"I don't know how to talk to university students any more... They don't understand what I am saying, it is that bad. I cannot communicate with them."While I'm in complete agreement with the state of affairs for many students entering universities today, I disagree with the diagnosis provided by the various parties as per the report in the New Straits Times.
Everybody seems to have something to say about the high achievers from the recent bunch of SPM and STPM graduates. Many are "complaining" about the number of subjects being taken by some of these students, enabling them to score 10-15 straight 1As.
And now, it appears that the fact that the number of subjects these students are sitting for in the examinations is the cause of undergrad illiteracy in the universities.
The Education Ministry understands that things have to change, so students coming from secondary schools are not just note-memorising, straight-A students with little creativity or people skills. That is why it is going back to the drawing board.So the argument is that these students are just "note-memorising" to score straight-As and hence are unable to communicate in universities. That's just so rubbish.
Is the Ministry of Education now telling us that all these 15A students are unable to communicate, cannot understand tutors and lecturers and cannot think on their own two feet? Well, if that is really the case, then I have wronged the Public Service Department (PSD) all these while. These students clearly do not deserve the offers of scholarship from PSD or any other bodies. We should instead "ban" scholarships for these 15A students for have little or no creativity and people skills, for they have taken too many subjects!
Here is a clear case whereby a problem with our education system has been identified but have wrongly identified causes attributed to the problem.
First of all, are these students Professor Khoo is referring to these "15A" type students? As far as I'm concerned, very probably not. And safely assuming that they are students of the History Department or even the Social Sciences faculty, they are unlikely to be the supposed "15A" type top students.
In fact, I dare say, a substantial majority of these students are the those who were not able to secure their preferred subjects, and have little choice but to take up the offer of History or other subjects in Arts and Social Sciences. Yes, unfortunately in Malaysia where the Arts and Social Science faculties are an ostracised lot, these will mean that the median student in these faculties will have grades like D,D,E,F for their STPM or a range of 4B to 9F for their STPM.
Hence to attribute the blame of "illiteracy" amongst university students to the number of subjects some of these top scorers are taking is absolutely incredulous.
Secondly, the next most likely reason for the drop in standards in the students enrolled into our universities has to do with the fact that the number of spaces available to Malaysian students in the local public and private universities and colleges have increased at a much much faster rate than the rise in standards of student output from our secondary school system.
This is a very simple straightforward argument. As outlined in my earlier post here, the number of places available to tertiary students have increased by some 350% over a period of only 15 years from 1985 to 1999. I'm certain the rate of growth would only have accelerated further in the 2000s. It is more than reasonable to assume that the standards of the students enrolling into tertiary education in Malaysia could not possibly have been maintained. It's just humanly impossible for the tertiary students to have increased from 170,000 in 1985 to more than 550,000 in 1999 to have maintained the same entry standards.
Hence its only expected that the quality of students entering our universities would have declined dramatically over the past few years. Students who would have previously (had they been born 10 years ago) been unable to enter universities would now have easy access to a degree certification.
At the same time, while our examination system isn't perfect, it's not imperfect because students are allowed to take up to some 16 examination subjects. To me, if the students have the ability to cope with the load, let them challenge their own individual potentials. Why try to limit the students exploration of their academic and intellectual abilities?
To me, the reason why the secondary education and examination system is churning out rubbish input into our universities is because the manner in which the secondary school subjects are taught and examined is weak and focused on the wrong areas.
I've written on this issue before and you may read it here. But the key sections is repeated here as follows:
I find that the problem is not with an examination system (which I regard as critical) and tweaking with experiments like taking fewer subjects, but in changing the approach to examinations - beginning with the teachers and the examination questions. Let me give an example of comparative question from the much maligned subject of history. Compare the following three questions:Less examinations is not an answer to better critical thinking, creativity and people skills. Better teaching and examinations is the right approach.1. What are the events leading to the fall of the Melaka Sultanate?The questions to me, represents different degrees of thinking and analytical skills despite dealing with the same subject as well as probably comprising the very same content in the answers. The approach to the first question probably involves a semi-chrological listing of the events leading to the fall of the sultanate with cursory linkages to the reasons behind the fall of the sultanate.
2. What are the factors which caused the fall of the Melaka Sultanate?
3. Was the fall of the Melaka Sultanate inevitable?
The approach to the 2nd question will be slightly more analytical as the student will have to discern and derive the factors behind the fall, from the actual historical events.
However, the 3rd question is probably the hardest as it requires the student to think and analyse hardest as to the inevitability of the fall of the sultanate given the events and factors. However, you would note that the students, irrespective of the question are required to learn and know in hand, the facts with regards to the fall of the sultanate.
Hence, my brief argument in an issue which can spawn volumes of theses, is that there is nothing wrong with examinations per se, as well as learning facts and figures as part of the curriculum. However, what is important is for the educators to take the next step and inculcate analytical and critical thinking skills for application on the facts and figures learnt.
But do we have the right experts in our Ministry of Education to make the right decisions? I usually fear the most when ancient and archaic civil servants make the calls with regards to changes in our educational policies. How are those without critical thinking, creativity and people skills going to be able to institute policies which encourage and inculcate the same such skills? Hmmm...