Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Transforming Education

DS Idris Jala is singing the education blues (excerpt):

Everyone should participate in education

If there is one area where there is a never-ending stream of complaints it is in education. Critics of our education system argue that the quality of education in schools and universities has dropped. We hear this plaintive cry, over and over again...

...Yes, there are deficiencies in our education system – we recognise that. We often won’t be able to fix these overnight but rest assured we are taking concrete steps to deal with each and every one of them...

...There are gaps in our education system which we must address. Under the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) we ranked 52nd for science, 57th for mathematics and 44th for reading – out of 74 countries – in 2010. Rankings we must aspire to improve on...

...One of the major moves initiated was to improve access to quality early childhood education.

This is based on the premise that most of those entering schools already have a basic knowledge of reading, writing and arithmetic. Without these basic, these children start their education journey, at a disadvantage.

This Early Child Care Education programme is a key part of our efforts to put all students entering the education system on par right from the start and will help to redress imbalances caused by disparities in socio-economic standing. We are focusing on increasing pre-school enrolment to 87% (77% in 2011, just short of the 80% target) and eventually make it universal. We built 3089 pre-school classes in 2011, exceeding our target of 2755 by 12%. In addition, 6421 private pre-school teachers were trained by public and private higher education institutions last year.

We are also increasing opportunities for all to be fully literate and numerate through various programmes such as literacy and numeracy screening (LINUS) for primary 1, 2 and 3 students. Through this initiative, we are increasing the literacy and numeracy of our students and we have exceeded targets that we have set ourselves. By 2012 we are targeting 100% literacy and numeracy among primary 3 students (excluding special needs children).

To raise the bar further we are ranking all schools and identifying high performing schools. We have new performance-based assessments for head teachers to innovate, improve upon and deliver high performance...

...From this year we are shifting the focus to improving quality as well as improving access to the overall education system. We have launched 15 new initiatives under the teacher quality improvement key performance indicators to improve teaching quality.

Meantime, the Ministry of Education has commissioned a comprehensive review of the education system which is being undertaken by an external panel of industry and academic leaders. This will be unveiled later this year. Even as you read this column, the Education Lab under the GTP 2.0 is planning what we need to do in 2013 and beyond. Some of the initiatives will build on what we have done so far, whilst others will be new ones. Regardless, all the initiatives will be focused on producing the right outcomes...

Almost lost in all the brouhaha over PTPTN, the gap between employer wants and graduate skills, and the quality of Malaysian education generally, is where do we start first? What’s the most effective use of resources in bringing about the changes everyone seems to want?

The research on educational outcomes suggests early intervention is both cheaper and more effective in bringing about better life outcomes. Translation: It’s not about fixing the universities, it’s about pre-school and primary education. The existence of a “college premium” is indisputable – university graduates earn more over their lifetime than non-graduates, even after controlling for ability, opportunity and parental background. But that doesn’t mean the most effective use of government resources should be geared towards “fixing” our universities, or making tertiary education “free”.

Frankly, by the time students get to university, it’s almost too late for any effective and meaningful intervention, especially with respect to the things employers want our graduates to have – language and communications skills, not just technical knowledge. Those skills are picked up at an early age, typically in the first ten years of a child’s life, but very particularly in the first six years or so. Cognitive development – logic and the ability to recognise abstractions for instance – develops later.

I’ll repeat an important point from the article above:

This is based on the premise that most of those entering schools already have a basic knowledge of reading, writing and arithmetic.

If a quarter of our children go into primary school without these basics, they start off with a huge handicap, a handicap that carries over into later stages of education. Fixing this part alone – providing for universal pre-school education – will pay enormous dividends, not just in ensuring better educational outcomes down the road, but reducing inequality of incomes and opportunities.

37 comments:

  1. I wonder why the focus is only on improving students. Yes, maybe as you say, it is cheaper. But the poor education system is not only because of access to it. In terms of access, we have plenty. According to the TIMSS, we are scoring below the world average in science and mathematics consistently.

    This is not only an access to education problem. This is a quality problem. Something has to be done with the teachers. I am not necessarily trashing teachers in general, because many of my relatives are teachers and I know how hard their jobs can be. But I think the focus has never been on the teachers. I am not talking about just providing better training for teachers. I think the whole thing has to be revamped, right from the recruitment all the way up to the Minister of Education himself.

    In the present situation, being a teacher is seen as a "last resort". I have seen teachers in my secondary school who graduated with engineering degrees and whatnot and were unable to land an engineering position. So they had to settle for teaching "Lukisan Teknik" under KH. Bear in mind that these are probably considered to be among the better teachers. Primary school teachers are not even required to have degrees. There something greatly wrong about the perception of what being a teacher is. It is a noble profession. But the way the government is treating it, it is as if being a teacher is what you do when you have failed in everything else. It is appalling.

    To get a proper long run solution we need to focus on getting good teachers. We have a lot of good students. The problem is none of them want to become teachers.

    We need to turn teaching into a prestigious occupation. It is, after all, the seed to economic prosperity through talent development. Being a teacher should be a privilege, not a last resort. Make the requirements to become a teacher just as tough as being a doctor, and accept only the best students, and award them the commensurate pay. Give them a grueling programme, but with corresponding incentives. To make it fair for teachers who are already teaching who want to participate in such incentives, make them go through the same programmes.

    Now, of course such "things" already exist. I have seen the kind of exams that they make teachers do to get special "allowances" and "increments". It is a bunch of hogwash.

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  2. Shihong,

    I don't think the focus is just on improving students. If you read through the whole article (e.g. the second last paragraph I quoted above from the article) teacher quality is on the agenda as well. It's just my choice to focus on pre-school education, as that's where I think the biggest immediate impact will be.

    One problem with trying to improve teacher effectiveness is the sheer scope of the problem - 40% of the government's manpower is in education, just under half a million people. That's a lot of inertia to overcome right there.

    On a different tack, we can't forget the role parents must play too. The UK has just instituted a parent training program, which is an idea we might want to explore.

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  3. I don't disagree with you that "improving teachers" are on the agenda. I just don't think the government is taking this seriously enough. I don't want to turn this into a political argument, but it is hard to say you are serious when your Minister of Education is a big joke.

    Yes, I know that the inertia is huge. But the standards need to be raised. We need to start somewhere. My suggestion would be to raise the bar for graduate teachers, then make it compulsory for teachers with 5 years or less experience go through the same kind of programme. Those who fail, will no longer be allowed to teach. Make them re-sit the programme at their own expense until they pass before allowing them into the profession.

    At the moment, the good teachers are more willing to spend their extra time teaching tuition and making more money. More and more students have to enroll in private tuition because school teachers are inadequate. For example, I hate to say this, but I used to have a Biology teacher who just came into class and read the text book to us from start to end. It was not until pre-university did I realize that we were supposed to have dissected a frog in secondary school. Another example was, I always sucked at Chemistry. I didn't even know what a "mole" was. When I asked the teacher what exactly does a "mole" mean, his answer to me was, a "mole" is just a "mole". That is exactly what it is. Fortunately, my parents could afford tuition. What about those that can't?

    Yes, I agree with you on the parental involvement part. Parental participation could not be more important for a child's development. I just wonder how this can be implemented.

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  4. I personally don't think the problem is the lack of schools, early intervention,etc. This is merely a scapegoat to take the focus away of the real problem, which is the lack of competition. UM used to be much higher up in the rankings and the fact that we got there is proof that early intervention is not the problem. I am pretty certain that access to early learning was probably as poor as it is now (if not poorer) back in the days when we were ranked much higher.

    The problem is simple, it is the lack of meritocracy in our universities and the affirmative system, and this applies to our country too. When you do not allow the best and the brightest of the country to enter the best and the brightest of our universities and merely select students based on “other factors”, how else do you expect the country to have the best of the universities, when the policies already dictate that “effort” is not needed to gain a place or at times a scholarship at one of our universities.

    When policies force the best and the brightest of this country (and I know many) to go overseas to seek education, how do you expect our universities to be the best, when the very essence of the quality of the university is their students? At the end of the day, great universities take in the best and the brightest and is often a melting pot of different nationalities, race, background and religion. Entrance based on anything other than merit often qualified as discrimination and is frowned upon and even illegal in most of the great universities.

    So, unless you take away these policies (which is an unpalatable solution for this country), introducing other policies (early intervention or building schools) to improve the “quality” of the education is wishful thinking. It really doesn’t matter if you intervene early or have the best schools, if the students are given a silver spoon, they don’t cherish it and would not work for it. It is simple human nature. Bring back meritocracy into our country and we will succeed.

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  5. There is also a rural and urban divide. To get a perspective on how bad the problem is have a look at Suet's efforts in Teach for Malaysia. Just a sample: http://sweatlee.com/2012/04/01/regaining-hope/

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  6. @Shihong,

    I've no issues with trying to raise teacher quality. But its going to be a long slog, with little prospect of short term improvement.

    @SY,

    I disagree that shifting to meritocracy for university admissions would immediately solve our education quality problems. There's far more dimensions to educational reform than that, and this is only one of them.

    But consider that equalising the starting point - universal basic skills at primary level - would be a necessary pre-condition towards dismantling affirmative action at later stages of education. Education outcomes depends only partly on student ability, but also to a great degree on socio-economic background and environment. There's a strong causation running from better-off and better-educated parents to better education outcomes for students - its pretty consistent globally. Fix that, and you substantially weaken the argument for having to "help" down the road.

    Meritocracy (or free markets for that matter) only works if you have the same initial conditions for everybody. Otherwise, the rich get richer, and the poor stay poor, and ability isn't a useful metric.

    @Colin,

    Thanks, that's a lovely story. Seems that there's still a few dedicated teachers out there.

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  7. I agree with your point that shifting towards meritocracy would not immediately solve the problem but I would say that affirmative action is the causation of the worsening educational outcome. It kills any motivation and incentive to work hard. Even if the same initial conditions existed for everyone, students will still be complacent because they believe that they are entitled to university because of “other factors” and that effort is not required to enter university. My question for you is, how would such an environment promote a better educational outcome, when the incentives are so misaligned? Even if you went to the best preschool at the age of one, I find it hard to imagine a student working hard when he is told that university entrance and a job is not dependent on you working hard but the demographic make up of the country.

    Tell a workforce that their bonus is dependent on background and you run yourself out of business but tell a workforce that their bonus is dependent on capabilities and you get the best workforce in the world. It’s the same reason why Marxism failed, tell everyone from the onset that you will be given the same rewards irrespective of effort and you get the demise of your society. That is why, even if the USSR had the best technology in the world from the onset, they will not last because no one thinks about improvement when the rewards independent of effort. The demise of such societies may be slow but is often inevitable because meritocratic societies progress.

    In my opinion, change the incentives and the problem will sort itself out. Make everyone realise that effort is required to succeed and the virtuous cycle of motivated parents to motivated children to motivated grandchildren will emerge. Make everyone realise that effort is key to success, then differentiate success and you get a nation that lasts. Yes inequality is a big stumbling block but if the society is raised believing that university is a god given right, the educational outcome will not improve.

    I would add that a free market is not meritocracy. A free market is often biased towards capital owners while meritocracy is simply choosing the best. The free market has its flaws in which it allocates capital to the highest price but meritocracy goes for the best option. In my opinion, meritocracy works in any society. On the other hand, free markets only work if access to capital is equal and you circumvent this problem by awarding scholarships based on grades so everyone has the equal opportunity if they deserve it. Malaysia has a free education system until the age of 17 and yes, standards may differ but the most important thing is to allow the best students from the given areas to proceed rather than award it based on the demographic composition of the country.

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  8. I agree with your point that shifting towards meritocracy would not immediately solve the problem but I would say that affirmative action is the causation of the worsening educational outcome. It kills any motivation and incentive to work hard. Even if the same initial conditions existed for everyone, students will still be complacent because they believe that they are entitled to university because of “other factors” and that effort is not required to enter university. My question for you is, how would such an environment promote a better educational outcome, when the incentives are so misaligned? Even if you went to the best preschool at the age of one, I find it hard to imagine a student working hard when he is told that university entrance and a job is not dependent on you working hard but the demographic make up of the country.

    Tell a workforce that their bonus is dependent on background and you run yourself out of business but tell a workforce that their bonus is dependent on capabilities and you get the best workforce in the world. It’s the same reason why Marxism failed, tell everyone from the onset that you will be given the same rewards irrespective of effort and you get the demise of your society. That is why, even if the Russians had the best technology in the world from the onset, they will not last because no one thinks about improvement when the rewards independent of effort. The demise of such societies may be slow but is often inevitable because meritocratic societies move on.

    In my opinion, change the incentives and the problem will sort itself out. Make everyone realise that effort is required to succeed and the virtuous cycle of motivated parents to motivated children to motivated grandchildren will emerge. Make everyone realise that effort is key to success, then differentiate success and you get a nation that lasts. Yes inequality is a big stumbling block but if the society is raised believing that university is a god given right, the educational outcome will not improve.

    I would add that a free market is not meritocracy. A free market is often biased towards capital owners while meritocracy is simply choosing the best. In a free market, you simply allocate capital to the higher price. In my opinion, meritocracy works in any society. On the other hand, free markets only work if access to capital is equal and you circumvent this problem by awarding scholarships based on grades so everyone has the equal opportunity if they deserve it. Malaysia has a free education system until the age of 17 and yes, standards may differ but the most important thing is to allow the best students from the given areas to proceed rather than award it based on the demographic composition of the country.

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  9. SY,

    I'm not sure that anybody can really view university as an "entitlement", Bumi or otherwise, even with affirmative action as it is currently constituted. Tertiary education is the final step of formal education for not very many. Less than 30% of any age cohort actually makes it to through to university - the proportion in public universities is even less. For the population as a whole, it's about 15%.

    Even with AA, the competition is still there even if its not as acute as it would be under a pure meritocratic system. If the lack of incentive under AA (and I don't dispute that it exists) is truly pervasive, we'd think to see vernacular school exam results to be systematically better, but from what I've been told the opposite is true.

    Shall we then neglect the 60%-70% who never get a chance to go to university? These will make up the bulk of the future work force, not the elite who manage to get through into tertiary education. Abolishing AA for university entrance won't really affect the majority of students exiting the school system, except those at the margin.

    Also, I beg to differ with respect to meritocracy working in any society. Exactly like a free market, if the initial conditions are skewed, you entrench existing market power. The US has perhaps the most meritocratic social and economic system in existence, yet it is also the most unequal of the major world economies because it has the weakest social protection and affirmative actions systems in the Western world.

    Consider this - if meritocracy ensures the best are picked, by not adjusting initial conditions your choice of the best picks have been constrained to only those who can afford the extra tuition, and live in a competitive urban setting (what's called positive network/cluster externalities). Every child deserves a fair shake at life. What's the point of choosing the best, if you're not nurturing talents in the first place and expanding the pool of choices? The best under those circumstances, won't truly the best we could have had.

    The problems with our education system go far deeper than AA. Changing the incentives won't resolve the issues of rote learning, passivity, lack of critical thinking, and abysmal communication skills.

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  10. I think we actually may have to agree to disagree with regards to this topic.

    I’m not sure where the vernacular school exams results data came from but felt that competition is more intense from my personal educational experience (if it is the right the method of education is up for debate). I went to a vernacular primary school and then Sekolah Menengah Kebangsaan after. And I have to say that I personally found the secondary school competitive rivalry much lower even though the vernacular primary school was located at a much poorer area compared to the secondary school. Then, I went to a college for my pre university and again competition was much higher because everyone there is focussed on getting into a foreign uni and there, nothing else but grades/extracurricular activities matter. My cohort at the SMK knew that Mara was going to be an option so where is the drive to work? Maybe this is just anecdotal experience. Additionally, from what I recall, most vernacular schools have a different examination system so results can’t be compared like for like. Most examination results are based on the bell curve so an “A” from a vernacular school does not necessarily equate to an “A” from a SMK as “A” is a relative to your student population.

    Additionally, maybe I am biased but most government scholars that I’ve came across in Germany and the UK seem to think that they have the right to university. Most are even offered scholarships overseas without the need to apply, irrespective of financial background. No interview process need. In fact, in Germany, our beloved government even pay for their extra classes when they are falling back despite their lack of attendance in lectures. Some scholars in the UK even go as far as saying the “Mara Houses” are only for the selected group of people and only them. It doesn’t matter if you are Malaysian and you are part funding it by paying tax. Maybe my opinion is biased and maybe this is just anecdotal evidence and not representative of the whole scholar population. Maybe I am just bitter but my personal experiences with scholars (both local and overseas) is that most don’t cherish it because they believe that the demographic composition of the country grants them the right to spend taxpayer’s money. Maybe it is just human nature (to quote Milton Friedman); the most efficient way to spend money is to spend your own and the least efficient way to spend money is to spend others. Or maybe it is not the lack of meritocracy, maybe it is just them. I don’t know.

    With regards to local students, most say “susah lah nak masuk uni tapi nasib ada quota”, so yea, I agree that there is competition but would you not want our citizens to be the best? Or to at least know that they are going to compete with the best? Why deny a better student university entrance just because of the demographic composition of the country? How does this lead to a better educational outcome? In a globalised world where competition is rife, would you really want the best and the brightest of the country hamstrung? And if they are, wouldn’t that lead to a deterioration of the educational outcome for the country as a whole, which is what we are trying to fix? Because if that is what we want (AA), then it would be a paradox to want the best universities in the world, university graduates that are skilful enough for the private sector or even a better educational outcome. Because when the bar is lowered, quality will inadevently be diluted. So, yes meritocracy does not give mercy to the weak but that does not mean that putting the best and the brightest on a leash is necessary the solution to the problem. No EPL team would want to put their best footballers on a leash so the other members can catch up because that will lead to their demise but I guess if the choice of the team is not to win the EPL, then it may be a different story altogether. I just think that one can’t have both at the same time.

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  11. We can't say that we want to be the best in the EPL and then put weights on our best players.

    Imagine your motivation to write this blog when you are told that your main motivation to write the blog (to learn) is not dependant on how well you write but on your background. How would this lead to a better overall quality of your blog?

    Further, no man is created equal and we should not neglect the 60-70% of the population. But that does not mean that everyone is needs to go to university as not everyone is suited to academia. We do not need 100% of population as professionals, then, who would fix our cars? They can go to a polytechnique and learn to be the best mechanic/baker/tailor in Malaysia. The last time I checked, they probably have a more comfortable life than most university graduates as such sectors are less competitive.

    All in all, I agree that positive network/cluster externalities do exist but having a quota system based on the demographics of the country is not the solution. Having scholarships that choose the best from the different layers of family income would be a better solution. That would be meritocracy because then you are choosing someone based on the conditions they were given. I.e. we are rating drivers based on their skill and not the cars they were given. This would incentivise people to fight and lead to a better educational outcome.

    Don’t get me wrong, I am all for a better, more united Malaysia that will progress together and I am not trying to create a larger rift within our society. I just think that spoon feeding does not work and it doesn’t matter if you spoon feed earlier or later, if you are spoon fed, you have no drive to be better. Throwing a better car at a poor driver will not make him a better driver, it will make him complacent driver. Throwing a shitty car to a poor driver and tell him that he will change his life when he win the race and you get Michael Schumacher.

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  12. SY,

    In the first place, I will admit I am one of the scholars who went to UK and live in Mara hostels. However, I have to politely disagree on your point about there being no competition, no interview, no need to apply. The scholarships are limited, and so are the admissions into local uni. Altho there is a quota, only the best gets in and it's simply wrong to assume every Malay student think they have the right to go to uni and the right to a scholarship, hence won't put the effort to get good grades in SPM and be involved in extrcurricular activities. I certainly feel that I needed to put effort into studies/extracurricular activities, or else that opportunity will go to someone else.

    I'm all for meritocracy, but with a balanced needs-based affirmative action for the less endowed, regardless of race. But this is talking about higher education. Changing a system at higher education won't change a lot with the level of graduates you will get.

    When it comes to education in general and what the employers want i.e. ability to communicate and think critically - this should start in primary, even pre-school. Hence I agree with the focus area being pre-school and quality of teachers. I also think we need to re-look at the syllabus and the way we are evaluating our students i.e. exam-based vs continuous evaluation.

    A lot has been said about education, but I see that the govt is taking it seriously (try going to the edu review dialogues) and the ball is starting to roll towards improvement, so it's heartening and I'm looking forward to the outcomes.

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  13. Observer,

    I'm not denying that there is competition, I just think maybe it wasn't enough. But I don't know and maybe I am wrong as my personal experiences may be quite biased. My sincere apologies if I offended anyone's feelings.

    Nonetheless, I agree wholeheartely with this statement: "I'm all for meritocracy, but with a balanced needs-based affirmative action for the less endowed, regardless of race."

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  14. SY,

    Aurely ypu must realize that to get into westen unuversitues, they put rigorous entry requirwments for A levels, australians matriculation and intemational baccalaureate, even MARA make it compulsory for its SPC students to get high grades in A levels, AUSMAT example which i was a aprt requires us to be in the top 15 percent, others achieved less are notballwed to go overseas. In addition, we are required to get first class to get one hundred percent scholarship, we pay ten percent if we get lower and that is alot.

    Seems people like SY always have this bizarre experience that MARA scholars are wtupid, it is you that have refused to acknowledge the excellent MARA students, my coureemates in Monash, a malay with a rare blood disease is now an engineering researcher for Monash university,one is a Biotech researcher and another becqme a Fellow in agriculture research at thr University or Adelaide andthe malay petronas scholars never failed to get first class honours and are headhunted by other oil companies and they come from various backgrounds, yours truly is a mechamical engineer i worked hard to earn my degree, my spm was 5A1 4A2s, my south australiam matriculwtion was TER 92 which was above the everage of 85 required to enter an engineering course in australia, my IELTS is 7.5 average out of 9 and i acquired a modest second class upper for my mechanical engineerin degree and i did not extend my studies gy even a semester or failed a single subject ever..and i am proud to say the12 of my batch that went to the university of adelaide passsed promptly with 2 being spinsored to their doctorate by the university.and i am no son of some umno warlord, truth be said, my parents cant afford sending studying overseas and i never think that a MARA SPC scholarship is an entitlement, i came from a national type school in setiawangsa, not an elite school mind you and did not expect to be called for an interview by MARA.....so never say we take our studies easily.

    Hishamh, as you said, very few people reach colege, in my generation in my family, i am the only oneto have a degree, my other cousins flopped and i am the only to get the privilieged to piggyback MARAto study overseas, i agree that we must uplift the standards of all studenteregardless of background, in australia they have the TAFE programmes from student with weak academic backgound who can do certificates and diplomas in courses such as hospitality, mechanics and skills in tooling an dthe mining industry, MARA is doing a good job with its IKM, GIAT MARA and KPM which allows students to pick up a diploma in the service sectors, this should emulated and expanded at a national level. My hope malaysian workfkrce will reach the levels of germany where their technicians work like engineers and their workforce are highly trained and certfied in various fields......as you said, by right of statistics, the normal distribution would naturally reveal that 95percent of the population would be normal and not as super genius,hende its imperative we help them by providing good education would equalize their level playing fields with the likes of us.

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  15. Anon,

    Now just to clarify my stance. I did not say Mara students are stupid, I just said that the lack of competition is causing a dilution in educational outcomes, I.e. students settle for second upper instead of trying to get first class. Maybe second upper is what we need but I think that the anon example does potentially highlight the paradox in Malaysian education should we want to reach a “German” workforce/developed country status.

    First of all, I admit that the examples he cite are indeed successful people and I am happy for them. At no point did I say Mara students are stupid and will not be successful nor did I discredit what they have achieved of themselves. Never did I say that if you are Mara, you will not be successful.

    What I have cited are just my personal experiences and may not be reflective of the population as a whole (as said before). I just said that more competition needs to be introduced to the system. My hypothesis may be wrong but I am the opinion that the overall population would benefit if there was more competition (and I have no empirical evidence to prove this so I may literally be flat out wrong). Just to nail the point. I spoke three languages and two dialects before I left Malaysia for Germany, had 9A1s and 2A2s for my SPM, didn’t do too well for my A levels (straight Bs) but had an IELTS of 8.5 out of 9, was the president of a number of societies, went to Germany to do a German speaking mechanical engineering degree without any German knowledge and graduated with a second upper while working part time for 2 years to finance myself (was able to do so as Germany didn’t charge tuition fees plus FaMa support). Currently, working in a bulge bracket IB. On top of that, at no point of time did I think that I was the best student (and yes, some are Malays too) among my cohort nor would I be bitter if the government had chosen them over myself. However, I can name people that I personally know from that sample group that have better credentials than me (both in academics and extra curricular) but failed to obtain a scholarship (from the public but not the private sector). Mind you, none of them came from particularly rich family background and were politically connected in any way either. Now, my question is, unless the financial background of those students are substantially worse (which I’m pretty is not as one is definitely from my primary school in a relatively less affluent part of Malaysia), why did we not sponsor them? And why do we deny them the rights to further education just because of AA? Is this healthy for Malaysia? Or if we want to reach the developed country status and a better educational outcome, is this a policy that would plausibly lead us there?

    And a question to you Anon, do you think it is healthy for the Malaysian government to deny the people I mentioned scholarships on the grounds of demographics? Do you think that Germany got to where they are by hamstringing their best and their brightest? And do you think it is plausible that Malaysia can get there by handicapping the best and the brightest? If you do think that we can do that, I would like to hear your opinion because this is not just an isolated example and is actively happening in Malaysia.

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  16. Also Anon,

    "AUSMAT example which i was a aprt requires us to be in the top 15 percent, others achieved less are notballwed to go overseas"

    What happens to the rest of the 85%? From my experiences in Germany, at least half of the 85% gets sent on a full scholarship to local Malaysian universities. So, its no wonder we are where we are.

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  17. in terms of university rankings

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  18. @SY

    Observer's sentiments and experience largely echo mine. I never felt I was entitled to anything - if I had any feelings on the subject at all back then, it was probably guilt. Nor was I alone in that.

    So to be clear, I believe your basic hypothesis is correct - AA of any form, under economic theory, does result in inefficiency and less than optimal outcomes. Where I depart from your opinion is that I don't believe abolishing AA for university entrance or scholarships would necessarily raise education standards for the system as a whole. The numbers are just too small, and the problems in education lie much deeper.

    Removing AA alone will not resolve issues such as generally poor communication skills, lack of critical thinking and creativity, and passivity. These don't arise from competition or lack thereof, but are inherent in the way all our children are taught. HuaYong touched on teacher quality, and this may indeed be a factor in poorer knowledge skills, but I also see this as fundamentally a result of rapid expansion of the school system to cater for rapid student population growth - the need for more teachers required dropping standards if we were to keep class sizes manageable at primary and secondary levels. That's not an excuse, just an observation. But it does mean that if we apply stricter standards to teacher quality levels, that may mean having to adapt to much larger class sizes than can be effectively taught and managed. You have to pick your poison here.

    Personally, I also feel the quality issue is also about the world changing and our education system hasn't in response. I don't see new graduates we produce being necessarily inferior to graduates of my generation, it's just that the needs of employers and the workplace have changed so dramatically in the last 20 years, and there's been no adjustment to the education system in that time frame.

    Last point, on an unrelated subject:

    Using a bell curve to grade students (or assess workplace performance), only encourages mediocrity. It's just another form of a quota. From a behaviourial perspective, you're only competing within your class/peer group, and good performances on an absolute scale are no longer fully rewarded or recognised. It's a dumb way to encourage excellence or retain good staff.

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  19. Hisham,

    Hmmm I haven’t made any comment on this thread yet. I don’t quite agree with the pre-school thingy because what I notice is that most urban kids from standard 1-3 seem not that interested to redo what they already did in pre-school, is that healthy? But I have no idea if that is the case with rural kids.

    I dont think VS perform better if overall evaluation is performed, but I believe most Chinese school student have a good grasp of arithmetic, and that is the most useful tool during working life. Most of them have no problem to assess the benefit and cost in almost every aspect of life.

    I think SY perspective is from a narrow viewpoint base on his experience, no scholarship for the brightest would not necessary make them less bright in their future endeavor. But if we look at most of the relatively successful Asian countries in term of economy and technology, every one of them has at least one university that are with good worldwide ranking (methodology use is another topic), most of the bright student at my generation go to MU but not the case today, something is very wrong with our policy.

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  20. Oops, sorry HuaYong, I confused you with Shihong.

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  21. SY,

    You are making assumption again that 85 percent of mara ausmat studemts failed, what o meant by top 15 percent is thatntheir tetiary entramce exam results must be above 85 meaning they are in the top 15 percent of the whole ausmat students including australians and international students, i took my spm in 2003, i was among 2000 who got straight As, those years straight A students wer jot as abundant as today, even then i didnt think of getting mara spc loan and went to matriculation, i did not waste tiw to wait of ascholarship droped on my lap.

    Fyi,95 pecent of the ausmat program of 2005 at intec where i did my ausmat scored above 85 pecent, meaning at least a B in all subjects, i got only 3 distinctions and 2 credits and being a shorter program than A lebels or the american degree transfe program, the australian matricylation is considred the most competitive, and near in mind MARA and JPA scholarships are only allowed to ente the group of 8 universities lik the uni of melbourne which are top universities in australias, theefore,thee is rigorous competition as we were co,peting with othet ausmat students in australia and intenational students for the entrance rankingswhich i a, sure you are aware simce you took the A levels.

    SY,

    How confidemt are you that the MARA students do not deserve their scholqrship? Unless you have ample data to show all of us are less intelligent than vernacular stidents, your concerns are that of a sour grape.bear in mind MARA does not hide its agenda of providing the SPC schemes tobumi candidates but they put high requirements on its students even more than JPA students, as we are not allowed to extend our studies, if we do need to extend MARA will only pay the fees for one semester and do not provide allowances.

    In the end, the government is sending students to study for their beterment...is that even wrong... So how meritocratic does the government need to be... Until 80 percent are non bumis? 90 percent...in ther end the people questioninf the bumi quota look at education from a racial perspective too which is ironic.

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  22. Education is a lifeline to enable the poor to contribute more to society and earn more to get themselves out of their cycle of life. It thus has a social function beyond meritocracy.

    However to sustain such a social function, it will be surprising if both government and economists don't realize someone has to pay for it.

    That's where competition comes in to raise academic standards by which process the envelope of excellence gets continuously pushed forward for a country's manpower to gain global reputation which will then attract both local and foreign investment in increasingly sophisticated industries which will increase the revenue streams to sustain the social function of education for the less privileged.

    The problem in our country is that the policy has been to standardize downwards. You don't need me to elaborate that. Which also explains the debate going on here. Especially when the social function to help up the underprivileged is like the social function to help those better off to excel even more for the good of the economy and thus society itself.

    To compensate for that policy, private education sector has been liberalized.

    But that doesn't solve some critical issues.

    The first issue is student demographic. More women enter university than men parallel to a decline in enrollment in science and engineering subjects.

    The second issue is that the private education sector doesn't invest much in science and engineering courses.

    The third issue is that those who have better grades doesn't necessarily mean they can afford private education.

    The fourth issue is that of the three major economic sectors in our country - agriculture, services and manufacturing - we don't have enough innovative research output out of agriculture to scale up to the next rung of value-added agro-products, our services cannot progress to interface with the rest of the world which have already pushed ahead in other languages inasmuch their command of knowledge, and our manufacturing will be weaker in internally-generated higher-edge capability because of the convergence of the first three critical issues above.

    I suspect all already know what needs to be done to overcome such hurdles.

    That we are now talking about pre-school instead as if it is to be the next, new, focus is telling. That's long-term and nascent. But what to do in the next ten years, starting now, especially with the complete retooling of the teachers, instructors and lecturers to be more relevant per global standards and requirements to stem the slide?

    So what has happened to the MOLE's enthusiasm for what he had seen across the border?

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  23. @Hishamh,

    “So to be clear, I believe your basic hypothesis is correct - AA of any form, under economic theory, does result in inefficiency and less than optimal outcomes. Where I depart from your opinion is that I don't believe abolishing AA for university entrance or scholarships would necessarily raise education standards for the system as a whole.”

    I concur with this point. Yes, educational issues does not just boil down to “competition”. Education anywhere in the world is provided by the state and by virtue of that is probably one of the most inefficient sectors in the world. Other issues needs to be fixed too but I have to agree with Walla here that AA has a cost and maybe the more relevant question here is if policy makers do realise the cost of it (and if they do, are their intentions more political rather than pure selflessness). I agree with you that they are other core problems that needs to be fixed as well but would have to disagree with you that AA is not one of them.

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    1. @SY

      It's not that I don't believe abolishing AA wouldn't be desirable. But from my point of view, that would actually cause more problems than it solves, if that was the sole measure being looked at.

      The number one factor underlying student educational outcomes isn't ability, it's the parents socio-economic background, particularly the mother's. Higher income parents will tend to have fewer children, emphasise education more, invest more in their (fewer) children, and provide a generally more stimulative environment for learning. Someone without those advantages would have to work doubly hard, for any given level of ability, to achieve the same results.

      In consequence, when it comes time for university admissions, the best aren't really the best in terms of native ability at all, but rather those with that head start.

      Meritocracy under those terms is not meritocracy at all, but rather an inherited aristocracy.

      What I'm thinking of is to approach the problem from the other end. If you equalise educational opportunity and environment right at the start, then you give meritocracy a chance to work because you will then truly get the best at the end of the road, not just those who've already had a leg up. AA would then be anachronistic and irrelevant.

      But just abolishing AA without some counterbalancing mechanism wouldn't achieve optimal educational outcomes, because the country's true human capital potential isn't being maximised.

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  24. @Anon,

    I did not make any assumption that 85% of Mara students fail. You have a penchant for putting words to my comments and it is not fair. Again, I will reiterate that Mara students are not stupid and never did I at any point discredit them for what they have achieved. I just question if they are the best of the country and if they are (like how you would imply), why do we need the quota system? You mentioned in one of your comments that:

    “My hope malaysian workfkrce will reach the levels of germany where their technicians work like engineers and their workforce are highly trained and certfied in various fields......as you said, by right of statistics, the normal distribution would naturally reveal that 95percent of the population would be normal and not as super genius,hende its imperative we help them by providing good education would equalize their level playing fields with the likes of us.”
    You do realise that the German education system is probably more meritocratic and I think that it may be one of the key attributes to their success. Students are streamed from a very young age (9-10 years or so) dependent on nothing but their results. It is at such a tender age when the country decides if they are destined for university or a vocational school. There is no quota based on demographics and I admit that it is a problem because often certain demographics end up with a large skew in the bottom end of this system but that is not my point. My point is that you are contradicting yourself by saying you wish for a German workforce but an pro-AA Malaysian educational system. I find it odd that some people still stick to the notion that we want to be a developed country but still at the same time fail to realise the fact that sacrifices needs to be made. I am not bitter. I think the country just needs to decide. You can’t have AA and the most competitive workforce in the world. You can have AA and have an average workforce and if that is what we want in the name of social stability, then I have no qualms. But one just have to admit that we are not at our best potential and a dilution in the educational outcome will exist.

    “How confidemt are you that the MARA students do not deserve their scholqrship? Unless you have ample data to show all of us are less intelligent than vernacular stidents,”

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  25. I don’t have any data but I base my theory on the simple notion that there is no need for affirmative action if they do. If they by virtue deserve a scholarship based purely on merits, it takes away the need for the Affirmative action. “Siapa makan cili, dia yang terasa pedas”. If you think you deserved it, maybe you wouldn’t be so defensive in the first place. And since you were a MARA scholar. Just based purely on merits, do you think you deserve a scholarship more than the group of students that I mentioned (I don’t know about your language capabilities or extra curricular activities). Maybe you do, but my point is, we have now hard evidence that someone with a relatively better result (just before you misunderstand – I did not say you failed, I just question if you are the best) was denied the opportunity based on the demographics of the country. I know a lot of people that are better than me and yet have failed to get a scholarship.

    “Until 80 percent are non bumis? 90 percent...in ther end the people questioninf the bumi quota look at education from a racial perspective too which is ironic.”

    You are on a roll in terms of misinterpreting my words. I did not champion a quota system. What happened to your band 7.5 IELTS? =p (also, a spell check before you submit would be recommended) It doesn’t matter if 90% is bumi in the end. What matters is that 100% of the guys on scholarship (and in universtities) are the best of the country.

    At the end of the day, the debate here is not if AA has a cost, the debate here involves the cost around AA on the education system (and the workforce as a consequnce) and if we can survive in a global world given such a system. It may be the case that our country would fall in to social instability even before we fall into a social demise and hence would see the argument for AA.

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  26. You are on a roll in terms of misinterpreting my words. I did not champion a quota system. What happened to your band 7.5 IELTS? =p (also, a spell check before you submit would be recommended) It doesn’t matter if 90% is bumi in the end. What matters is that 100% of the guys on scholarship (and in universtities) are the best of the country.

    Just to add. Best of the country based on their family income level.

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  27. @HishamH,

    Would agree 100% with your analysis. And yes, I agree with you that this would (hands down) be the best solution if implemented well and I am all for this: "If you equalise educational opportunity and environment right at the start"

    But my stance is that AA doesn't solve our educational issues. The nation seems to think that by having a quota system, our educational inequality will be solved without any deterioration in the overall quality (which is the view held by a certain part of the society, Anon being a very stark example). And instead of having AA at the upper end of the educational spectrum, abolish that and implement your suggested solution and tackle the problem right from the start, because then we get the best of both worlds; social equality, competitiveness. This is far better but politically impalatable solution at the moment.

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  28. SY,

    Why do you think I'm harping on pre-school education? That's one of the key areas of differentiation in the urban/rural, Bumi/non-Bumi divide. Whether its couched in terms of improving educational outcomes or reducing racial disparities, this is a necessary first step to abolishing AA in education and to their credit it's something the government is moving forward with.

    It's not even the syllabus that matters, but rather the structured learning environment and the enforced social interaction. The area of the brain handling language and social skills develops most rapidly between 3-6 years of age, abstract and logic skills develop later.

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  29. @HishamH,

    Agreed. Maybe this would be the beginning of the end of AA. My aim was not to disagree with you, it was just to stir a debate on AA. I just wanted to raise the awareness that AA has its cost and that everyone must realise that it is not the solution to our problems of racial inequality (if anything it probably polarizes the society even more as, like protectionism, this often leads to complacency from a certain part of the population and extreme competition in another. We know how that story ended (Proton vs other car manufacturers anyone?) and it saddens me to see this happening in Malaysia in the name of politics with the likes of Perkasa championing “Ketuanan Melayu” just to garner political support. Ultimately, AA will have a long term impact not just on our educational quality but our nation's competitiveness as such policies often foster complacency. The unintended consequences may not be seen now, it will eventually surface but by then it will be too late. We would probably be too incapacitated by the racial polarization and economic uncompetitiveness to do anything by then.

    My main worry is that such affirmative policies will eat away our competitiveness gradually without us realising, to use the boiling a frog by gradually heating the water analogy. The main problem with affirmative policies is that it the immediate impact on competitiveness doesn't manifest itself immediately (and often is only seen after generations), so the consequences are usually ignored and not assessed/accounted for adequately. Often, citizens are oblivious (and in extreme cases, are in denial – Ibrahim Ali) to signs that AA causes a deterioration of competitiveness and it is often too late when we realise the extent of our issues.

    All in all, I think we both agree that it must end, and maybe what you and me just depart on the timing, the unintended consequences and the cost of this. At the end of the day, I believe in a more equal society as the disruption caused by another May 16 probably outweighs the benefit of the increased competitiveness.

    I have to agree 100% with you that early education may serve to be the solution to our problems but unlike you HishamH, not many people realise that AA has a cost. And that was my main aim of this debate, to highlight the flaws of AA as a tool to solve racial inequality, educational outcomes and ultimately competitiveness on a global stage. AA is an effective tool for politicians (due to the inherent populism embedded within this misguided tool) but it is not the solution to our issues. Thank you.

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  30. i believe most are aware that aa has a cost, the complaint is mainly on where to strike a balance. meritocracy is some sort of myth, however that is also the most practical approach for the poor/rural folk to move upward through achievement in education.

    i am okay with pre school for rural folk, but would that solve the quality at primary level, i doubt it. i dont agree one policy apply to all, i think diversity is the way forward in term of language, technical skill (vocational) and some other aspect, but it seem we are now moving toward elite versus public school, and eventually public school might go to the same direction as our public university, the last choice and choice for the poor, not sure if we can label this aa anymore.

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  31. A cogent analysis on affirmative action in Malaysia, and why both PR and BN will not be able to resolve it - they have conceptualised it wrongly.

    http://asiapacific.anu.edu.au/newmandala/2012/06/11/malaysia-after-regime-change-lee-hwok-aun/

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  32. Thanks Greg, damn good article.

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  33. "they have conceptualised it wrongly."

    wrong? what is the purpose of affirmative action? i don't quite grasp what exactly is the point of the article, do away with aa? i think theoretically need base policy make sense in the context of aa, so how the concept is wrong?

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  34. HuaYong,

    If you have a fuzzy objective, you get less than desirable (and sometimes perverse) results. The author is arguing for defining what we want to achieve and designing policies around those objectives, rather than the blanket approach we are taking now.

    AA will always be around in one form or another. For example poverty eradication, irrespective of race, is still AA but along the dimension of incomes not race. We're hardly alone in using AA, it's just more pervasive here than many other countries.

    But to make AA effective and less intrusive (and fairer), we have to know precisely what we want to achieve and figure out the best way to get there. Just saying "needs-based" AA doesn't mean squat unless you define operational parameters, which will be different depending on specific identified problems.

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  35. i think "conceptualised it wrongly" and "fuzzy objective" is not the same thing.

    i think pr conceptualise affirmative action rightly but without a very concrete objective yet.

    i think....:)

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