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Response to Koon Yew Yin’s article: Dr Ahamed Kameel

Malaysia producing too many low-grade graduates?

I AM writing this in response to an article attributed to Mr. Koon Yew Yin (KYY), posted on July 24, 2019 titled “Malaysia is producing too many low-grade graduates”

Education is very important for the overall development of a nation. Countries that made education, at least the primary and secondary levels, compulsory on their citizens generally do well socio-economically. Education is part of human development itself, that can also affect the general health levels of the people.

KYY clearly targets the public universities when he starts out saying that only 6 of our 20 public universities are globally recognized through rankings. He questions the standards of the remaining 14 unranked ones.

He does not seem bothered about the ranks of the private universities, but asserts that due to competition for students, these institutions together with their public counterparts are producing low-grade graduates. Firstly he did not define what he means by low-grade graduates. One should give some measurements and data to claim such things.

KYY cited data from Ministry of Education that out of 538,555 students enrolled in tertiary education (end of 2017), 180,000 (33%) are students of the six top-ranked universities while the rest, i.e. 67% are students of the unranked ones.

He specifically highlighted that there are 165,000 students in the exclusively Bumiputra Universiti Teknologi Mara, UiTM. He also estimates that since the end of NEP the education system to have produced more than 3 million graduates, with 2.5 million from the Malay community. He admits that “this output of higher degree certificated manpower within such a short time is not only a staggering achievement, but possibly unprecedented in the world.”

However his pressing question was: Why with such large output of manpower with tertiary education Malaysia is still not a developed nation?

Then he gives a reason, i.e. because almost all the Malaysian civil servants are Malays; and what can be expected when Malaysia is managed by thousands of low-grade graduates. Clearly there is prejudice and assumption in this statement, i.e. Malays are low-grade graduates. Even before discussing this, one should define what one means by a developed nation.

Conventional definitions that focus on GDP per capita have been much questioned and discarded away nowadays. Such narrow objectives have widened the gap between the rich and the poor, caused environmental destruction, moral bankruptcy, etc. That’s why now the United Nations has come up with a new measure, i.e. the Inclusive Wealth Index (IWI) that computes a composite index comprising of produced wealth, human wealth and natural wealth.

The present education system of the West, that which we are “proud” of, in a way produced people who can contribute to the production process, scientifically etc. but generally devoid of ethics, compassion and without regard for the environment. Observing the unsustainable situations the current global nations have been brought into, indeed we need to redefine what true development is. This is the reason why the whole world, including the so-called developed nations, now talks about Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Incidentally, it is some of the unranked universities that are focusing on such important areas. For example the International Islamic University Malaysia focuses its teaching, research and innovation on value-based holistic and integrated education for sustainable development. These are not captured in current ranking criteria and we in the education industry know that global ranking is simply very much business-driven. Many institutions still take part in them because parents and employers still consider rankings when making choice.

But in reality rankings are nothing but business and marketing tools.

If one were to take a stock of professionals, CEOs, accomplished businessmen, politicians etc. in the country, one would find them mostly the graduates of unranked universities. Minister Syed Saddiq, Dr. Rais Hussin the PBBM’s chief strategist and many others are all graduates of unranked universities.

Professor Harry R. Lewis of Harvard University wrote the book “Excellence Without A Soul: How a Great University Forgot Education” that gave an overall analysis of higher education in the US, with special reference to Harvard University (ranked 3rd by QS). Just a few months ago Professor Victoria Bateman of Cambridge (ranked 6 by QS) gave a talk in complete nakedness! World rankings do not consider these things but true education of human beings would.

Universities therefore should collaborate with each other for the benefit of mankind instead of competing and pitting against each other for better rankings. Accordingly, it’s now time to move beyond the old school of per capita GDP, university rankings etc.

Having said those, I am not saying Malaysia has an excellent tertiary education system. There is always room for improvement. As new discoveries are made in all areas, we have to constantly change and adapt to new situations. But please do not simply attack the Malaysian education system. Most of us, including KYY I believe, are products of the Malaysian education system.

I am quite satisfied with what it has developed me into, and I am proud of it. If we have ideas to improve the system then please suggest them without politicizing things. For your information KYY, the public is already sick of people politicizing all things in this country.

Malaysia is not ready for meritocracy yet. Why? There is a historical reason for this. When the colonialist introduced the banking system in the 1860’s in the Straits Settlement, they also introduced paper money that replaced the then precious metal coins. Many of us do not know that the original ringgit was a silver coin that weighed about 20 grams.

This paper money gave a huge benefit to its issuers and practically overturned the economic dominance of the Malay-Muslims business community. The Malay-Muslim community was relatively financially excluded for more than 100 years, causing a huge wealth transfer to other races. Any people given such a head start with abundant resources surely can and would excel in all areas – business, education etc.

Only when the NEP was introduced, the Malay-Muslim community began to see some financial inclusion. It was Tun Mahathir’s 1980’s policy, as the then Education Minister, to send large numbers of Malays overseas for education that created a new significant Malay middle-income class.

Otherwise the Malay-Muslim community would have been totally devastated by now. Therefore we cannot talk about meritocracy unless we address this historical injustice done to the Malay-Muslim community. Nonetheless, I would agree we should finally move towards meritocracy after we have corrected this historical injustice.

As for your quote “Now everybody has a degree”, if we can truly achieve that I would certainly support and be proud of it; a positive thing if a significant number of university students come from B40 Malay households. Isn’t education the means to escape poverty?

Education is human wealth, human development. We should therefore refrain from simply tying education to employability. With good education people can become employers or be self-employed. In the future I foresee most people would be a hybrid employer-employed individuals.

As for problems and issues faced in public universities like plagiarism, research standards etc. these are universal problems not unique to public universities. We just have to continue addressing them and improving the education system in all areas and all levels.

Particularly I agree that we need to do a lot more to improve transparency and efficiency in governance.

It is my contention that education up to tertiary level, for every person irrespective of race or religion, should be publicly funded. This is because every child is not only an asset to its parents, but also an asset to the nation and the world. The prerequisite is that the child must be educated.

Now, do we really need a Royal Commission of Inquiry to look into all these?

Dr Ahamed Kameel Mydin Meera
Adjunct Professor and Former Dean,
IIUM Institute of Islamic Banking and Finance,
International Islamic University Malaysia

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy

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