An Education System Worthy of Malaysia #26

Chapter 4: Deficiencies of the System (Cont’d)

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Residential Schools and Matrikulasi

The track record of the system in meeting the needs of the more academically inclined is not much better either. Bright Bumiputra students are selected to continue their secondary studies at residential schools. These schools are free; in addition students from poor families receive a stipend.

These schools are also very expensive to operate, with the bulk of the funds going merely to feed and house the students. With such diversion of resources, little is left for academic activities. Thus even though these schools get the best students, their aggregate academic performance is wanting.

In the past students who passed the special entrance examination would continue right away into the two-year pre-university (Sixth Form) in January. They had 24 months of continuous academic study that prepared them well for university. Stories abound of students who failed Sixth Form and were not accepted to local universities only to shine when they went abroad, a reflection of the rigor of the program.

Unfortunately nobody thought of expanding the program and before long it became a chokehold on the supply of undergraduates, especially Bumiputras. In an effort to boost the number of Bumiputra undergraduates, UM embarked on an imaginative outreach program where selected students would be brought on campus after completing their Form Five. The argument was that if they were exposed early to the campus environment and taught by qualified personnel, they would do well. The experiment was a resounding success and these students indeed did indeed excel.

Matrikulasi was designed specifically for Bumiputras as few of them successfully came through Sixth Form. Most schools where they attended were in small towns and did not have Sixth Form. Thus the overall quality of teaching suffered, with the students poorly prepared for the entrance examination. Further, undoubtedly related, Bumiputra students who did manage to enter Sixth Form did not perform well, reflecting the poor teaching of science and mathematics at the lower levels. Matrikulasi was thus to augment and complement Sixth Form.

The success of matrikulasi emboldened the government to expand it. Today matrikulasi has effectively supplanted Sixth Form. I have not visited the matrikulasi run directly by the universities. Looking at the facilities and qualifications of the instructors (many with doctoral degrees), I have no doubt that these programs are far superior to the old Sixth Form. But it is the freestanding programs and those “franchised” to private institutions that concern me. I have visited some of them, talked to the instructors, and examined the students’ handbooks. Their courses are definitely watered down. This is not a surprise. For one, matrikulasi runs for one year (actually two semesters, which are shorter than one school year) while Sixth Form is two full school years. In terms of actual instructional hours, matrikulasi is less than half of Sixth Form. Additionally Sixth Form begins immediately in January while matrikulasi starts typically in June. During that long hiatus considerable attrition of knowledge occurs. The first few weeks or even months of matrikulasi involve reviewing old material.

The most damning criticism of matrikulasi is that despite having been in place for over three decades, there is little research comparing its efficacy to that of Sixth Form or other matriculating examinations. One study done by UUM‘s researchers showed that students who went through Sixth Form performed better than those from matrikulasi. This was presented at an academic forum and was widely reported in the national press under the banner, “Malay students perform poorly as compared to non-Malays.” The basis for that conclusion was that students in Sixth Form were non-Malays while matrikulasi, Malays. Looking at the data, an equally valid conclusion would be that matrikulasi prepares students poorly for university and that race has nothing to do with the results. Indeed had the researchers drawn this conclusion, the next logical question to ask is, “Why?” One clue would be to look at the number of instructional hours.

I am appalled that such half-baked studies, poorly designed, and the data erroneously interpreted were even accepted for presentation and then widely and uncritically reported in the media. Even more surprising was that no professional educators challenged the obviously silly findings. I e-mailed the coauthors of the paper with my criticism; none bothered to reply.

This lack of solid research is even more revealing when one considers that many of the programs are being run by the universities. This lack of intellectual curiosity on the part of the academic community is truly shocking.

A more damning criticism of both residential schools and matrikulasi is the insularity and homogeneity of their students, thus diminishing the overall quality of the education itself. These students compete in a limited environment.

These residential schools take away bright students from regular schools, depleting the overall caliber of those remaining. This demoralizes the teachers, as there is no nucleus or core of bright students to stimulate and motivate the class. When I visit rural schools, the frequent excuse I get from the teachers is that their bright students have been siphoned off to residential schools.

Our schools have not served the non-academically inclined as well as those aspiring for universities. Who exactly have they served?

Next: The Universities

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