Quality, Quantity, and Equity in Malaysian Education #2

Quality, Quantity, and Equity in Malaysian Education #2
M. Bakri Musa
[Second of Three Parts]

[In Part One I discuss the crucial role of workers’ cognitive abilities (language skills, mathematical competency, and science literacy) rather than years of formal schooling in determining and contributing to a country’s economic development. In this second part, I address quality, quantity and equity in Malaysian education.]

Trinity of Quality, Quantity, and Equity

The UN lauds Malaysia for meeting – indeed exceeding – the Millennium Development Goal of universal primary education. I caution against taking too seriously such praises. The UN works from the base of such countries as Afghanistan and Sub Sahara Africa; they should not be our reference point.

The dilemma of quality versus quantity is old and familiar. Retired Malaysians wistfully remember the old colonial English schools. Yes, they were good, and when you scored an “A” then, you knew that you were on par with those students in London and elsewhere who also scored an “A.” It was essentially the same examination. There was pride of achievement in that.

However, when you cater only to a tiny fraction of the population, you cannot claim credit for the success. Natural selection alone would guarantee you that.

Beyond the quality-quantity dilemma, those excellent colonial schools exposed yet another problem, that of access. Being only in urban centers, they effectively blocked out those in the villages. In a country where the urban-rural divide also paralleled (still does) racial and socio-economic cleavages, that was untenable and a recipe for social disaster.

Thus we have the added problem of equity to the already challenging quality-quantity conundrum. Again, this is not unique to Malaysia. America too faces its own equity problem, with well-funded suburban schools on one hand and dilapidated inner city schools on the other. As with Malaysia, race and socio-economic class compound that cleavage.

It is imperative that we address the trilemma of quality, quantity, and equity simultaneously; they are not incompatible. Achieving quality at the expense of quantity or equity is no victory. Quite apart from the inherent unjustness, it is hard for quality to be consequential in a sea of mediocrity. And if there is no equity in the system, it is simply not sustainable.

Equity at the expense of quality is hollow. That is socialism – yes, we are all equal, but equally poor. As for quantity without quality, that too is futile. Besides, it would doubly hard and more expensive to repair a damaged system; better to create a good one right from the very beginning.

Addressing all three would require a prodigious amount of commitment, an awareness of the obstacles, and a healthy dose of humility. The commitment would be not only of resources but also and perhaps more importantly, in leadership and political will.

Resources are necessarily limited; they must thus be expended prudently. Throwing money at a problem does not solve it; indeed that may spawn even greater problems like graft.

MARA spends billions to educate Malays through its expensive residential schools. The initial idea was great. Gather bright kids from poor rural areas and put them in residential schools where they would get good nutrition, modern living conditions, and superior educational opportunities. The impact would be greater than had resources been thinly spread through village schools, with each getting only a small fraction and not enough to make a substantial difference.

Indeed during the first decade or two, these schools worked as anticipated despite obvious leakages as with ministers’ children also being admitted. One wonders how much more effective it would have been had those children of the privileged been excluded.

However, good ideas, like good durians, have a shelf life. Today with urbanization, there are as many urban as rural poor Malays. As such, fully residential schools make less sense. MARA could instead have day schools in the towns to cater for those poor Malays in the area and thus save money in not having to house and feed them. If these schools were to have hostel facility, let it be limited to those living far away

Scrutinize MARA’s budget for education; the bulk would actually be spent on such non-educational items as feeding and housing the students. Yet in the statistics, those funds would be classified as expenditures on education.

Visit Malay College; the biggest building there is not the library or laboratories, but dormitories. The college will soon open its multimillion-dollar IB center. Again here, the bulk of the space and resources are not for education but simply to house and feed the students. Imagine if the center were to be a day facility (like the old Taylor College), it would be considerably cheaper to build and operate. You could then have three or four similar IB centers for the same cost, and benefiting that many more students, thus achieving both quantity and quality. And if we spread those centers around the country, we would also increase access, thus enhancing equity.

We could further increase quantity without sacrificing quality if we were to restrict entry only after Form III. Taking in students at Form I (the current practice) not only wastes scarce resources but is also psychologically unhealthy. Children should not be taken away from their families at such a tender and formative age.

On a smaller scale but in the aggregate quite large, if we restrict admission only to students in the immediate vicinity, we could save considerable transportation costs. Right now those ‘education’ costs are actually spent on chartering buses to transport students at the beginning and end of the school term. Think of the many library books and laboratory equipment that could be had if the money were not spent on those buses and train vouchers!

It is wasteful to have students from Kelantan attend MARA schools in Johore, while those in Klang Valley have to go to Kota Baru. A generation ago that was a good idea. Malays were parochial then and lacked a national identity. Thanks to the mobility of today’s society, that is no longer the case. So why persist on a resource-wasting practice that no longer serves its purpose?

Returning to Malay College, you would cry seeing the decrepit facilities. This is true of all the residential schools, even relatively new ones. Some MARA schools are now asking parents to take their children home during weekends to spare feeding expenses!

Query the stakeholders and their reflex answer would be to ask the government for more money. A typically Malay response! Yet there is one obvious and ready solution. Charge the parents, on a sliding scale based on taxable income. Even back in my days in the early 1960s there were quite a few who afford the full fare. A few of Mahathir’s children attended these expensive residential schools for free when he was Prime Minister.

With the extra revenue these schools could enhance their curricular offerings and physical facilities. More importantly, the thought of having to fork out those expenses might prompt rich parents to think twice about enrolling their children, thus freeing up slots for children of the poor.

Similar more efficient allocation of resources could be had at our universities. Currently the bulk of the new students have only SPM. The university thus wastes academic and other resources catering to those doing essentially Form VI in the first year. If we were to expand Form VI and restrict university admission only to those from there, the students would not only be better prepared but they would also get more out of the same number of their undergraduate years.

The universities’ matrikulasi and diploma programs are also a colossal waste as these could be undertaken more cheaply and effectively elsewhere, as at schools and polytechnics. Yes, there was a time when concurrently running the diploma program represented the optimal use of scarce campus facilities, but those days are now long gone. Today, our universities should focus only on academic activities that could not be done elsewhere, that is, education at the undergraduate and graduate level.

Scrutinize the typical university budget; the bulk (both operating as well as capital) is for non-academic purposes, as in feeding and housing the students, faculty quarters, and vice-chancellor’s residence. Today’s university is not only an academic institution but also a major hotel with long-term ‘guests’ in the thousands. This of course is a necessity but there is no reason why such non-academic activities could not be ‘out-sourced,’ thus freeing the university of the onerous burden. Marriott, the giant hospitality company, feeds and houses students on many American campuses. If Malaysian universities were to do the same, they could then send their deputy VCs in charge of housing back to teaching and doing research.

Malaysian universities also have extensive housing units for their staff. Again this is a waste. Some American universities also provide housing, but to attract young faculty members who otherwise would go elsewhere. In contrast, housing on Malaysian campuses are for established staff members who are not necessarily academics. Often they stay on long after they have retired!

There is waste at another albeit lower (cost-wise) level. I once met a Malaysian dean at a scientific convention in America. He had first class air ticket and stayed at a five-star hotel. Had he traveled economy and stayed at a more modest facility, he could have taken three or four of his fellow faculty members to that meeting. Imagine the good that would do to his staff and institution!

His excuse was that per civil service code he was ‘entitled’ to first class treatment. There we go again, that entitlement mentality! You cannot get rid of it even after you become dean and vice-chancellor.

Effectively addressing quality, quantity and equity would require efficient allocation of resources. That however, would require another commitment – from the leadership. This is desperately lacking.

Prime Minister Najib exhorts our graduates to discard their budaya menuggu dan pasif (culture of waiting and passivity), yet he is blind to the onerous and highly intrusive rules that govern our students. It is like challenging them to explore the wider world but at the same time keeping them on a tight leash.

Our leaders also keep reminding us of the importance of English, yet they shy away from making that a requirement for university entrance. They decry the lack of qualified workers in science and technology, but examine our public universities and the bulk of the resources are devoted to other than those fields. To reemphasize, effectively addressing quality, quantity and equity would require the commitment of not only resources but also and more importantly, leadership and political will.

Next: Part Three: Clinical Trials in Educational Initiatives

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