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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.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

New Pathways to University


Malaysiakini.com June 5, 2007

M. Bakri Musa

New Pathways To University

Editorial lead: Input equals output - Malaysian universities need better-prepared students if they are to turn out quality graduates.

We cannot solve the current sorry quality of our local graduates by focusing only on the universities. Among others, we must address the basic issue of how we prepare our students for college.

At present Malaysia uses internal matriculating examinations, matrikulasi (for Bumiputras) and the Sijil Tinggi Persekutuan. As our graduates would eventually have to compete globally, we should use internationally accepted examinations to prepare and select future undergraduates.

There are three highly regarded and widely accepted such examinations: British GCE “A” level, American AP (Advanced Placement), and the International Baccalaureate (IB). The GCE “A” level is rigorous but suffers from being too narrow. The IB combines breadth with depth. The US National Academy of Science rates the IB and AP as the two best programs in preparing students to pursue college-level science. AP is of such quality that if you score well, even Harvard and Stanford would grant you college credits.

Despite its recent vintage, IB has received worldwide acceptance very quickly. More and more American high schools, not just the exclusive private “prep academies,” are offering the program.

Of interest, students from inner city schools that offer IB respond to the rigorous academic demands, demolishing many negative stereotypes. There is a lesson here for Malaysia. There is widespread perception that anything associated with Malays generally and MARA specifically is tainted with mediocrity. Yet the MARA Junior College in Banting, which until recently was the only school in the country to offer IB, achieved remarkable success. A while back it held the best performance worldwide for two consecutive years.

Despite that evident success, MARA and the government were slow to expand that program. MARA’s Seremban junior college began offering IB only in 2005. So far it is the only other government school offering IB. Malay College, the nation’s oldest residential school, is also toying with the idea. Despite its Chairman of the Board Raja Nazrin vigorously championing it, thus far it is still only an idea, reflecting the power of inertia in Malaysia.

Vices and Virtues of Democratizing Higher Education

A remarkable development since the 1960s is the democratization of higher education. The assumption is that every student, not just the select few, should be given the opportunity to pursue higher education. Universities would no longer the elitist institutions they once were.

America was the leader in this movement. Later, even rigidly class-conscious Britain joined in. The phenomenal economic achievements of America in recent decades are largely attributed to its highly educated workforce. Over 60 percent of its high school graduates go on to pursue higher education. Of these, slightly over two thirds (or 44 percent of all high school graduates) enroll in degree-granting four-year institutions, and the rest in community (two-year diploma-granting) colleges.

Other countries including Malaysia began following America’s example in expanding their universities. For Malaysia however, the consequences are less positive. Far from enhancing the overall quality of our workforce, these universities dilute it. There is erosion of the quality of its previously highly regarded University of Malaya, with resources and talent diluted to other campuses. Worse, these mushrooming institutions contribute to the already unhealthy obsession with paper qualifications – “credentialism.”

Not all nations joined the bandwagon of higher education for the masses. Switzerland still maintains a highly selective university system, admitting only 15-20 percent of its high school graduates, with another 30 percent pursuing diploma and vocational programs. Switzerland’s economy is even more productive than America’s.

The Pertinent Lessons From America

When universities admit the top 30-40 percent of high school graduates instead of only the top 10, there is bound to be the inevitable dilution of quality. America solves this quality versus quantity dilemma by stratifying its universities. Yes, the admission requirements for all universities are the same (a high school diploma). On the other hand, the quality of students admitted to Harvard is vastly different from those going to Podunk State University; likewise the academic programs. The freshman calculus class at MIT is very different from that at the local state university.

The issue is not that there is a vast gap between the top and lower rank universities – that is acknowledged and accepted – rather that each institution serves the nation well in its own way. Podunk State produces the local teachers and engineers while Harvard graduates would go on to professional and graduate schools or join the large firms.

Granted, the economics taught at Podunk State may not be as rigorous as at Harvard, nonetheless those students at Podunk State are better for having attended that institution then not going to college at all.

Malaysia is attempting similar stratification of its universities, designating a few as research universities. This is a positive step. I would go further and clarify the criteria for such a designation. Apart from research capability, I would include breath of undergraduate offerings, presence of professional schools (law, medicine), and graduate students comprising at least 25 percent of the enrolment. Universities that do not meet these criteria would be termed university colleges, comparable to the American liberal arts colleges.

This classification implies no statement as to quality. Some of America’s best liberal arts colleges (Reed, Williams, Swarthmore) have academic and market reputations far superior to many research universities.

California has distinct and explicit stratification. The research-oriented University of California system with its nine campuses enroll the top 12 percent of students, while the 23-campus California State University (CSU) system enroll the top 33. CSU offers only limited Master’s programs and no professional degrees. The community colleges admit anyone with a high school diploma. Those clear demarcations notwithstanding, there are well-delineated pathways so students could transfer from one stream to the other.

The important difference is that unlike in Malaysia, the individual campuses select their own students and staff. The central office merely does the administrative coordination so students would not be burdened with filing multiple applications. In Malaysia, the bureaucrats at the ministry do the hiring of lecturers and selecting of students.

As with the universities, there is similar stratification of schools, as well as within schools. Not all schools offer AP or IB programs. When they do, only a fraction of their students (those academically capable and sufficiently motivated) would enroll in the program. There is no point in enrolling students in the rigorous IB program if their career aspirations do not go beyond being a nurse, clerk, or elementary school teacher. It would not serve the student, school, or nation. On the other hand, if the students were to aspire for admission to Harvard or Stanford, then they better enroll and excel in a few AP courses.

We could begin with our residential schools. As they admit the top 5 percent of our students, these schools should dispense with the ministry’s regular curriculum and examinations. Instead their students should be geared to international standards and follow the GCE, AP or IB curriculum. Even if they do not end up at the world’s top universities or opt for local ones, these institutions would be the better with the presence of these highly qualified and well prepared students.

Our best students should be pitted against the world’s best. Anything less and we would be doing them and our nation a great disservice.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why begin only with residential schools which is select to one racial group. Your statement that these schools admit the top 5 percent of our students is not entirely true as this top 5 percent does not account for those who are not bumis but essentially do comprise the top 5 percent.

Why not begin with the cluster schools ( which also comprise some of the residential schools you referred to), the new premier schools defined in the Education Blue Print.

All excellent students unfortunate enough to not be admitted into residential schools or cluster schools which are the elitist schools in Malaysia should also be given this opportunity to follow the IB curriculum. How? I am not sure but democratisation of education should lead to this.

6:51 AM  

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