Politicians need to start addressing how the politicisation of our education system and the pathetic controls imposed have resulted in the rot in tertiary education, says Zaharom Nain.
The Second Education Minister, Idris Jusoh, surely couldn’t have imagined the depth and richness of the cow manure he was stepping into when he announced – with a straight face, I’m sure – that Malaysia’s higher education is now ‘world class’.
According to numerous reports, Idris made the claim when speaking to reporters in Jerteh, Terengganu, on 22 February 2015. This claim of ‘world class’ status, according to him, was being made based on the increasing number of foreign students studying in Malaysian universities.
So, for many, Idris was saying that because the number of foreign students in Malaysia was now rather high as compared to a number of other countries, this meant that Malaysia – and, by extension, Malaysian universities – were now ‘world class’.
Of course he was virtually immediately whacked kaw kaw by our reliable opposition MPs, especially by Dr Ong Kian Ming, Tony Pua and Nurul Izzah Anwar.
Ong and Pua are no strangers to debates on Malaysia’s education system. For many years before they became MPs, both had been blogging consistently – and critically – about education in Malaysia.
Needless to say, both know what they’re talking about. So, evidently, does Bukit Bendera MP Zairil Khir Johari, the son of a former education minister, who provided statistics indicating who these foreign students are.
His figures illustrate that they are from countries where the education systems are inferior to ours. For him, a possible sign of our institutions having become world class would be the number of foreign students they attract from more advanced countries.
Training their sights on Idris’s rather silly contention, they rightly pointed out that by no stretch of the imagination can increasing foreign student numbers in our universities be a valid sign that we are now world class.
Less publicised have been the comments made by two senior academics from Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia’s (UKM) Institute of Ethnic Studies (Kita).
Both also criticised, albeit more gently, Idris’s contention, stating that increasing numbers alone cannot be interpreted as Malaysian higher education becoming ‘world class’.
Indeed, the clear message put forward by these politicians and academics is that quantity alone (increasing student numbers) cannot make us ‘world class’.
Unless, of course, we are talking about having the largest number of, say, roti canai gobbled down in one go, or some other silly Book of Records feat that we are so proud of attempting and then loudly announcing it to the rest of the world.
Student quality needs to be factored in
No, as all these critics have pointed out, the quality of the students, among so many other factors, needs to be factored in before self-serving politicians can start making claims that are valid and not outlandish and embarrassing.
But, instead of simply offering an apology for his boastful gaffe, the minister concerned opted to do a couple of things politicians are famous for doing in Malaysia.
First came the obligatory – and rather vacuous – retort that Ong and co were ‘politicising’ the issue. Up until today, I doubt many Malaysians understand what BN politicians mean when they say others are ‘politicising’ the issue. Especially when, often enough, they are the ones politicising.
Be that as it may, still digging his heels deep in the not-so-fragrant cow manure, the minister then did another manoeuvre that regime politicians are quite well-known for – he shifted goalposts.
Sidestepping the main – and, for many, the only – issue that he himself had brought up, that is, increasing foreign student numbers signifying our education system being ‘world class’, he brought in other factors.
In a long 72-paragraph Facebook post titled ‘What it means to be world class’ and seemingly prepared by his minions, the minister waffled on about purportedly significant achievements, primarily by Malaysian public universities and academics.
Which is all fine and good. But citing new statistics quite unrelated to his initial assertion of ‘world class’ status due to foreign student numbers still doesn’t address the criticisms he received. And it certainly doesn’t make for a convincing response.
It is, of course, nice to be the bearer of good news. And politicians love doing that.
But, certainly not at a time when our higher education system is regularly being criticised – largely by potential employers, mind you – for producing graduates who cannot communicate effectively, even in the national language.
Certainly, indeed, not at a time when these poor graduates can’t even think creatively, let alone critically.
At a time like this, these politicians need to stop falling head first into all that cow manure and start addressing these issues that have been festering for decades.
Issues that require an honest assessment of how the politicisation of our education system and the pathetic controls imposed have resulted in the rot that tertiary education, indeed ALL levels of education in Malaysia, find themselves in.
An honest assessment, with the aim of genuinely moving this country’s education system forward, would need people in our Education Ministry to negotiate the numerous minefields.
Instead of wading in cow manure.