When Quality Is Absent, Meritocracy Matters Not: Educationists
Prof Khoo Kay Kim's answer was a shocking one. Coming from someone who has committed almost all his life towards greater education for Malaysians, his words when met last "I don't think that I can teach anymore," said Khoo who quit teaching three years ago.
"Our students these days are not the same as in the past. Their quality is way below par," added the historian whose disappointment was obvious.
Even top scoring students have no idea what they are learning, most of them just memorize instead of understanding the subjects, lamented the professor emeritus at University Malaya's history department.
"So, what is all the debate about meritocracy now?" he pointed out. "It is just a matter of statistics, like how many points one scores... but it does not tell anything."
After almost 40 years in the university, Khoo knows well what he was talking about. To him, there is a larger issue to address, rather than just who and how many students from which ethnic group should qualify to enter government-run public universities.
"The question is, are we producing quality students? If our graduates are not capable of competing at international level or making themselves marketable, let's not talk about meritocracy for now."
Khoo is right. Some 40,000 graduates, including master's degree holders are currently jobless. Competition is extremely stiff that, on average, 300 to 400 candidates are vying for the same job in the private sector, and even more for the public sector.
"Rather," he continued, "we need to reinvent our education system."
He contrasted the situation today with that of University Malaya's earlier days, when a mere 25 percent of its students who had come in as freshies would walk up the stage to receive their degree on convocation day, four or five years later.
But now, the passing rate in the university is so high, exceeding 90 percent, said Khoo."This is even more apparent in the private universities because failing the students means shying away potential customers," he added.
University education now tends to produce as many graduates as possible, perhaps to meet the demand in job markets, especially in the last decade which saw Malaysia's economy grow by an average of eight percent a year till it was thrown off track by the 1997 economic crisis, he said.
While he admitted that it was good to see the growing number of public and private universities, poor monitoring on the part of the government has led to the decline in quality.
According to Khoo, if students refused to read either textbooks (which should prepare them for examinations) or other materials, it will reduce their analytical skills almost next to nothing and lecturers should also share the blame.
"Some of our lecturers are not even exposed to the outside world. They come to the university just to teach and hardly do any research or write any journal.
"How could these lecturers prepare their students to compete on a global scale if they themselves were never exposed internationally?" asked Khoo.
"Most of our lecturers are not capable of debating with the westerners, even on issues in our country or in the region. That's why, for example, we keep inviting westerners to give talks about Southeast Asian studies and other related issues that we ourselves should have mastered."
If this problem persists, how can we talk about meritocracy? Khoo reiterated. "I don't care about the system but only for quality," he insisted.
'Study like a parrot'
The lacklustre environment in the lecture halls also contributes to Khoo's frustration. Students, he said, refuse to ask questions or give their opinion when they know that the lecturer is offering something, which is not quite right.
"Malaysian students should learn not to study like a parrot, which has been our tradition all this while. If the subjects are technical ones, the students may learn in a mechanical manner (so that they can pass the exam)... even dogs can learn in a mechanical way."
To claims that students with Sijil Tinggi Persekolahan Malaysia (STPM) are more 'superior' than those who attended the Matriculation programme, Khoo begged to differ.
"We found out that even those who got As in their STPM may not really know what are they doing in university," he said.
Therefore he suggested that there was no point in debating the merit-based admission for public universities.
"At the moment, everyone should think about improving the quality of education, right from primary school to university."
Khoo called upon policy and decision makers to think hard about revolutionising Malaysia's education system as soon as possible to produce analytical minds.
"When this is to be done, input from all parties must be taken into account. Normally those who have the knowledge are not equipped with authority to make the decisions," said Khoo.
Fellow educationist Prof P Ramasamy, who teaches political science at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM), insisted that when a new policy is formulated, inputs from various stakeholders are of utmost importance.
"Like in the implementation of the university admission based on merit, the government should have called for feedback from relevant parties before implementing it," said Ramasamy, who is also a political commentator.
"If all inputs had been considered earlier, and the policy implementation based on them, then problems would not arrive later," he added.
The idea of a merit-based intake was suggested by Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad last July and implemented this year.
Like Khoo, Ramasamy also admitted that the quality of public universities is declining because they are unable to attract the cream of the crop, who would rather study overseas despite the higher costs.
"Only the second, third and fourth echelon would come to the public universities... and normally this is because they have no other choice due to financial difficulties." This 'second-best' factor may explain somewhat the reason local graduates are finding so much difficulty in securing jobs.
For instance, in a letter to the editor published in a Malay daily yesterday, a reader, apparently a graduate in mechanical engineering from a local university, claimed that she has applied for more than 200 jobs in the past three years, only to be called for a couple of interviews which in the end got her nowhere!
That, said Khoo, also reflected the failure of our universities to produce students who are able to be on their own and not depend on others for jobs.