Education for the common good: The public vs private debate

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Children after school - Puteri Nur Syuhada Abdul Rahman/Unicef report

While the new education minister has formulated some ideas for the public school system, he should also lay out his plans for private education, says Cheah Wui Jia.

The huge debate on whether Maszlee Malik should have been appointed Education Minister has been ongoing, and this is part of a healthy democracy, where citizens are allowed to disagree by voicing out their opinions without fear or by submitting petitions to rally others to their cause.

Maszlee has mentioned that teachers are presently “required to do clerical work, and do not concentrate on the main thing, which is to teach”. This would resonate well with teachers who are experiencing burnout. It is good that Maszlee acknowledges the stress in the teaching profession.

But he speaks on behalf of government school teachers, where overarching policies issued by the government would be a decisive factor shaping the actions and decisions of the school leadership in government schools. I am curious about the policy measures that would influence education in the private sector.

More parents are sending children to private schools, and according to the chief executive officer of of Asia Pacific School, Nina Adlan Disney, private schools are a preferred option because of four aspects: adequate financing, effective pedagogy and syllabus, helpful internal policies, and autonomy and independence to decide staffing needs.

Having their children experience English as a medium of instruction is particularly crucial for many parents. As English is a lingua franca, employers are looking for workers who speak good English.

English is a tool for profit and economic advancement, as evident in an NST interview with a hotel general manager, who said that “English plays a pivotal role in distinguishing which companies have that extra edge against its competitors”.

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The commercialisation of the English language has occurred hand-in-hand with the educational exchange and spontaneous flow of international students. Apart from the divide between native and non-native speaking English teachers, with the hiring preferences of international schools in favour of native speakers, language teaching is a growing service industry.

The unpopularity of national schools, along with the Malaysian government’s strategy of removing limits on foreign ownership of international schools, introducing tax incentives and removing the 40% enrolment cap on Malaysian students, has led to the expansion of the international schools market.

Teachers who are working in the private sector are part of this cycle of money that involves the state and private sector business. Teachers are construed as service providers within institutions that act as enterprises (Clayson, DE, & Haley, DA (2005) Marketing Models in Education: Students as Customers, Products or Partners, Marketing Education Review, 15(1), pp1-10.7).

Certainly, the education business is booming. In 2016, Malaysia was ranked eighth, just behind Singapore, in a global survey on the cost of education at international schools, with an average price of US$21,600 (RM96,000) per year, US$100 cheaper than across the causeway.This survey, carried by ExpatFinder, accounted for 98 countries and 707 international schools. Its study of tuition fees in US dollars based on the median of sixth grade (or primary six).

In addition to lesson preparations and marking of work submitted by students, which forms the burden of after-school tasks that teachers bring home with them, perhaps educators work with the full awareness that they are part of a lucrative industry, as they strive to meet the expectations of parents (considered as customers, to show the parents they’re getting ‘value for money’), sponsors, administrators and students [O’Connor, KE (2008) “You Choose to Care: Teachers, Emotions and Professional Identity”, Teaching and Teacher Education, 24, pp117-126.9].

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As education is subjected to commercial pressures, the interests of business drive the vision of education, where market notions of efficiency, consumer choice and competition are perceived as driving up standards.

If this is the case, the question arises as to what ideals and values teachers are expected to espouse. The objectives of businesses are to maximise profit, which is easily measured. Education, on the other hand, lacks such a singularity of objective.

The advantages of privatisation of education have, however, widened options for parents. They want their children to be exposed to an alternative education system that prioritises English as a medium of instruction and emphasises learner autonomy in the embracing of critical thinking skills instead of rote learning.

An article in the NST investigated the various reasons parents choose to send their children to private or international schools. One parent commented that education in public schools is “textbook-oriented” and “doesn’t encourage thinking skills”, while the class size of a private school is smaller and allows more individual attention to be given to each learner.

Another parent noted that he would have let his son stay on at a national school if the Ministry of Education had continued the policy of teaching Mathematics and Science in English (PPSMI).

According to one student who switched from a national to an international school, she experienced more freedom compared to a national school. The national school “felt like a prison with too many rules and strict teachers. I didn’t like having to stand up every morning and have the pengawas check our clothes and nails. If our nails were too long, we’d kena rotan on our hand or cubit on our ears.”

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While private education brings benefits to some parents and their children, what can be done to mitigate the effects of commercialisation on education that might entrench inequalities and promote segregation among different income groups?

In 2015, the United Nations special rapporteur on the right to education, Kishore Singh, urged governments of member states “to refrain from privatising education if education is not free to all students, or if it increases inequality in society […] The rapid rise of private providers, often unregulated and privileging the wealthy, must be replaced by efforts which reduce inequality and expand opportunities of good quality education without exclusion”13.

While Maszlee has formulated some ideas for the public school system, he should also lay out his plans for private education. As we wait with bated breath for the changes to unfold in our country, we hope that the right to quality education will be afforded to all children and youth, who deserve a chance to realise their potential as empowered citizens.

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