universities should be between 25–35 percent. The rest should pursue the technical, vocational, or teachers’ colleges route. The American predilection (now also afflicting the British) of gushing up their technical and teachers’ colleges into universities is wasteful. Malaysia too is succumbing to this temptation. It would be far preferable and cheaper for Malaysia to have fewer but quality universities, and use the resources to improve schools and technical colleges.

University graduates should rightly command premium pay in the marketplace. This is not because they have learned something or acquired some skills that directly improve their job performance (this is true only in some professional fields) rather the degree is a surrogate indicator that the recipient is someone of above average intelligence, capable of hard work, and can focus towards some distant goal. Those are desirable traits in any worker.

As the market rewards those with university education, I see little reason to subsidize it. Currently in America, the difference in tuition costs between public and private universities is about five times; in Malaysia, ten. For professional courses like medicine, this differential is even greater in Malaysia while it is fast disappearing in America. I do not suggest that public universities should charge as much as private ones, rather the gap should be much narrower. By increasing the tuition, the government’s subsidy could be reduced substantially. The government could then use the funds to provide for more scholarships to poor students. Certainly the government should not subsidize university education for those who can afford it.

The government should subsidize research in universities, private and public as in America. Only the merit of the projects and the capabilities of the researchers should matter. After all, the resulting knowledge would benefit the nation. Malaysia is finally getting rid of the mindset that only the government could provide education. Letting the private sector play its rightful role would also free up scarce public resources that could then be diverted to the truly needy. The government has allowed for private colleges and universities (and also preschool) since 1996. It should extend that to schools.

The positive impact of allowing private colleges and universities is already being felt. It allows for more opportunities and greater access. The country also saves valuable foreign exchange from students who would have gone abroad, and earns revenue from foreign students coming in. The most important contribution is that they spur competition on public institutions. As most private universities use English, their graduates have a significant advantage in the marketplace. Public universities now have to follow suit. The recent impetus to the wider use of English in public universities has less to do with enlightened thinking and more the consequence of this competition.

The government has yet to fully optimize the role of private universities and colleges. The official attitude seems to be that they are a necessary evil instead of an important instrument in national development. Consequently the official policy vacillates between toleration and benign neglect.

There is minimal effective government supervision of private institutions, only reams of burdensome regulations. The Lembaga Akreditasi Negara (National Accreditation Council) supposedly monitors the quality, but it is a typical government agency: slow, ineffective, and unresponsive. To make it worse, it surveys only private but not public institutions, giving rise to the perception (and reality) of a double standard.

There is also no attempt to alleviate the dangerous racial segregation at schools and universities, both private and public. The student body of these institutions must reflect the general society; that should be a condition for accreditation. A diverse student body enhances racial integration as well as the learning experience. The rules on granting permits for these private institutions are lax and opaque. In the few years following 1996, permits were given literally to hundreds of new institutions. Many were nothing more that glorified tuition centers located in empty shop lots. Cases abound of students (especially foreigners) being stranded after paying outrageously expensive fees.

The authorities should at least ensure that the sponsors of these institutions have both financial strength and academic resources. Giving permits to businessmen who have yet to select their senior academic personnel is nonsense. These institutions should post performance bonds such that if their institutions were to close down, their students would get their fees and other expenses refunded, together with penalty compensation.

Yes, these are tough rules; they are meant to discourage the amateurs. Investments in education and training are important in enhancing the quality of human capital. We must take a much broader view of that investment to include learning in informal and nontraditional settings such as on-the-job and continuing training. Lifelong learning should be the norm, not just a slogan.

As for formal education, we must not be mesmerized by meaningless quantitative goals as the number of years of schooling or the percentage of students who go on to universities. The focus should be on quality.

For a plural nation like Malaysia, education should also serve to bring the young together, lest we risk becoming a highly educated but divided nation, another Northern Ireland. Were that to happen, all that investment would be for naught.

Investment in education is only a part—albeit an important part—of an overall sound economic policy. If the overall strategy is wanting and the economy stalls, the nation would not be able to support education. Nor will it be able to absorb the highly educated workers, and they would end up emigrating. Malaysia would then share the fate of India, whose universities serve the manpower needs of the developed world rather than itself.

Next: Preschool Education


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