Wednesday, October 20, 2010

It’s The Little Things That Matter

One of the funny things about the debate over Malaysian educational reform is that it’s distinctly lopsided (at least, from my perspective). A lot of the focus is on the structural graduate unemployment that Malaysia faces, which naturally leads to the feeling that it’s the universities that are in dire need of change. (There’s also the issue of vernacular schools, but there’s better commentary on that in the blogosphere than I could ever give).

But the empirical evidence suggests that life outcomes are highly correlated with the quantity and quality of primary education, and somewhat less so with secondary education. Tertiary education doesn’t even get a look in, though on an individual level it helps to be at a good college. The implication is that early education is far more important than many people realise, and the earlier the better.

Malaysia has a good record of primary school attendance, which addresses the quantity part (you can check the statistics via the World Bank’s online World Development Indicators database). Quality is of course another issue.

Continuing on this theme, pre-school education (for 3-5 yr olds) logically gives kids a head start. Brain development is particularly rapid at this stage of life, and providing the correct “inputs” like language, social, and math skills make for better students – and hopefully better, more productive people – later on.

Amid all the hoopla about 100-story buildings and billion dollar transport systems, it’s easy to miss some of the more important structural changes that the government is making in the economy.

To wit:

Universal pre-school education on track

THE goal to achieve universal pre-school enrolment for Malaysian children by 2020 was given a boost when the Education Ministry surpassed the Education National Key Results Area (NKRA) target to have a 72% pre-school enrolment rate. Till September, a total of 697, 469 children (72.04%) were enrolled – an increase of 54,569 children from last year’s enrolment rate of 67%.

Education deputy director-general (Education Operations) Datuk Noor Rezan Bapoo Hashim said that this was down to successful mobilisation efforts which saw 1,381 new pre-schools built nationwide as well as encouraging private sector involvement.

Statistics from the ministry showed that private providers had set up 506 new pre-schools while the ministry set up 325.

Tthe Community Deve­lopment Department (Kemas) and the Department of National Unity and Integration (Perpaduan) had set up 500 and 50 schools respectively...

...“The private sector is heavily involved and this complements the efforts conducted by the ministry, Kemas and Perpaduan. We have surpassed this year’s target and are on course to meet the 2012 target to have an 87% enrolment rate.

“A 100% pre-school enrolment rate by 2020 is achievable and this would make Malaysia one of the few countries to have successfully done so. Don’t forget that we have already achieved this with primary education.”

Noor Rezan said that the private sector was encouraged by the Government’s friendly policies, like the provision of a launching grant worth RM10,000 which is disbursed to new private providers who charge fees of less than RM150 per child per month. A total of 256 new private pre-schools have received the grant so far.

256 new schools isn’t a bad return for a public investment of less than RM2.6 million. We still haven’t dealt with the quality issue at either primary or pre-school levels, but at least we’re getting a handle on the quantity problem.

One cautionary note here is that we’re dealing with a fairly large age cohort – if you’ve seen my posts on Malaysia’s demographics, you’ll see this big bulge of youngsters who will soon be moving through the education system. That will stress both physical (schools, and universities later on) and soft infrastructure (teachers) for at least the next 20-30 years. I’m also sure that costs for sending kids to pre-school are an issue for many parents.

But a start this is nevertheless.


  1. The emphasis on tertiary eduction, I believe, is driven more by the need for Malaysia to achieve developed or high income status, rather than sound economic reasoning.

    Publicly funded tertiary education, I believe is also regressive, in that the beneficiaries are mostly middle income families.

    Most disappointing is also the quality of tertiary students, are suspect.

  2. Agreed.

    Looking at tertiary education in developed countries, the level of enrollment is astonishgly wide - which suggests that while higher education is associated with high income, it's not a precondition.

    I think the quality problem is deeper rooted than the quality of education in our universities, hence this post.

    As they say, garbage in, garbage out. Turning out quality graduates, means giving universities some decent raw material to work with. My wife was just complaining about the initiative and skills of first years just now(she's a senior lecturer at a local research university).

    It's not lack of intelligence that handicaps our graduates, but rather attitude, aptitude and skills. That's not something universities are equipped to overcome - reforms need to be done further down in the education system.