Vocational and higher education: Political will, revolution in curriculum needed

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The “Madani” (civil and compassionate) government recently launched the national technical and vocational education and training policy 2030.

The objective is to “reshape” the vocational education landscape, especially in artificial intelligence (AI), electric vehicles, electronic technology (with a concentration on integrated circuits, engineering design and water fabrication), cyber security, farm mechanisation, automation of agriculture and livestock, and advanced materials.

Gerak applauds the allocation of an additional RM200m for modernising and upskilling graduates.

However, Gerak respectfully disagrees with the government’s unconditional suggestion to expand the vocational education sector in the learning sector “up to higher education institutions”.

Assuming these institutions include Malaysia’s universities, it calls into question the government’s understanding of the purpose of a university education.

Universities are institutions of knowledge production and acquisition. They offer students a combination of theoretical knowledge, critical thinking skills and some practical training in the form of field research and short-term industrial and corporate internships. Students may gain industry-based exposure through internships, but these must be treated as a small but important segment of the larger university educational experience.

The primary focus must be on research, the dissemination of competing ideas, and pedagogy.

Furthermore, teaching must remain an equal partner in this tripartite focus of all universities in Malaysia.

As such, Gerak strongly believes that the roles that universities play in society must complement vocational learning. They must not be extensions of technical and vocational education and training.

Furthermore, policies such as the technical and vocational education and training 2030 must not be conflated with policies to improve higher education in general.

Similarly, the call for universities to “align” themselves with the needs of industry is a constrictive and narrow view of Malaysia’s higher educational objectives.

Universities must not be devoted solely to the business of preparing graduates for the job market.

Technical and vocational education and training, on the other hand, is meant to train students in job-specific skills.

Therefore, the two must be conceptualised separately, but at the same time complement each other in the final outcome. Simply put, both institutional genres are needed for the country’s healthy economic, social and cultural development.

Furthermore, Gerak feels that amid all these competing narratives, a “collection of glaring and decades-long problems” in Malaysia’s educational landscape is being neglected.

The crumbling quality of our kindergarten, primary and secondary schools needs attention. The launching of the technical and vocational education and training 2030 policy triggers the more critical question of what landscape really needs “reshaping”, “uplifting”, “modernising” and “upskilling”.

Gerak suggests that in the context of Malaysia’s current educational landscape, the following issues must be considered if vocational education and university reforms are to succeed in the near future:

  • At the kindergarten, primary and secondary school levels, expose children to cross-cultural histories and religions, and diverse philosophical approaches to life.
  • Teach them from young, how to question, think, and debate. This way, our school-going youth will be better informed of the inter-civilisational nature of our region, ie the Nusantara, and be more accepting of the diversity of our own society
  • Teach them the basic social sciences, liberal arts and humanities subjects
  • Prepare our primary school students for how to live in a multicultural society – meaning, do not segregate classes. For example, have religious classes after the core school curriculum is completed during school hours
  • Focus a lot more on civic education, build patriotism among the young, and expose our children to basic information on party politics, parliament and different forms of governance
  • It would help too to have a stand-alone combined module on the Federal Constitution and the Rukun Negara (National Principles). Both should be taught together. The Rukun Negara must be taught in its entirety, including the preamble and commentary
  • Expose all students to dual languages, ie Malay and English. Vernacular and indigenous languages are equally important because these define the Malaysian identity. So, many will have to be at least trilingual. Malaysia is not the only country having to grapple with this, and many nations have succeeded

To enable all the above, we must re-educate teachers. If possible, in the future, the government should impose a condition that all future teachers obtain a masters degree to qualify as a teacher in the school system. This has been done in countries like Finland and would partly uplift the perception of the teaching profession.

It is also vital to increase the salaries of teachers, while unburdening them from the monotonous administrative work that bogs them down on a daily basis.

Lastly, if classrooms are upgraded and more schools built, the sizes of classes can be potentially reduced to allow for more value-added pedagogy.

Malaysia needs a combination of political will, a revolution in our school curriculum, and an overhaul of our educational ethos for vocational education and higher education in general to be successful and sustainable.

Gerak hopes that Anwar Ibrahim and the Madani government will seriously consider these points. – Gerak

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.
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