Education system must champion meritocracy
THE country is facing yet another controversy of its own making – the matriculation programme for university entrance or matric, for short.
The matric programme was introduced 50 years ago to increase the enrolment of Malay students in the medical, dental, engineering and other science and technical studies at public universities. It was an interventionist policy to produce more Malay graduates for the professional occupations in government service as well as in the private sector, as part of the New Economic Policy to redress the racial educational and economic imbalances in the economy.
The programme was reserved exclusively for Malays but due to political pressure from other races , the government allowed a 5% quota and this was later increased to 10% for non-Malay students. Recently, with demands for more non-Malays to be given places in matric, the government increased the total number accepted into the programme from 25,000 to 40,000 while keeping the racial quota unchanged.
There are concerns that the large increase in the number of university intakes from the matric programme will reduce the places available for STPM students and affect the quality of education. There are already complaints from parents that even though their children who go through the two-year STPM are more educationally qualified than the one-year matric students, and have a stronger command of English, they cannot get a place in public universities because of the preference given to intakes from the shorter programme.
Fifty years on, this programme is still in place, despite the huge investments made by government through the Education Ministry to increase the access to STPM (Form VI) level education in both the arts and science streams in all parts of the country.
Malay students in rural areas today are no longer facing a disadvantage in educational opportunities as there are many secondary schools with Form VI classes.
However, their parents prefer that they apply for the matriculation course as it is a faster and easier route to university.
As they are specially selected for the matriculation course, the students have a greater certainty that they will be given places in the medical , dental and engineering faculties. Another attraction is that there is very little competition with other races in the matriculation course.
There are suggestions that our universities should raise their entrance requirements so that they can get better qualified student intakes to facilitate higher quality teaching and learning and produce graduates with the right skills for the job market . This can be achieved by a policy decision that university entrance must be through the STPM stream only and that the matric programme will be scaled down to be eventually terminated as it is not a good alternative in preparing students for university education.
Matric has also become a source of continuing friction among the races as they feel that education is a human right and should not be subject to racial politics.
It is inevitable that there will be complaints from certain quarters against closing down the matric programme but the government must stand firm not to perpetuate a system that encourages mediocrity. If the country is to succeed in the digital evolution, and make Malaysia a fully developed economy, the education system must shift direction towards competition and meritocracy. The abolition of the matriculation programme will show that Malaysia is serious in moving in that direction.
TAN SRI MOHD SHERIFF MOHD KASSIM
Another brick in the wall
Education is that realm where wrongs are set right and learning thrives, yet, right off the bat, the new matriculation intake has found itself in murky waters.
SOME leaders in our federal and state governments, now or then, seem to be guilty of this habit – announcing decisions before studying the implications of their policies.
So it was no surprise that after the Education Ministry announced the controversial changes to the matriculation programme, a row erupted, and soon, the Prime Minister had to weigh in on the debate.
Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad said he would address the quota system issue of the pre-university matriculation programme intake.
When asked for his comments on whether the quota system would be abolished, he said: “We will study the problem.”
Once again, it looks like the 93-year-old leader must step in to clean up another mess before things start to stink.
The controversy exploded when the Cabinet decided to increase the number of students entering the matriculation programme from 25,000 to 40,000 while maintaining the 90% quota for bumiputra students.
The matriculation programme was originally aimed at encouraging bumiputra students to pursue studies in science.
The highly sought-after programme – due to its cost-effectiveness – is equivalent to a one- or two-year pre-university course, and enables students to pursue a degree upon successfuly completing the programme. Enrollees only need to pay a registration fee and the rest is borne by the government.
However, the concern now is that by doubling the matriculation intake, it will affect the seats available to those vying for places in public universities via the Sijil Tinggi Persekolahan Malaysia (STPM) route.
During my time, in the 1980s, when I was sitting for the then Higher School Certificate (HSC), the matriculation programme had already been launched. At present, STPM and matriculation students number about 43,000 and 25,000 respectively.
No rational or fair person will begrudge aid provided to students who need a helping hand, let’s be clear.
But I am not sure if the ministry has given thought to the fact that we may have a surplus of matriculation students – about 60% – at the expense of their STPM counterparts.
Let’s give the ministry the benefit of doubt that they surely would have, given the many experienced experts there, but no narratives have been forthcoming to explain anything to parents and students, especially those preparing for their STPM exams this year.
If the government plans to double university intake, have backup plans been installed to accommodate the sudden surge in science students into our financially-strapped universities?
While non-scholarship students in public universities must pay their own fees, matriculation students not only get free education, but are given allowances, too.
Public universities are already cutting down on contract academic staff as fundraising programmes are being carried out.
Unemploy-ment is underscored by the huge number of jobless graduates, whose changing fortunes have found them unemployed in a soft market. In some cases, their weak language and social skills put them at a disadvantage.
As the intake increases, other relevant infrastructure, like hostels, laboratories and teaching staff, won’t multiply overnight, as MCA president Datuk Seri Dr Wee Ka Siong rightly pointed out.
“How will the ministry ensure quality in matriculation education? And the suggestion of getting teachers from teachers’ training colleges to teach in matriculation is illogical because their syllabus is totally different,” he said.
The new matriculation policy has also taken the race-based programme to another level and goes against the aspiration of being an inclusive New Malaysia.
DAP leader Dr P. Ramasamy has rightly said the increased quota for bumiputra by the government was spurred by fears of a backlash from sections of the Malay-Muslim community. This is what happens when political expediency and interest come into play.
The former Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia political science lecturer said with the revised quota, the bumiputra allocation will increase the number of students from 22,500 to 36,000.
He said, in comparison, the number of non-Malays will increase by only 1,500 students, beyond the current 2,500.
“I’m taken aback by the Cabinet’s decision. We have failed to move forward. It appears as though the Cabinet was not prepared to take a bold decision in increasing the intake of non-Malay students, particularly Indians.”
Education Minister Dr Maszlee Malik, in defending the new policy, said all students deserve a “better opportunity” when they apply for matriculation placement, adding that “the bumiputras will still enjoy their 90% quota”.
Dr Maszlee reportedly said the increased intake for matriculation students was based on a Cabinet decision to get more students into tertiary education and to accord all races equal opportunity.
He also said the Cabinet had instructed his ministry to discuss with the Finance Ministry the government’s burden in bearing the cost of the increased number of matriculation places.
This looks like another case of putting the cart before the horse. Announce first and work out the maths later.
Instead of emphasising need-based programmes, the government has, instead, strengthened a race-based system.
As a student at university, I was often queried by my well-intentioned Malay varsity mates about which scholarship I had obtained. I jokingly told them it was FAMA – father and mother.
I’ve always been grateful for having secured a place in a local university, particularly since there were only five then – and certainly no private universities – and that gratitude has only grown since that degree helped change my life.
And that conveniently brings me to my point: Let’s not deny our children, regardless of their race, a place in our universities, which are funded by multi-ethnic tax payers.
If parents are financially sound, no prayers would be needed for students to earn slots in our public institutions of higher learning, it’s that simple.
By Wong Chun Wai
Wong Chun Wai began his career as a journalist in Penang, and has served The Star for over 27 years in various capacities and roles. He is now editorial and corporate affairs adviser to the group, after having served as group managing director/chief executive officer.
On The Beat made its debut on Feb 23 1997 and Chun Wai has penned the column weekly without a break, except for the occasional press holiday when the paper was not published. In May 2011, a compilation of selected articles of On The Beat was published as a book and launched in conjunction with his 50th birthday. Chun Wai also comments on current issues in The Star.
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