Young people are aware that career success is only possible if they pursue higher studies and are armed with the right skills and knowledge.
AS the demand for highly skilled and knowledgeable workers intensifies in the knowledge-based economy, so does the demand for higher education.
Indeed, higher education plays an increasingly significant role in this dynamic and integrated world economy.
There is much evidence in research literature that show the positive correlation between higher education and economic development.
In addition, pursuing higher education is seen as an important pathway to career success. However, as tertiary studies become more accessible to the masses, there are concerns on the value of higher education.
Based on the classification of the Education Ministry, the higher education sector in Malaysia consists primarily of universities, university colleges, colleges, polytechnics and community colleges.
An online survey was conducted recently where 298 respondents participated. More than 80% of the respondents were students in public and private higher education institutions in Malaysia while the rest were random respondents.
The data from this survey was collected through the UTAR (Universiti Tunku Abdul Rahman) Opinion Poll (http://poll.utar.edu.my/), an online platform developed by the varsity to collect public opinion on current issues, particularly issues faced by youth in the country.
The survey revealed that the two reason for pursuing a university or college education were to get a decent job and earn a higher salary.
The value of higher education in providing access to improved jobs, better earnings and career prospects is an important driving force for people to invest in higher education.
Other important values of higher education as highlighted in the survey include promoting social mobility and gaining self-fulfilment.
In the survey, when respondents were asked about what kind of knowledge should be emphasised and delivered by higher education, students and non-student respondents gave somewhat different feedback.
Student respondents placed great emphasis on the provision of professional knowledge that would prepare them with the information and knowledge required for a professional career while career-related knowledge came in second.
For non-student respondents (consisting of respondents working in different professions and 67% of them have a degree), they are of the opinion that higher education should firstly prepare students for good citizenship and to be well-versed in general knowledge.
This was then followed by the preparation for a professional career and a job.
The survey also revealed that vocational or technical knowledge to prepare students with technical skills has not been seen as a priority for higher education.
Due to the burgeoning number of higher education institutions, particularly private higher education institutions in the country since the introduction of the Private Higher Educational Institutions Act in 1996, higher education has changed from a social institution to an industry and is increasingly perceived as a profit-making industry.
About 75% of the respondents felt that higher education was becoming “commercialised” and profit-oriented, thus creating the varying standards of higher education institutions, and the programmes offered in the country.
The diverse quality has somehow contributed to the diminishing value of a higher education degree.
It has also led to the distorting job market signalling effect of an academic degree in the employment market.
Hence, more efforts in screening and filtering are required during recruitment to help employers hire the right candidate with the relevant requirements.
In order to ensure the quality of higher education in the country, it is crucial for the authorities to develop a reliable and effective mechanism to closely monitor and assess the quality of teaching and learning in higher education institutions in Malaysia.
“Too-examination oriented” is the general perception of the respondents (78.3%t) on the current higher education system in Malaysia.
This is associated with the feedback that higher education institutions should provide more practical training opportunities and industry exposure to students.
The curriculum design should consider incorporating innovative teaching and learning methods. This would include problem-based learning, project-based assignments, case studies or experiential learning, rather than the traditional lecture-based method.
Internship is found to be an effective way for students to gain hands-on learning experience.
Non-student respondents were asked to give comments and their perception on the performance of students in the higher education institutions.
The majority of them (80.6%) felt that our students are lacking in international exposure.
It would be a disadvantage if we are not preparing our students and equipping them with global competence skills to compete in the global economy.
Many universities around the world, particularly universities in Europe and North America, have incorporated into their curriculum at least one semester of study abroad or international internships.
Compared to these universities, we are lagging behind in this aspect.
Higher education institutions in Malaysia should participate more actively in internationalisation initiatives, particularly international student exchange programmes to provide students the opportunity to acquire global experience during their studies.
Another major comment is related to students’ lack of good communication skills.
In fact, this is not a new finding. We often read reports or hear comments about the inadequacies of our students in communication skills.
It is not so much of a language barrier, but more related to the capability to express and deliver one’s idea and messages clearly and correctly.
Interestingly, when student respondents were asked to reveal what skills they acquired in university or college, communication skills topped the list as the skills most acquired.
This is something that needs further investigation.
The higher education system is undergoing dramatic changes due to many underlying factors, particularly technology innovation, emergence of knowledge economy, shifting demographics and globalisation.
The role and value of higher education has somehow changed as well.
It is important for us to review the best practices to prepare students to succeed in the increasingly dynamic world and to produce the “right” knowledge workers for society.
This article sheds light on some of the issues in Malaysian higher education as perceived by students and general respondents.
By Prof Cheng Ming Yu The Star/Asia News Network
The writer is a Professor at the Department of Economics, Faculty of Accountancy and Management at Universiti Tunku Abdul Rahman. This is the final article in a series of STEM for life-themed articles published in our pullout.
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