The Impact of Growth in International Schools
by M. Bakri Musa
The government has gone beyond removing quotas, as with granting tax and other incentives, to encourage the growth of international schools. However, growth depends more on market forces, principally the demand which in turn is related to costs. Lower the cost and you expand the market. Reducing red tape, as with making it easy to get permits and secure visas, would lower costs far more effectively than any other move.
If there is a market and profit to be made, entrepreneurs will come in. That is the beauty and genius of the capitalist economy. I have no problem with education being “for profit”. That would be no different than the health and other sectors. Profit is just another measure of discipline, effectiveness, and productivity.
There will some educator-entrepreneurs who would focus only on quality education and dispense with fancy gyms, Olympic swimming pools, and ornate entrance arches, thus making their services affordable. Some parents may even accept slightly crowded classrooms in return for affordability. After all they willingly choose international schools and pay those huge expenses; they and their children are thus motivated and could handle larger classes and other inconveniences. They do not need pampering; they just want a Western education and are not interested whether their children would play soccer with the children of Mat Salleh diplomats and expatriate executives. These local children would be diligent no matter how big the class is; their parents would ensure that. Besides, research indicates that there is little correlation between class size and students’ achievements. The most important factor to a child’s success in school is parental involvement; and motivated parents (meaning, those who have fork out tons of money) are involved parents.
Those newer and less expensive schools would not be competing against Tunku Jaafar College, rather our national schools. Their major selling point would not be that these schools are “international” rather that they use English and have a Western curriculum. You can be assured that with the removal of quotas there will still be no lineups at the Chinese or Indonesian International School.
With the increased demand, I envisage our government-linked companies setting up international schools. After all they are already involved in owning and running private hospitals, why not international schools? MARA could also set up such schools or even convert their existing junior colleges and open up the enrolment. Imagine those colleges being sources of revenue instead of draining it!
Removal of quotas is only the first step. The government’s next major role should be to protect the public by keeping out hustlers and fly-by-night operators who are more adept at ripping off customers than serving them. One provision would be to require performance bonds so that if the school were to close down, parents would be reimbursed, plus an appropriate penalty. That should be the minimum “soft” requirement; there of course would be other “hard” requirements aimed at ensuring pupil safety.
At the next level the government should ensure quality, again to protect consumers. However, I do not think that the teachers at Tuanku Jaafar or Bukit Kiara would look kindly to overbearing Ministry officials setting the standards. Instead the ministry should encourage self-regulation and accreditation. Again here we should be careful that the process aims for enhancement of quality and not be subverted to become hidden barriers to new entrants, or worse, another source of corruption. That would only increase costs.
Increased competition would result in the trickling down of affordability. This is true for education as well as aviation. The success of Air Asia is testimony to that. The government’s projection of 75,000 students and 87 schools by 2020 could be easily exceeded. Thailand already has over 200 such schools. Based on our economy and tradition of English education, aided considerably by the deplorable quality of our public schools, the potential local market is even larger and definitely ready for massive expansion.
Impact of More Malaysians at International Schools
Those who enroll in international schools are no ordinary Malaysians; they are the children of the rich and powerful. As such they are destined to play major roles in the nation’s affairs. They will have a clear path to the top because of their superior education and parental influence, though more likely in the reverse order, this being Malaysia. Right now their impact is minimal because of their small numbers. With the anticipated growth, their influence will surely grow.
Even if they were to become only teachers (not to slight the profession), they will bring new style and perspectives to their classrooms; they will be noticed though initially only by their students but later, fellow teachers and the general community. That can only be positive, for the pupils, fellow teachers, the school, and indeed the entire system. Were they to end up as headmasters, professors, senior civil servants, and executives helming major GLCs, their impact would only increase, to the benefit of the nation.
Prime Minister Najib brags of his “transformation program”. However, it is too much to expect present ministers and civil servants to effect that. Brought up under the current system and having reached the top under it, they are not likely to find fault. To them, the ingrained ethos of the civil service, kami menurut perentah (I follow orders!) is hard to break. Their schools and universities have not taught them how to think critically and independently, only to regurgitate what had been fed into them and to perform according to what had been programmed in them. Their career successes have been predicated on complying diligently with the commands of their superiors. When they reach the top they perpetuate that culture.
The only hope for change is to have a critical mass of Malaysians brought up through international schools becoming policymakers and heads of departments. That is the more significant long-term benefits I see with the removal of quotas and other restrictions on international schools.
Meanwhile in the short term expect some difficulties. The initial accompanying educational inequities could potentially be explosive especially when tied to race. However, with the rise of the Malay upper class (either legitimately or otherwise) and with international schools becoming less expensive, we could also soon get a critical mass of these Malays.
The flip side is that with affluent and influential Malay parents abandoning national schools, the impact on those remaining would be severe. With the top creamed off, the average in national schools would go down. Whereas before those parents would demand higher expectations from these schools, now that they are gone, there will be little impetus for improvement. That would grease the slide of our national schools.
It would not be long before a culture of mediocrity and low expectation would become entrenched. Our national schools would then be like America’s inner-city public schools, dangerous and dysfunctional warehouses for the young, the breeding grounds for Mat Rempits and Minah Karans.
Such a dismal future is not destined. Creatively handled, the removal of quotas for international schools could be the impetus for improving our national schools. For one, for every local child enrolled in an international school means that there would be one fewer pupil in national school and one less associated expense. The saved resource could then be showered on those remaining. Even if there were to be an exodus out of national schools, the bright side would be that those schools would now be less crowded and the teachers could afford to spend more time with their pupils.
With quality international schools being the new model, there will be the associated general uplifting of educational expectations among Malaysians. Malay parents will now aspire an education for their children the caliber of that offered at Tuanku Jaafar, not Malay College or MARA Junior College. Consider the example of the retail sector. Now with clean, air-conditioned supermarkets found even in small towns, Malaysians demand fresh products, efficient services, and pleasant environment. Those sundry store operators with their bare armpits contemptuously “serving” their customers will have to change or risk closing down.
That is the positive impact on our national schools I envisage with the removal of quotas on international schools. We have to strive to achieve that end; it will not happen by default.
If we fail to achieve that, then be prepared to suffer the consequence of our national schools being reduced to dysfunctional human warehouses. With that, we condemn future generations of Malays. That would be far from being an inconsequential impact as Muhyyiddin had assured us earlier.