I have a major concern with regards to the trend of secondary and higher education in Malaysia today which is heading towards one more focused on skills and probably less on intellect. We see it today with the types of degree courses which are being offered by the private colleges, and closely followed by some of the public universities. In the extreme, we have degree programmes such as Animation, Event Management or even the "Internet". Note that by "intellect", I'm referring to everything relating to critical thinking, intelligence, resourcefulness as well as analytical skills.
At the same time, we hear these so-called "experts" in the market harping on the fact that the reason for the oft-quoted 60,000 unemployed graduates is a "skills mismatch". Hence it is unsurprising that candidates and school administrators alike start to look at "skills" as the key barometer in the determination of a good degree programme. As a result, the less tangible "intellect", a key output from a university education - and to me, the most important output - is pretty much neglected and forgotten. You will find our Ministers often calling for the Malaysian education system to inculcate greater "skills" in our students to "ensure" employability, but never about harnessing and strengthening "intellect".
As a result, my biggest concern will be the fact that many students, particularly top students, will be misled to choose courses which focuses on "skills" as opposed to strengthening "intellect". For instance, I interviewed a first class honours graduate from Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM) just a few days back. She completed her degree in computer science specialising in Multimedia. One of her "regrets" was the fact that she thought the teaching of multimedia is "outdated" at because they actually have to build their multimedia programmes from scratch using basic programming languages such as 4GL. She and her friends "envied" the fact that students in many private colleges specialising in multimedia were "taught" to use the "latest" tools such as Macromedia Authorware and 3D Studio Max to complete their multimedia assignments.
I told her that her thinking is completely wrong for 2 simple reasons. Firstly, at UPM, whether by design or otherwise, the course has resulted in students having to utilise a larger proportion of their intellectual faculties (what I'll normally refer to as "brain exercise") as opposed to students who get to take the easy way out using Authorware or 3D Studio. There has also been a comment somewhere on this blog when a reader argued that with calculators, it's no longer practical nor necessary for students to understand and remember formulas - after all, what's the relevance of addition and substraction when I can just press a couple of keys in on the calculator which costs me less than RM10? Well, the reason is simple, yet often forgotten - the formal education which we receive is not about picking up "skills", it's about strengthening our intellectual capacity and critical thinking skills so that we will be able to pick up skills really fast when we actually commence our productive careers in the "real world".
Secondly, I told the candidate that their obsession with multimedia tools are misplaced. What is important is the understanding and application of multimedia concepts and not on learning how to use these tools when pursuing higher education. As an analogy, if I were to hire a journalist, it is based on whether he or she can write a good story and not whether he or she can use a word processing tool like Microsoft Word! Such tools can be picked up separately either as extra-curricular interest or even after one begins his or her career. For if one has a good foundation in the necessary concepts - whether in writing or in multimedia design, being skilled in such tools will be a piece of cake.
My recruitment philoshophy (which isn't shared by all employers, by the way) is to place "intellect" over experience, which is the default barometer for "skills". While many employers seek out experienced hires, some 80% of my recruits are fresh graduates or those with less than 2 years' experience. When often asked by the candidates, what are my key hiring criteria - my reply has been consistent for the past 7 years.
- Firstly, the candidate must have a brain i.e., intellectually strong.
- Secondly, the candidate must be able to learn really fast, as well as be willing to learn really fast. Some out there are unfortunately able to learn very fast, but not particularly willing to do so. While for some of the others, they are most willing to learn fast, but are unfortunately limited in their ability to do so.
- And thirdly, the candidate must possess the necessary soft skills such as communication, attitude, presentation etc.
Hence, my simple advice to secondary school students out there - have a serious think about the "skills" versus "intellect" dichotomy in our education system. Pick courses which will further enhance your intellectual strengths, critical thinking and analytical skills as opposed to those which focuses on learning specific "tools". This trend in our higher education system to focus excessively on skills is resulting in a change of definition of "universities" to become glamourised polytechnics.
Don't worry too much about skills and experience at this stage of your education. I'm not saying they are not important, except that they play only a secondary supporting role at this stage. I graduated from university with zero practical skills - hell, I didn't even know how to use a word processor properly until I started working!