Sunday, May 15, 2005

"Skills" Training for Undergrads?

On the 14 April 2005, it was reported by the Star the timetables of courses in universities will be streamlined with those in vocational institutes to allow undergraduates to be enrolled for skills training at the same time.

Human Resources Minister Datuk Dr Fong Chan Onn said the move would make graduates more marketable and help resolve the high unemployment rate among them. “I have talked with Higher Education Minister Datuk Dr Shafie Salleh and we have agreed that we should put this suggestion to work,” he said at his office here yesterday.

I think that our authorities are unfortunately, either not facing up to the reality or are not thinking straight with regards to the issues relating to the "unemployability" of our fresh graduates. To determine if the above measure is going to be useful in making our graduates more "marketable", we have to evaluate the real reasons why these graduates are no so marketable. The reasons given by various employers, and publish in various newspaper sources have been made fairly clearly - the weaknesses of some of these graduates varies from:

  • the lack of English language competencies,
  • poor interactive skills,
  • poor choice of degree courses,
  • poor quality degree courses or
  • more blatantly, just too many students who barely passed their degree examinations.

From my personal point of view, as well as through the experience of interviewing many of these fresh graduates, the reasons why some of the candidates are not "marketable" are in the order of importance:

  • poor academic results (I'm referring to those who barely eeked out a degree)
  • poor academic rigour in certain local universities (so you can imagine how bad is poor results in weak university)
  • poor attitude (have a look at my blog on "Grads need to be serious"
  • poor English, interaction and communication skills

It doesn't matter so much the exact priorities of the above - or whether the "general" opinion of employers or that of mine is more accurate - the key question is how does "skills training" actually alleviate that above concerns?

"Skills training" in a polytechnic is not going to improve the graduate's academic result and capabilities and it would not affect the quality of teaching in the relevant university. Neither will the "skills training" help with attitude issues nor will it improve the candidate's English competence. As far as I can tell, the good students with better attitudes will continue to do well for the skills training while the weaker students will be equally poor with the same training. The authorities need to realise that providing skills training is significantly different from making the graduates skilled.

The authorities also need to realise that if some of these graduates need to undergo "skills training" in order to make them more marketable, maybe the key reason why they are not marketable in the first place could be that they shouldn't be in a university but in a polytechnic? In our rush to make our population more educated and flood our markets with "degree" holders, have we:

  1. recruited too many students to our universities by over-expanding enrolment when many of these students don't merit a university placement? Will these students have been better served to enrol into skills based courses in polytechnics, which will provide them with better perspectives of what they can achieve as well as better "marketability" in the relevant sectors of our industry

  2. set up too many new universities and converted too many polytechnics into universities? Were we too eager to be proud of "how many" universities are there in Malaysia as opposed to whether we can deliver the necessary quality education? Could the rapid pace of university expansion be equally matched by an increase in academic lecturers and staff without sacrificing quality for quantity? This appears unlikely to be the case.

In addition, it is my believe that a university education is not about "skills training". While "skills training" may be useful, its more important for the universities to be inculcating in our brightest minds critical thinking and strong analytical skills (irrespective of subject matter). When I hire a fresh computer science graduate, I do not expect him or her to be immediately competent in all programming language skills. I look instead for strong understanding of how programming languages work (the concepts are fairly standard, it just the language is a tad different), excellent logical thinking as well as the ability to quickly pick up new "skills" (e.g., new programming languages) as part of his work.

Many of our government authorities as well as our educationists are getting too proud to admit as well as face up to the key issues why some of our degree graduates are not marketable. Poor degree courses, weak "universities" which passes students easily as well as minimum enrolment standards are the KEY reasons for our graduate unemployment. The sooner we face up to these reasons and work towards a solution to these problems, the sooner we will resolve our graduates "marketability" issues. The more time we waste on piecemeal actions, tweaking on minor or possibly irrelevant issues, the worse the non-marketability issue will get (with more of these unmarketable graduates coming into the market on a yearly basis).


multidimid said...

I cannot agree with you more on your incisive assessment of the current unemployment situation in the country of the “graduates”. What I see is that most of these jobless graduates are undercooked, unpalatable and unprepared for the reality of the job market.

Far too many tertiary institutions have mushroomed - it is about time to cut back and maintain the standard of tertiary education. Their underlining principle of success is “make it easy to enter and easy to pass”. The more the merrier, as their noble aim is to satisfy the shareholders’ investment. Education for profit is no education at all.

In the early days, anyone who can pay their fees is accepted through the front door, as well as the back door and side door (running pre-diploma, foundation courses, bridging courses, English improvement courses, etc). These so called higher institutions are exploiting the fact that there is a larger pool of SPM holders with average results (lesser credits) unable to gain entrance into the public sector colleges/universities who found them being welcomed and accepted by these private ones. Those who have graduated with any diploma were given equivalent standing and exemption for the degree programme applied.

For most of the private colleges/university colleges, they are no better than tutorial colleges operating initially from commercial buildings and shop lots. In the past, without the regulation from LAN (National Accreditation Board) and Education Ministry, they have been doing extremely well with their own designed fast-track 3+0, 2+1 degree programmes, advanced diploma and higher diploma courses.

So with the large intake and their acquired wealth, some have established themselves with their own newly built campuses and made themselves looked respectable. Some were even granted “university” College status but still basically diploma and degree mills churning out mainly undercooked or unbaked graduates with their rushed semester programmes. Without proper breaks, they are hardly able to digest and absorb what is taught.

Public universities in the past, which have been molly-coddled with grants, have been overdoing things - spending and developing courses (aero space engineering) which are not in tune with the needs of the country. By cutting back and forcing them to generate their own funds, they cannot survive without the student numbers. It is high time they take a hard look at themselves and trim their cost or become dinosaurs.

It is good; the Government has stepped in to regulate the sunrise education industry to maintain some minimum decorum and standards with the five credits requirements for a basic degree programme. The Malaysian Association of Private Colleges and Universities (Mapcu) demanded a lower entrance qualification of universities and colleges as they are crying foul with the big drop in enrolment. How long can they survive with low student numbers? Equally the Government should also regulate the lesser know public universities.

Whilst tertiary education is not for the elite, neither should it be opened for every Tom, Dick and Harry. It seems to some privatized Universities (recognized) that every diploma holder can be a degree holder. It is real sad that some 20,000 are enrolled in one for an easy conversion of their Diploma to a Degree for a fee. The principle is again “minimum effort, maximum results”. So what sort of degree graduates can you expect? Very soon we may have Roti Canai, B Sc or Char Kueh Teow, M Sc in Malaysia.

Anonymous said...

Without a degree cannot find job, with a lousy degree cannot find a job, looks like either way cannot find a job. No problem right? At least these colleges can offer jobs to lecturers till the day they close down. My point is simply this: if you have some brains & willingness to work hard, degree or no degree you will find or create job(s). No one is forcing you to get a roti canai degree, if you do not qualify for platinum degrees, who is to be blame? (Shouldn’t we also ask why is it that some only could qualify for roti canai degree admission?) What free market institution out there doesn't market their institution to have great offerings? (Some really believe they are great, but are they actually great? Some believe they are offering choice and it is up to the student (customer) to make the best out of the available option(s), but of course they won’t tell them that -☺) Look, what kind of world do you think we are living in?

Old Man

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately a lot of 'uni's around the world have gone into factory mode alla 'china' style.

Critical thinking & analytical skills are part & parcel of the overall education scheme from pre-school to tertiary. Also might add that the present cultural influence of having an open mind is critical to fostering such traits.
Sedating the population with the fear or carrot of the day is often not helpful as a policy towards independent & advanced thinking that's beneficial to a country or the world.