Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad
A few months back I was involved in an ongoing project that was related to education. Although I’ve discussed the issue with different people over the years, it was then that I realised how entrenched the one-size-fits-all-education system is to the education establishment, and gave me a few ideas on the strategic redirection of our education system.
First, I share the belief that an equal access to education is crucial to all societies. Education, more than anything else, can promote social mobility. Therefore, the government should focus on aggressively overcoming the weaknesses in rural schools to increase the odds of poor children escaping the vicious cycle of poverty.
Secondly, however, I think that the education system should strive to be flexible because it’s impossible to ensure equality of outcome. Now, most students going to government schools are forced to endure the same system more or less until they are 15. This is far from ideal. The brightest children should be identified early, and nurtured so that they are able to fulfil their potential. Yes, this promotes elitism, but there is a big difference between an intellectual and social elite.
“This abhorrence of an elite lies at the very heart of our educational troubles, first at school, then at university,” writes a columnist in The Observer, UK. “Most rational people would accept, as a matter of manifest fact, that not everyone can be a Nobel Prize winner. But though they accept that, they then go on, half-automatically, to suggest that everyone should be given the chance to become a laureate.”
Undoubtedly, in the obsession with equality in Malaysia stemmed from the inheritance of a greatly unequal society separated across racial lines from the British. This coincided with the global wave for equality as countries in Asia and Africa became independent while Europe was recovering from the war. It is therefore of no surprise that the focus of the government in the 1960s and 1970s was to build as many schools and universities as possible through a unified educational system.
But times have changed. True, disparities remained. Yet the dynamics are different: a Malay middle class has been created, and the world has become more globalised. Parents are more ambitious and have lofty aspirations. This is where we need to come up with a new system to face the new realities.
Bureaucrats, from my experience, prefer to ignore this problem with their obsession of the one-size-fits-all education system. While they continue to pretend that the problem does not exist, many middle-class parents choose to send their children to private and international schools; while many non-Malay (and some Malay) parents send their children to Chinese schools. It’s a myth that only rich families send their children to private schools. Many lower middle-class families struggle to ensure that their children get the best education they do not get in government schools. For some, it’s a social lottery as they can only afford to send some of their children to private schools.
On the other end, our job market is flooded by a burgeoning pool of graduates from local public universities, local private institutions and foreign institutions Ð while employers are complaining that the quality of our graduates is deteriorating.
Of course, part of the remedy lies in reforming our universities. But real change can only be achieved earlier through a broad overhaul of our education system, starting with our schools.
To its credit the government has signalled some changes: a greater flexibility for parents to send their children to international school and more autonomy for schools. Sadly, on both counts the Ministry of Education seems to lack imagination.
The former is an admission that our education system is a failure, while the latter does not go far enough.
What the ministry should consider, actually, is a strategic change for the national education system that provides for flexibility and meaningful autonomy within the system itself that can promote integration across racial and class differences. As iterated above, this system should be based on the following principles:
- A broad based curriculum to meet the needs of today’s world;
- Radical improvement in rural schools to boost the achievement of rural children;
- A fast-track system that allows the brightest minds to be nurtured and challenged from the earliest age; and
- A recognition that not all students can or should go to university, by expanding skills and vocational education
We need to look only across the causeway to see how successful Singapore is. Not only that its education system as a whole has better facilities than ours, but it also allows its premier schools a degree of autonomy. As a result, institutions such as Raffles become part of a global supply chain for Ivy League universities and Oxbridge, while its own National University of Singapore has become one of the world’s top institutions.
To solve our woes, it requires us to be honest with ourselves, and to think outside the box. Otherwise, Malaysia will continue to be left behind and worse still, our children will continue to suffer.