Saturday, April 23, 2005

My Vision of A Model School in Malaysia

It was reported on the 7th April by Bernama that the Education Ministry plans to turn 15 in Cyberjaya and Putrajaya into model institutions. Our Education Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein said the schools -- eight primary and seven secondary -- could become showcase institutions for schools in the country.

The only measure highlighted by the minister to make these schools centre of excellence was for links to be set up with leading schools abroad.

He suggested that the schools step up relations and co-operation in teachingwith leading schools abroad, with which links had been established -- including via the Internet -- following his visits abroad.

These foreign schools are in the league of the Rimba Secondary School in Brunei and the Lancaster Grammar School in the United Kingdom.

While setting up these links will benefit to some extent in help the schools gain stature, it will be clearly insufficient to make these schools model and respected institutions.

Having experienced quality education first hand in the region and in United Kingdom, the following are my personal opinion of what it will take to create model institutions in Malaysia, irrespective of whether they are located in Putrajaya, Kuala Lumpur or for that matter Kuala Terengganu.

There are 3 major critical ingredients in creating and producing model schools – the students, the academic staff (teachers) and the school facilities & environment.

  1. The Students

    a. While it’s probably not possible to “stream” for primary school students, it’s possible to “select” the crème-de-la-crème of primary school graduates for secondary school education. The top students in the country should be given the opportunity to fulfil their utmost potential in an educational institution which will provide them the best environment to blossom. It is these students who will one day become the leaders of the country, and it is only rightful that they be given the best education to make wise and informed decisions on the country’s behalf in the future.

    Primary school students who have performed exceptionally well should be given the opportunity to apply to these model schools. Candidates from poorer financial background should be provided with the necessary scholarship and financial assistance.

    Students who “blossom” later in PMR examinations should be given the opportunity to join these schools midway in the secondary schools.

    b. To promote the Malaysian national identity, the racial balance of students in the schools should reflect that of the country. There should however, not be the typical inflexible strict adherence to quota numbers which typically discourage performance measures but instead encourages unhealthy racial bias. The racial mix should probably read a minimum mix of 30%:20%:10% of Malay, Chinese and Indian students respectively. This ratio doesn't encourage racial bias, but will instead take in the best students from each race.

  2. The Teachers

    a. The schools should have the best teachers and academicians hired to educate our brightest students. By the best teachers, they will not be restricted to our local pool of teachers. For e.g., if we have not got enough quality teachers in English, we should "import" qualified expatriate teachers for the language courses. In Singapore, despite the fact that the standards of English are already very high, they have continued to hire expatriate teachers for their very best schools to maintain and further improve the standards. Such should be the standards of excellence that the Malaysian model schools should target for.

    b. In addition, these teachers should be paid at the private sector rates to encourage performance as well as better retention of teachers. As these are the best teachers in the country, tasked with the heavy responsibility to educate our brightest students, it's only fair that these teachers are remunerated in accordance to their quality, performance and responsibilities. In setting these private sector rates, the Ministry of Education should not be concerned with the existing pay structure of teachers but instead be reviewing them from the perspective of what will be necessary to attract and retain the best teachers.

  3. The Facilities and The Environment

    The best teachers and students will probably collaborate best in a well-equipped school with all the required text and learning materials, as well as the necessary learning tools such as computer and internet facilities. This "part" of the "model school" is unfornately, what was exactly planned under the "Smart School" plans by the Ministry. Unfortunately, the execution of the project was so weak, there was much monies wasted for the above.

    In addition, the students should also have the environment to "blossom" as an all-rounder equipped with the necessary resourcefulness as well as critical thinking skills. These skills can all be encouraged both on the sports fields and halls, and for those less inclined to sports, societies and clubs. Students must be encouraged to take part in these extra curricular activities and should be given the required freedom to explore on interests and areas which they are keen on. The freedom enjoyed will then nurture the more creative individuals to lead our country in various sectors in the future.

The Ministry should take heed of the 3 very simple key steps listed above in their plans to design "model schools". The Ministry of Education has too often focused on the "hardware" (school buildings, land, equipment etc.) and too little on the necessary "software" to nurture top students (e.g., teachers, syllabus, course structure etc.). Creating the right "model schools" will not only produce excellent leaders and citizens for the future, but it will also help resolve the other major issue (not to be discussed in this article) confronting the country - that is the loss of talents through brain drains.

Monday, April 18, 2005

The "Neither Here Nor There" Degree Courses

I've just completed yesterday, a job interview with a candidate with a degree in Multimedia from a local private university. From a fairly candid discussion with regards to the degree course content and the candidates job prospects, it has encouraged me to write about an issue that has been on my mind for a while - the "neither here nor there" degree courses.

I will use the above candidate, Sherry (not her real name) as an example. To give a bit of background, in the internet and multimedia industry today, there are typically 2 types of candidates employers are looking for - (1) the computer programmer (obviously) and (2) the graphic/multimedia designer (to design the various interactive screens, animated sequences etc.).

Sherry did very well for her SPM examinations - scoring some 6As and 2Bs. She wanted to join the IT industry which seems to provide a bright future career, and at the same time was "excited" by the "multimedia" concept. Hence her first choice of a Bachelor's Degree in IT, majoring in Multimedia in a local private university. Unfortunately, as such courses are in our education system (offered by many public and private colleges and universities), they are often "muddled" in their course content - consisting of a mixture of basic IT courses as well as teaching the students how to use certain multimedia tools. The resulting problem for her today:

  1. She will not be good enough to be hired as a Programmer, as her foundation in programming is still too weak (although she could have been good, given the right degree course with the potential she has shown in her SPM)

  2. She is skilled in multimedia tools such as Adobe Photoshop, Macromedia Flash, Macromedia Director etc. However, being a pure science student in secondary school and university, she has no foundation in art and graphic design - making her a weak candidate for Web Designer. After all, one of the key criteria for the works of a web designer is to ensure aesthetic qualities in a web interface. The multimedia course is hence analogous to teaching a student how to use a paint brush, without showing the student how to paint pretty.

  3. It is unsurprising then to find that a large pool of the so-called IT graduates are finding it difficult to seek employment because what they have undergone in university puts them in "no-man's land", particularly in the IT industry. Our candid discussion led to the next step in which Sherry should take. The questions raised were like whether she should pursue a career in IT through further studies to improve her foundations in programming or whether she should pursue alternative careers, say enrolling in a management trainee programme.

Anyway, my key contentions as highlighted by Sherry's predicament are as follows:

  1. Unversities should stop offering "trendy" courses which are poorly thought-out on the mistaken notion that they will be "attractive" to prospective students. It is important that these courses are tailored to the right set of students for the right objectives. Degree courses should have sufficient academic rigour in exercising the analytical and thought process instead of merely teaching skills in using a software application.

  2. Teaching software product knowledge in tools such as Photoshop, Flash and Director are more applicable as "Certificate"-based courses (which students may take separately at the University or at other commercial colleges) as these are definitely not "degree" based courses. As an analogy, Microsoft Word is to writing as Photoshop is to drawing. One should not be awarding degrees for "studying" Microsoft Word!

  3. Universities and colleges are contributing to our pool of unemployed graduates by offering courses which are not providing the right foundations for the relevant job positions in the respective sectors.

  4. By packaging these product skills as a degree course, it also leads to serious mismatch with regards to the graduates employment and remuneration expectations. Graduates of the above "Multimedia" and other similar degrees are expecting to be paid the same as graduates from other more rigourous courses like "Software Engineering", as well as similar rosy career paths. These expectations are unfortunately far from reality. Graduates in "Multimedia" in this case are competing against graduates from Art & Design Schools who are possibly weaker from an IT perspective, but are stronger from a design and aesthetic perspective - and they come at a much cheaper price! The Art school students are usually weaker in IT skills, but that can be easily compensated by a few short months of training on the various design software applications like Photoshop, Flash and Director (not very difficult applications to learn - hence not suitable for degree courses). Students from Art schools generally have lower salary and career prospects expectations, and hence are easier to be satisfied and retained by employers. Hence, from the above perspective, why should employers fork out more money for these multimedia graduates, incur more effort in growing and retaining them while at the same time, they are likely to be less artisitically inclined than the Art school graduates? Employers will not pay the same salary, and offer the same growth path to "multimedia designers" than software engineers, as the latter clearly have more challenging and sophisticated skills required and their growth space is wider and more technically in-depth.
The Bachelors degree in Multimedia is not the only such course around which is weak and often do not meet the demands of the IT employers. There are now plenty of fanciful IT courses with trendy names hoping to attract students into these faculties - a commercial ploy by many of these colleges. Some of the courses which I find are particularly weak and are "neither here nor there" would be degrees in "e-commerce", "internet technology", "multimedia application management" etc. What makes the situation worse is many students specifically choose some of the above subjects because they are known to be less academically rigourous, and hence providing them with an easier path to a degree in IT or computer science.

Unfortunately, there is a lack of objective information evaluated by independent parties on the usefulness of these courses in the job market. Students are therefore advised to consider very carefully the courses to choose to subscribe to in university as a supposedly minor difference between "multimedia" and "computer science" will actually result in vastly different outcomes subsequent job placement and future career options.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Graduates need to be serious (1)

In an article on News Straits Times on the 8th April, it was reported that our Human Resources Minister Datuk Dr Fong Chan Onn said he hoped to submit a paper to the Cabinet on the Graduate training scheme's re-introduction over the next two weeks.

The scheme, he added, was successful in finding jobs for unemployed graduates the first time around as it had enhanced their marketability by equipping them with new skills.

For those not familiar with the scheme, it is essentially the Government paying for the "unemployed" graduates' salary of RM1,800 per month for a period of 6 months. This acts as an incentive for companies to employ these graduates as the objective is for the Government to subsidise their initial orientation and on-the-job training to make the graduates more proficient before being able to command their own "salary" without government assistance. It is a noble scheme, which however, has its "problems" in implementation.

The government for obvious reasons will not be able to discriminate between the better or poorer graduates in terms of qualifications. Hence as a result, easily employable first class honours graduates will still qualify for the scheme (should the employers be aware of the scheme in the first place). As a result, part of the subsidy is basically "wasted" on graduates who may have otherwise found easy employment irrespective of whether the subsidy was available. However, there being no statistics or studies provided to show the quality of candidates who have managed to find work with the scheme - it'll be difficult to measure its actual effectiveness. As an employer myself, I'm more than happy for the scheme to continue because I will be able to obtain subsidy for candidates whom I would have hired anyway.

As part of the scheme however, the government should first engage qualified consultants to conduct seminars to assist these graduates improve their employability. This tasnk should actually be that of our universities, but unfortunately they have not been able to fulfil their role in this. The very first step to gaining employment is to have a decent resume which will "open the door" to an interview with the prospective employers.

Unfortunately, I find that the majority of Malaysian graduates (both foreigh and local ones) are not sufficiently serious with their resumes. I have reviewed many resumes, especially those which are submitted via internet-based recruitment sites such as Jobstreet. Candidates have failed to take their resumes seriously - and if the can't be serious about their own resumes, why should the prospective employers be serious about hiring them. Some of the indifferent attitudes displayed in their resumes include simple stuff such as:

(1) refusal to use capital letters in as much as their entire write up, even for the names! This is particularly irritating when the candidates to not capitalise the "I" in their comments or essays. To me, this displays clear laziness, and the candidates do not possess a meticulous attitude to their work. Should employers hire these candidates and risk complaints from their clients?

(2) refusal to have their grammar properly checked whether via a word processor or someone else with better command of the language. As an example, the following is two write ups I obtained from local twinning private college students with a 2nd class (upper) degrees:

  • I am a person who like to take challenge and get explosure on job. I have been on business trip in Australia, Hong Kong, China, Taiwan, Singapore, Thailand to get myself have more broad thinking whenever i am doing project anaysis and consultant.I am working as MIS for travel company, communicate well with end user, programmer, oversea MIS and management is a very important job for me. Deadline is alway given by management to me on every project assigned. Project management and project analysis are the job I am interesting [APIIT]
  • There is one time where i've develope a medium size web application system. At that time i'm still new in the IT industry and do not know the important of security. While the system was at it's final stage, i come across an article about web security and i start to realize the important of the security of a system. End up, i've to restructure and patch the system. [Inti]

I cannot imagine the candidate writing a requirements specification or a project report on behalf of the company for a client. If the candidate cannot write in decent English in his or her resume, then there's little chance for her to have the opportunity to impress in an interview.

(3) The third problem with job applications is that the candidates often do not "answer" the questions asked. In my Jobstreet advertisements, I always request that the candidate answer some general questions to help differentiate candidates who appear to have equal academic competence. An example of a question will be "Cite a time you were not pleased with your performance. What did you do?" The answers I get - I can compile a book! And these are from candidates with at least 2nd Class Upper equivalent results.

  • night. I do my own personal thing. [TAR College]
  • i will change my performance. [Greenwich Univ / Sunway College]
  • To obtain and establish a valuable work experience from your company in the internal and external environment.... I’m available for an interview at anytime that convenience to you and also I’m ready for an immediate vacancy if I’m given a chance. [UPM]
  • I have experinece in developing online based system . the tools that i used to developing the system is ASP.NET, VB, Macromedia FLash and Macromedia Dreamweaver. [UM]
This is a case of the graduates not being serious in the job application process. The process today is now so convenient via emails and internet recruitment sites, they no longer pay serious attention to detail and no longer attempt to review their resume and application. They just "rush" to complete and submit the application without giving thought to the fact that submitting a hastily completed application and poorly formed resume is not going to increase the chances of employment by much.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Choosing the wrong course?

In a Malay Mail article yesterday - it was highlighted that a substantial portion of the registered 66,000 unemployed graduates are from some of the most popular courses.
Business administration, computer and information technology, and engineering are the most sought-after courses by many school leavers.

This has resulted in a high number of unemployment among graduates from these disciplines – 19,900 business administration graduates, 9,500 from computer and information technology, and 7,500 engineering graduates.
While it may not have been intended, the article may have inadvertently sent the message to prospective university students that the above courses are to be avoided due to low demand for their skills post-graduation. I'd like to state that this will probably be a wrong "read" of the above statistics.

First of all, while the number of graduates unemployed from these courses are the highest, the article did not give any statistics on proportion of candidates from each of these faculties are unemployed. This information will be key, as given that the above courses are the largest faculties in the universities in Malaysia (or even inclusive of overseas universities), then obviously the likelihood will be the absolute numbers of unemployed from these faculties will be largest is very high. For e.g., the number of students taking B. Sc. Chemistry probably do not exceed 2,000 students in the entire Malaysia per annum, and will hence never make it to the top unemployed list, even *if* possibly up to 50% of them remain unemployed.

Secondly, a point which I will further comment in subsequent blog entries, many of the students of these courses, particularly those in IT and Engineering should not have "qualified" for these courses in the first place. It is my opinion that many of the students from STPM/SPM who have been accepted into these courses in the Malaysian universities, should never have qualified for these courses in the first place. The entry level of the courses in some of the local universities has been set so low, that these poor students will never have a chance to perform credibly in these courses - resulting in their unemployment status. For e.g., I've seen many many graduates will very poor results in Mathematics (and Additional Mathematics) in SPM/STPM but qualified for these courses. With a poor foundation in Mathematics, it would have been better for these candidates to have taken other courses which they may have performed better. Without giving undue disrespect to the weaker candidates, if you don't have at least a B4 for your additional mathematics for SPM, avoid Engineering or Computer Science courses! In Singapore, the requirements are even higher with candidates accepted into these courses only if they have a minimum "B" grade for the Further Mathematics in 'A' Levels.

Further to the second point above, the courses in Computer Science and Engineering in many of the local universities are already very lacking in academic rigour. With a large number of candidates graduating with CGPAs below 3.0, it is unsurprising that this lot becomes "unemployable" in the Malaysian private sector.

The bottomline is, students should pick courses based on their capabilities and not based on what's apparently "in-demand" out there (e.g., IT courses). If you are not cut out for IT or Engineering, putting yourselves through the courses is not going to make you more employable in the IT or Engineering markets. I can testify that there is a shortage of IT candidates in Malaysia, and we need more capable IT staff. However, that does not mean that we'll employ anybody who receives a piece of degree paper (no matter how bad his grades are abilities are).

Job Fair for the Unemployed (The Star 12.4.05)

The Star today has a decent comment on the proposed job fair by the Ministry of Human Resources. Agreeably, the idea is a good one, particularly to help resolve the pool of graduates who has not yet been able to find gainful employment.
However, the measure is pretty much a short term one as it does not address the key underlying issues as to why there are so many graduates who are finding it difficult to find employment. The relevant authorities will really have to take the necessary painful decisions to restructure Malaysia's higher education system (as well as secondary education) in order resolve the "employability" problem among the Malaysian graduates.

Job fair will benefit both companies and job seekers
Comment by V.K. Chin

A JOB fair can have several benefits for both employers and those looking for work. Other than looking for work it will be an avenue to those who are about to complete their formal education to find out what is available in the employment market.

While this concept is still a novelty in Malaysia, it is in fact a regular feature in many developed countries in an effort to let the public know what they have to offer.

In this context, some companies may be reluctant to participate in such fairs as their favourite method of looking for workers is by advertising or media publicity.

They are used to school leavers approaching them for work and therefore not used to selling themselves to the public. Some may not like to change this mindset or to give the public the wrong impression.

The response to such fairs will depend to a certain extent on the performance of the economy. In a booming economy, there will be more vacancies than candidates and some companies will have trouble in getting new employees.

Conversely, in a recession, there will usually be more candidates than jobs because most companies will not be doing well. They will be shedding jobs rather than looking for new workers.

The proposed job fair is at the initiative of the Human Resources Ministry, which is extremely concerned with the large number of unemployed graduates, especially those from local

It is trying to play matchmaker and to give the unemployed graduates the chance to find out what the companies have to offer. There is little doubt that the fair will be well received in view of the many who are unable to find work after graduation.

The target will be those who have been staring at unemployment for several months and they are likely to crowd the fairs when they are held in their hometowns.

Human Resources Minister Datuk Dr Fong Chan Onn disclosed last week there were thousands of jobs on offer at the fairs for the interested groups to choose from. It is up to them to find
out more from those companies participating in each fair.

Though it is the first such fairs to be organised, its success as far as attendance goes is
almost guaranteed. It is also possible that many companies may sign up workers on the spot if they should find some suitable candidates.

But its objective is not for recruitment only as another important aspect of the fair is to enable job seekers to find out more details first hand from representatives of participating companies.
The fair is therefore an excellent idea and beneficial to both companies and those looking for work and it should be turned into an annual affair instead of a one-off undertaking so that future school leavers too can make use of this useful event.