Education: Political parties, stay out of our schools!
Given that our average spending on education as a percentage of government expenditure is among the highest in the world, we are not seeing the result, notes Francis Loh.
In early December 2013, the minister of youth and sports and Umno Youth chief Khairy Jamaluddin called for the removal of restrictions to allow Umno to reach out to 17- to 18-year-old pupils still in schools. Made during the Umno general assembly, Khairy’s call sparked a debate among politicians and leaders of civil society organisations, some of whom were supportive of and others opposed to his call.
Former deputy education minister Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah, in agreeing with Khairy, stated that 60 per cent of youths voted for Pakatan Rakyat (PR) in the May 2013 general election, and so Barisan Nasional had to work harder with the youths. “Umno must engage them from young. Perhaps 18-years-old is a good start,” he stated.
One of those who disagreed with Khairy was veteran educationist amd former NUTP deputy president P Ramanathan who bluntly said that the political parties should “stay away from schools and leave school-going children alone”. Datuk Dr Wee Ka Siong, former leader of MCA Youth and recently elected deputy president of MCA, also wanted politics disallowed from entering schools, in order to keep our students ‘apolitical’.
In their eagerness to recruit youths into Umno, Khairy and Saifuddin seem unconcerned that introducing partisan politics into the schools will further impact negatively on the many serious problems that already afflict our schools.
Wee, also a former deputy minister of education who ought to be aware of these problems, nonetheless, appears unable to comprehend that over-centralisation of the educational system which he helped to manage and steer is perhaps, the principal cause of these serious problems; not least because the education system and schools have already been politicised by the Umno-BN government, which has been in power and in charge of the education system since 1957.
What are some of these serious problems? In fact, many of them are identified in the Ministry of Education’s Malaysian Education Blueprint, 2013-2025, from which we have obtained most of the statistical data cited below. This Blueprint was prepared by the counsulting firm McKinsey & Co for RM20m.
Money, no problem
Money is not a cause of the problem. “As early as 1980, Malaysia’s expenditure on primary and secondary eduation as a percentage of GDP was the highest in East Asia. In 2011, Malaysia’s expenditure, at 3.8 per cent of GDP, was higher than the OECD average of 3.4 per cent.”
Our basic education expenditure is high on three different measures. In 2012, education expenditure was RM37bn and accounted for 16 per cent of total federal budget, the single largest allocation among ministries. In addition RM12bn was allocated to the Ministry of Higher Education (MOHE) and other ministries providing education-related services. Reportedly, Malaysia’s expenditure as a percentage of GDP was twice the Asean average in 2012.
Malaysia’s spending per student is comparable with peer countries with similar GDP per capita. However, the Blueprint reports that “[t]here is reason to believe however that Malaysia may not be getting the highest rate of return on its investments”. This is most certainly an understatement as we shall show later.
Disturbing decline in Timss and Pisa ranking
Yes, Malaysia has been doing well in terms of attendance in schools: almost universal access at the primary school and lower secondary school levels. The student teacher ratios – 13.4 in primary, 13.1 in secondary, and 24 at pre-school – are commendable. But what is the quality of education that our students are getting?
The Blueprint cites two sets of statistical data to evaluate the quality of education in Malaysia on a comparative basis. The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (Timss) compares the performace of students at Grade Four (Standard Four) and Grade Eight (Form Two) across nations. In 1999, our students scored above the international average for Grade Eight (Form Two) Maths, and ranked 16 out of 38 countries in 1999. In 2003, Malaysia’s ranking for the same further improved – Malaysia’s rank was 10 out of 45. In Science, Malaysia’s performance was also above average, ranking 22 in 1999 and 20 in 2003.
However, by 2007 we ranked 20 out of 48 in Maths, and 21 out of 48 in science, in both cases below the international average. Asian countries which scored higher included Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea, Shanghai-China, Taipei-China and Thailand. The Blueprint noted that “(u)p to 20 per cent of Malaysian students did not meet minimum benchmarks in Maths and Science in 2007”. The Blueprint further noted that the “students understand basic concepts but struggled to apply knowledge”.
Comparative data is also available from the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa), which is a survey conducted by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) to measure skills in reading, maths and scientific literacy among its members and other countries. In 2009, a group of 64 countires participated in the original survey. Ten other countires, including Malaysia, then participated in the Pisa2009+ Project administered in 2010. The Pisa data is also quoted extensively in the Blueprint.
Students in Malaysia attained a mean score of 414 on the Pisa reading literacy scale. This mean score is below the means attained in all OECD countries and equivalent to the mean scores for Brazil, Colombia, Miranda-Venezuela, Montenegro, Thailand, and Trinidad and Tobago.
For Maths, Malaysian students attained a mean score of 404, again below the means attained in all OECD countries. For scientific literacy, Malaysian students attained a mean score of 422, higher than that for the lowest-scoring OECD country, Mexico.
The top 10 countries were Shanghai-China, Korea, Finland, Hong Kong, Singapore, Canada, New Zealand, Japan and Australia. Malaysia ranked in the bottom 30 per cent. “Out of 74 countries, Malaysia performed in the bottom third for reading, maths and science, well below the international and OECD average”. Significantly, Malaysia was below Singapore, Japan and South Korea by more than 100 points.
Almost 60 per cent of Malaysian students failed to meet minimum benchmarks in Maths; almost 44 per cent did not meet the minimum proficiency levels in Reading, while 43 per cent did not meet the same in Science. Overall, Malaysian students scored higher than Indonesia, but lower than their counterparts in Thailand. The Blueprint also noted that only 7 per cent of the participating schools in Malaysia posted ‘good’ performances in Pisa2009+; 13 per cent – fair; and 80 per cent – poor.
Need to improve teacher training
No doubt, the poor quality of teaching contributed towards the poor performance of the students in Timss and Pisa. The Blueprint informs that research on education in America has shown that high-performing teachers can improve student achievement by up to 50 per cent over a three-year period. An outstanding principal can raise outcomes by about 20 per cent. Hence the quality of a school system is as good as the teachers who teach there. And this is a major part of the problem.
In 2011, a team of experts from the Ministry of Education MOE observed 125 lessons being taught in schools and found 12 per cent delivered at high standard, 38 per cent satisfactory and 50 per cent unsatisfactory. If these findings refer to the standard of teaching when under ministry observation, one wonders what the everyday quality of teaching might be when the teachers, perhaps, are not specially prepared for observation!
In 70 per cent of lessons observed, teachers were emphasising the ability to recall facts, rather than teaching students to analyse or interpret the facts. Ironically, the vast majority of teachers had assessed their delivery as ‘good’.
Earlier we mentioned that Malaysia’s allocations for education have been next to none in the East Asian region. In fact, MOE’s actual expenditure has exceed its allocation every year, in 2011 by more than 10 per cent! Yet, we are getting less good results for high expenditure.
The Blueprint suggests that “the Malaysian education system may not be allocating funds towards the factors that have the highest impact on student outcomes such as teacher training”. In this regard, it is distressing that the ministry spent a staggering RM3,059m in 2011 on items that do not relate directly to improving the quality of education ! (RM660m on’ travel and living allowances, professional services, other purchased services, and hospitality’; another RM710m on ‘professional service, other purchased service and hospitality (security)’; another RM1,051m on ‘purchases for minor support and maintenance’; and RM502m for utilities.
Meanwhile, the Blueprint also revealed that 20 per cent of primary schools are in bad physical shape and 28 per cent with wiring badly worn down. In the event, the Blueprint calls for a review of the efficiency and effectiveness of how funds are allocated and spent!
Politicisation of schools
The problem in our schools is not simply a question of the quality of education and teacher training and of spending our money efficiently and effectively to that end. Earlier, we noted that Wee Ka Siong had stated that schools ought to be kept ‘apolitical’ and on that ground disagreed with Khairy’s proposal to allow political parties into the schools.
In fact, our schools have already been politicised many times over! How horribly forgetful, if not naive of the former deputy minister of education!
Recall how, after the Pakatan Rakyat took over the Penang state government, the photograph of the new chief minister could not be displayed in schools; his deputy was not allowed to distribute free spectacles to needy students who needed them (so he had to distribute them on a Saturday outside school hours instead!).
Recall, too, that schools in Opposition-led states were directed not to invite PR political leaders – including the chief minister and state executive council members – to grace school functions like speech day or sports day. And, in Penang, an annual grant to high-achieving students from the state government to students could not be distributed by the schools, although similar grants from the federal government could be.
There are also examples of how our schools have been politicised via the curriculum, or use of text books (see Box 1 below).
Then there’s the problem of truancy and worsening discipline. Worsening gansteerism in our society writ large has been transferred into our schools as well. Bullying and fighting has led to deaths in not a few cases. Unfortunately, the privatisation of school security measures is now in the docks.
The Public Accounts Committee has called the minister or his deputy to explain the weaknesses in the school security services currently provided by 10,000 schools nationwide, first raised in the Auditor General’s Report 2012 which noted “mishandling of RM2.051bn related to hiring security contractors for schools between 2010 and 2012”. Among the breaches: no personal details of security guards hired in 75 per cent of 35 schools audited were presented and 76 of 129 security giards working in the audited schools had no security clearance to show that they had no prior criminal record (theSun, 28 Nov 2013).
Meanwhile the costs for providing security to schools have escalated from RM594m in 2010 to RM812m in 2011. Ironically, the Blueprint does not consider discipline to pose problems. From its study, it says only 2 per cent of schools posed disciplinary students. But its statement in this regard admits that 75 per cent of the schools it investigated were primary chools whereas it is more likely that disciplinary problems occur at the secondary school level.
Whither our education system?
There is some excitement over the appintment of a new director-general of education, Datuk Dr Khair Mohamad Yusof, who is reportedly very professional and committed to strong school leadership.
Presumably, his brief is to undersee the implementation of the Malaysian Education Blueprint, 2013-2025. Under Wave 1 (2013-2015) of the Blueprint, the existing foundations of the system are to be strengthened. During Wave 2 (2016-2020), various necessary structural changes and new initiatives will be launched while during Wave 3 (2021-2025), these new changes and initiatives will be consolidated and scaled up. No doubt, much useful data for benchmarking the current state of our educational system and how problems in the various parts are to be upgraded under different waves have been identified.
In this regard, this is not the first time that such educational planning has been undertaken. Previous ministers of education have each also presented their own proposals. For instance, past proposals have sought to attract better candidates to join the teaching profession, to provide them with better training and with better incentives and remuneration – apparently, to little avail, for the quality of our teachers and students has deteriorated over time, as indicated in the discussion above.
Need to decentralise
It is not an understatement that there is a general distrust of the system itself on account of how it has been politicised and centralised.
Significantly, in other countries, especially those which consider themselves as federal, the educational system has been increasingly decentralised. In federal countries like Canada, Australia, the United States, Switzerland, Germany, as well as in developing countries which consider themselves as federal – for example India, South Africa, Brazil, Argentina and Ethiopia, primary and secondary schools fall under the ambit of the state and even local governments; while tertiary education is often the shared responsibility of central, state and sometimes local governments too.
In fact, in unitary countries like Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Philippines and Thailand, the trend is also towards decentralising. Not so in Malaysia!
This is the crux of the matter: our bureaucracy, including the Ministry of Education and individual teachers, have become very politicised and centralised after rule by a single party – Umno-BN – for more than 55 years! Whereas the bureaucracy, perhaps especially the Ministry, should be neutral, in fact, our civil service has closely identified itself with the Umno-BN ruling party at the centre. The Jabatan Pendidikan Negeri (JPN) at the state level and the Pejabat Pedidikan Daerah (PPD) at the district level take their cue from the ministry invariably.
The way out of this problem, indeed, the way to improve our education system is not via a new Blueprint, or by appointing a new director-general to the ministry or by sending our ministry officials and teachers back to school in order to learn new teaching methods. The solution is to decentralise our education system
An organisation which employs some 420,000 teachers and another 32,000-odd officers at the federal, state and district cannot be expected to function efficiently. Worse, it becomes the target of power-crazed politicians and officials who use it for political ends as our examples above show.
Admittedly, one of the goals of the Blueprint is ‘to decentralise’. But its recommendations do not yet allow for the schools to play increased roles. The recommendations merely transfer functions that were once centralised down to the JPNs and PPDs.
For instance, instead of centrally administered examinations, henceforth assessment of students will be based on their ongoing performance throughout the year, to be conducted by the schools themselves. But the entire exercise is negated by requiring the teachers to fill up (on-line) assessment forms prepared by the central education authorities. Likewise, teachers are also required to fill up forms to assess their performance (the KPI), via their principals, to the higher authorities.
All these new requirements require teachers to set aside time for non-teaching duties, to attend taklimat after taklimat (briefings), more ministry officers to coordinate and keep track of these unending series of assessments and reports, not to mention spending lots of funds. No wonder the complaint in the Blueprint on excessive funds spent on non-teaching related items!
Share responsibilities with parents and community
By decentralising, on the other hand, we can get the state and local governments to share responsibility for providing quality education for our students. These local and state governments could probably address the needs of the students better than Putrajaya-based Ministry of Education officers.
More than that we can attract parents, alumni, the local community and local industry to play a role in the running of schools too. In this regard, the PIBGs and the boards of the national-type and mission schools could be the vehicles for encouraging such engagement. Decentralisation, however, should also encompass decision-making on the deployment of heads, teachers, extra-curricular activities, if not parts of the main curriculum itself.
Educational officers from the federal, state and local governments can work closely with the teachers and the members of these PIBGs and Boards. This is a win-win situation because parents, alumni and community members do care about their children’ s education and wish to be consulted and to be involved.
In this manner, the quality of teaching, the improvement of the schools and the teaching enviroment will be upgraded in a more cost-effective fashion too. Among others, it will put an end to those contractors and suppliers who hanker after the ministry officers for multimillion contracts to provide textbooks, computers, tables and chairs, at all levels. For the local Boards and PIBGs can become the eyes and monitor against any wrong dealings.
School Boards and PIBGs
This proposal is not far-fetched. For example, the PIBGs and Boards of the mission schools and the so-called ‘Chinese conforming schools’ do desire to be more involved in the running of their schools. As early as the 1970s, the mission schools had reached an understanding with the Ministry of Education that there would be ‘maximum consultation’ in the appointment of head teachers; although in fact, the schools were seldom ever consulted.
As the 13th general election approached, however, the ministry’s director-general did issue a directive to all his state directors on the matter, following a meeting between the education minister and representatives of the Federation of Councils of Christian Mission Schools Malaysia. Apparently, the directive also applied to all Chinese conforming schools as well.
The above episode goes to show that if the ministry is willing, there can be opportunities for parents, alumni and the community to engage in the educational process.
Indeed, if funds can also be decentralised, and powers on how to spend those funds can be devolved to the local level, it is likely that there will be more competency, accountability and transparency over the use of those funds.
One size does not fit all
Historically, many programmes have been designed according to one size fits all. International experience suggests that different sorts of interventions are required in order to best serve some schools at different performance levels.
On its part, the Ministry of Education can redirect its focus on schools, especially in the rural areas, which do not yet have strong parental and community support. They need all the support that the the ministry can muster.
We must stop the rot in our educational system. Time, personnel and funds should not be wasted on non-teaching related items deemed necessary because of centralisation. The politicisation of schools after 55 years of Umno-BN rule must also be reversed. The use of particular books and teaching curricula that are racially biased should be halted.
It is with decentralisation and with such parental and community engagement that trust in the education system will be restored.
With trust in the system, parents will stop discouraging their children from becoming teachers; more capable and qualified people of all races will step up to join the teaching profession. In this manner the dignity of the teaching profession will be restored.
Better incentives alone will not reverse the trend. Community participation is a better bet. Perhaps, then, our performance in the Timss and Pisa rankings will improve.
Yes, keep the political parties away from our schools. But they are most welcome to support a move to decentralise the educational system.
Politicisation of curriculum and text books
First, the PPSMI policy which was introduced some 15 years ago by then prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad has since been scrapped in primary schools. Beginning in 2014, students entering secondary schools will have to learn their Science and Mathematics curriculum in Malay (although we continue to hear of rumours that this and that school have been exempted from doing so indefinitely).
This shift from Malay to English and back to Malay again has confused our teachers, many of whom are not yet capable of teaching effectively in Malay. It was not so long ago that they had been forced to do their training to become teachers of Science and Mathematics, in English.
The availability of good textbooks and teaching aids in Malay is a related problem. An extension of this problem is that medicine, engineering and many other science disciplines continue to be taught in English at the university level. This made sense when the PPSMI was in place. But how will our students who in future will learn science and mathematics in BM cope with these two subjects taught at the university level, in English?
This flip-flop in policy was definitely not on account of educational factors. It had to do with political posturing by the then education minister and the BN’s overall lobbying for political support in the run-up to party as well as general elections.
Second, beginning in 2014, History will become a compulsory subject in secondary schools. Students must pass the subject in order to be awarded the SPM. Recall the cacophony of protests by parents, students and historians, mostle non-Malays, against this change in policy when the announcement was made a couple of years ago.
Their criticism was the History syllabus over-emphasised the history of Islamic civilisation and the history of Umno and the Malay people while the contributions and sacrifices of the minority communities were downplayed, glossed over or omitted. For example, there was concern that five out of ten chapters of the Form Four history textbook focused on Islamic history. Text related to the other religions combined – Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Conficianism and Taoism – made up only 25 per cent of total content (theSun, 12 April 2011)
On 15 May 2011, concerned parents, representatives from civil society organisations and academics met in Petaling Jaya to discuss the establishment of a movement to campaign for a truly Malaysian history. Plans were outlined to petition for a review of the history syllabus and textbooks used in schools and institutions so as to reflect a more objective and truthful history that was not associated with any political or other agenda.
Although these critics, which included prominent historians, set up the group Sejaran Malaysia Sebenar (SMS) to study the history curriculum and to propose changes, to date, the group has not been contacted by the minister or Ministry of Education officers for their input.
Third, there have also been allegations of racism in the novel Interlok, authored in 1971 by Abdullah Hussain, a national laureate. The book chronicles the daily struggles of Malays, Chinese and Indians in the era before Independence and during the Japanese occupation and communist insurgency.
Used as the compulsory literature text for Form FIve students, some sectors of the Indian community were offended by certain contents of the book suhc as its description of all immigrants from southern India as people from the ‘pariah’ caste. Significantly, the MIC took the lead in calling for the book’s withdrawal (The Star, 24 Jan and 13 Feb 2011). The protest led to the formation of the National Interlok Action Team, a coalition of Indian NGOs calling for the book’s withdrawal.
The government formed a committee comprising representatives from Indian organisations to look into the matter before the ministry decided to keep the book “considering that the book was good in nurturing and strengthening national unity among multi-racial and multi-religious communities in Malaysia”. The ministry, however, agreed to remove references to the ‘pariah’ word. This time, there were protests by several national literature laureates and other Malay literary groups against censorship of a literary piece of work.
Fourth, from time-to-time, there have been media reports of how young students have been abused by teachers who made derogatory remarks of their race or religion. Sometimes, these remarks were made for very innocuous reasons. for example when the students had not finished their homework or had not brought certain books to school as required. Or consider the recent case during Ramadan 2013 of non-Muslim students in SK Seri Pristana in Sungai Buloh, Selangor who were forced to eat in a changing-room next to the toilets so as to be away from the sight of Muslim students who were fasting.
Undeniably, many Malaysians speak ill of fellow Malaysians who belong to other ethno-religious groups. This is shameful. But it is even more shameful when teachers abuse and bully young children of other ethnic and religious backgorunds. Teachers, instead, should be responsible for teaching tolerance and celebration of our differences.
Alas, we fear that the cases that get reported in the media resulting in public debate and acrimony, are only the tip of the iceberg. The education system should be designed and teachers trained to help our society resolve the ethno-religious problem, not deepen it.
Tertiary education – Losing our competitiveness
The rapid expansion of higher education has led to a dramatic increase in the numbers of Malaysians enrolled in and graduating from institutions of higher learning.
This rapid ‘massification’ of higher learning, however, has also led to the lowering of academic standards. Many young lecturers who were not adequately prepared were recruited to teach in these new public and private universities and in hundreds of university-colleges and twinning colleges as well. In turn, these lecturers taught students who might not have qualified to enter the handful of Malaysian public universities, some 15 to 20 years ago.
Meanwhile, the four-year undergraduate system in public universities was reduced to three years about 10 years ago (although enrolment has been restrored to four years since 2011/2012). There have been unending complaints about our graduates neither having the necessary technical expertise nor the necessary ‘soft skills’(like linguistic, communication and other social skills) to make them more easily employable.
There are several global surveys of universities. Probably the one most well regarded (by students, academicians, universities, governments and industry) is the Times Higher Education World University Rankings (THE-WUR) powered by Thomson Reuters. The Index is based on four main criteria – teaching, research, knowledge transfer and international outlook. Accordingly, it uses 13 carefully calibrated performance indicators to provide the most comprehensive and balanced comparisons available.
Since the TWUR survey was first conducted in 2010, not a single Malaysian university has made it into the list of top 400 universities in the world.
In the latest THE-WUR 2013-2014, Asian universities which ranked in the top 100 were University of Tokyo (23), National University of Singapore (26), University of Hong Kong (43), Seoul National University (44), Peking University (45), Tsinghua University (50), Kyoto University (52), Korea Advanced Inst of Science & Technology (56), Hong Kong University of Science & Technology (57), Pohang University of Science & Technology (60) and Nanyang Technological University (76).
Others ranked 101-200 were Chinese University Hong Kong (109), Tokyo Institute of Technology (125), National Taiwan University (142), Osaka University (144), Tohoku University (150). Nineteen Asian universities ranked 201 to 300, and another 21 from 301 to 400.
Malaysian universities, however, featured in the World University Rankings conducted by Quacguarelli Symonds Ltd (QS). The criteria used for these Rankings were academic reputation from global survey (40 per cent); employer reputation from global survey (10 per cent); faculty-student ration (20 per cent); citations for faculty from Scopus (20 per cent); proportion of internaional students (5 per cent); and proportion of international faculty (5 per cent).
University Malaya ranked 167 out of 700 universities listed; Universiti Kebangsaan – 269, Universiti Sains Malaysia and Universiti Teknologi Malaysia tied for 355, Universiti Putra Malaysia was grouped among those ranked 411-420, Interntational Islamic Universiti Malaysia among those ranked 501-550, and Universiti Teknologi Mara among the 701+ universities.
These low rankings as compared to the performances of the East Asian universities cited above have persisted although much special attention has been given to local universities. For example, five public universities were awarded ‘research university’ status, allocated more funds, and granted more autonomy.
One of them, Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM), was awarded Accelerated Programme for Exellence (Apex) status and given even more funds. In this regard, it is most disappointing that USM has scored lower than UM and UKM for several years now. Predictably, some local academics have commented that the criteria used to measure performance is biased against developing countries, which have their own set of priorities for establishing higher educational institutions. Even if this is the case, such rankings remain in order to benchmark how our local unviersities performed comparatively, regardless of the set of ‘biased criteria’ used.
Such rejection of (‘biased’) universal standards has probably egged on some Malaysian educators to reject meritocracy as a criterion in our educational system. For instance, in the Malay and Bumiputra Education Conference held in June 2013, organised by Yayasan Pelajar Mara, the Universiti Pendidikan Sultan Idris and Gabungan Pelajar Melayu Semenanjung (all respectable bodies), Ibrahim Abu Shah, a former deputy vice-chancellor of Universiti Teknologi Mara, boldly called on the ministry of education to restructure the educational system from pre-school to tertiary levels “to return justice to Malay students”.
And why? Apparently because “meritocracy has created Chinese supremacy”! He claimed that Malay students made up only 35 per cent of all enrolled in higher education institutions (he probably meant public as well as private ones).
He further claimed, “Last year, 80 per cent of Chinese students received scholarships as they obtained outstanding results based on the government’s policy of meritocracy’ (he probably meant that some 80 per cent of some government scholarships had been won by outstanding Chinese students).
The president of the Retired Educators Association, a certain Raof Hussein, echoed his call for a review of the meritocracy policy (Malaysiakini, June 24 2013 ‘Meritocracy in education only helps Chinese’).
Imagine such views by some so-called Malay educators!