LAST_UPDATEWed, 20 Jun 2018 8pm

Can Malaysian Universities Downward Spiral In Global Rankings Be Reversed?

ACCORDING to the annual QS University Rankings Asia last year, the only Malaysian university in the top 50 ranking was Universiti Malaya at 32nd place. Which university ranked first in Asia? No surprises that the top honours went to National University of Singapore (NUS) with The University of Hong Kong coming in at second place.

We have to look further down the ranking to locate Malaysia’s other public universities. Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (56), Universiti Sains Malaysia (57), Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (66) and Universiti Putra Malaysia (76).  Malaysian public universities last year were also left out of the latest ranking of the annual Times Higher Education (THE) Top 100 Universities under 50 years old.

Furthermore, Malaysia was also absent from the Times Higher Education World Reputation rankings list last year, losing out to other Asian countries, with Singapore, Japan, Hong Kong and South Korea making it into the worldwide top 50 ranks. However, Malaysia fares slightly better when placed in rankings that focus only on emerging economies, like UKM coming in top 10 in the BRICS & Emerging Economies Ranking 2015.

Is this problem of declining global ranking only confined to tertiary educations? The answer, unfortunately is no. Malaysian secondary school students’ performance is lagging behind their worldwide peers too.

In the 2012 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a worldwide study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which examines the scholastic performance of 15-year-old pupils in mathematics, science and reading, Malaysia was ranked 52nd out of 65 countries

Malaysia’s performance was not only below the OECD average, but in areas such as science and reading, there was deterioration in performance compared the previous assessment.

The 2012 PISA score is illustrated in the following chart:

Note: Bracket denotes the difference in years of schooling. Note: Bracket denotes the difference in years of schooling.

If we are looking for clear signs of the state of the Malaysian education system, there is no clearer indication of declining standards when we look at the repeated pattern of Malaysia’s poor performance in these global rankings.  This, clearly, paints a very sorry picture for Malaysian education standards.

Some hard questions have to be asked. What actually leads to Malaysia’s continuous dismal showing in global university rankings?  Is any action being taken to address this vicious cycle of declining standards?

Lack Of Higher Order Thinking Skills

When contacted by Malaysian Digest, Prof Dr Teo Kok Seong (pic), who is the Principal Research Fellow at Institute of Malay World and Civilisation (ATMA) of Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM), said there are loopholes in our national education system which must be addressed promptly.

Prof Dr Teo Kok Seong  is the Principal Research Fellow at Institute of Malay World and Civilisation (ATMA) of Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM)Prof Dr Teo Kok Seong is the Principal Research Fellow at Institute of Malay World and Civilisation (ATMA) of Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM)“We must admit the fact that in our national education system, we lack the teaching of higher order thinking skills (HOTS) as less emphasis is placed on creative and critical thinking in our classrooms. Unlike our [students] counterparts in developed countries, they are comparatively poor in creativity, imagination and spontaneity because we place too much emphasis on fact memorization.

“However, the National Education Blueprint (2013-2025) which will be implemented in three waves, Wave 1 (2013-2015), Wave 2 (2016-2020) and Wave 3 (2021-2025), is a good initiative. I am confident that it would deliver a turnaround in the performance of our education system if they are properly implemented,” he said.

The Education Ministry had taken initial steps to address this lack of thinking skills when in 2011, a delegation from the Ministry together with teachers from 10 pilot schools were involved in early initiatives to explore ways to implement it in Malaysian schools. A three month pilot was launched in January 2012 in 10 schools. 

The challenge is to bring this initiative from a few hundred schools to over 10,000 throughout Malaysia? The following video gives a comprehensive insight into the innovative iThink project in Malaysia, with the full backing of the Malaysian Ministry of Education.

Asked what can be done to improve the national education standards, he said: “We [the government] are weak when it comes to the implementation. The efforts to improve the decline of education in the country have been more rhetoric in essence.”

“The Ministry should therefore continue to intensify efforts to focus on the implementation of the proposed initiatives and to stay on course in order to improve the quality of education,” he added.

Inconsistencies In Policy

In the National Education Blueprint (2013-2025), the Ministry will continue to emphasize the role of the parents, community and the private sector in enhancing the quality of education. A National Parents and Teachers Association (PIBG) Convention will also be held to share best practices on parental involvement among high-performing PIBGs.

Datin Noor Azimah Abdul Rahim (pic), chairman of the Parent Action Group for Education (PAGE), told Malaysia Digest that there are multiple reasons that lead to the decline of education standard in Malaysia which are often interlinked.

“Firstly, the inconsistency of the national education system is among the reasons that lead to the academic decline. The abolishment of the policy of teaching and learning science and mathematics in English (PPSMI) was a big mistake because English should be the medium of teaching and learning process as world’s knowledge is enshrined in the language. Datin Noor Azimah Abdul Rahim is the chairman of the Parent Action Group for Education (PAGE)Datin Noor Azimah Abdul Rahim is the chairman of the Parent Action Group for Education (PAGE)

“Secondly, the poor reading culture is also the main reasons of the declining educational standards in Malaysia. When people do not read, they do not think; when they do not think, they become less creative.

“Thirdly, the poor quality of some teachers also contributes to this problem since it is the most crucial determinant of students’ academic performance,” she pointed out, referring to the survey done earlier which revealed about 70 per cent of them did poorly when sitting for the English Language Cambridge Placement Test.

“It is about time to reintroduce the English language as the medium of teaching and learning process in our schools. Both the students and teachers should be given time to adapt if there is any changes [to the syllabus],” she said, adding that we cannot expect them to excel immediately.

Noor Azimah has been steadfast in her support of teaching Math and Science in English as one of the ways to tackle the issue at the grassroots. She is not alone, with no less than the longest serving former Prime Minister who has been outspoken in asking for Math and Science to be taught in English.

Just last October, Tun Mahathir again stressed the need to master Math and Science in English during a public launch event at a local university. Tun M reiterated that “it’s not about learning the language, it is about learning the knowledge that we have not fully mastered especially in these two fields, which are naturally taught in English… If we don’t master the language in the fields that are being taught, we will be left behind. I have asked the government to reconsider many times to use English; it’s not about sidelining the Malay language.”

The Ministry Is Fully Aware Of The Weaknesses Of Our National Education System

Tan Sri Datuk Prof Dr Sharifah Hapsah Syed Hasan Shahabudin (pic), who is the former vice chancellor of Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM), said the government is aware of the problem and the initiatives are already in place to tackle this problem when contacted by Malaysian Digest recently.

The Education Ministry has outlined 11 shifts to transform the education system.

Refer the table below:

 Source: Ministry of Education, 2013 Source: Ministry of Education, 2013

“People are taking a very simplistic view of the education standard in the country. Too often we draw the wrong conclusions about the decline of national education standard by just referring to only a few surveys revealed. Clearly, this is simply a hasty generalization because the measurement of education standard is actually based on different criteria and indicators.

In fact, there are detractors of the global education rankings who point out that many of these surveys place an inordinate amount of weight on English language research publications in arriving at their final rankings. That sheds some light on the matter but we cannot deny that many Asian universities where English is not the first language have also made it into the top ranks.

Tan Sri Datuk Prof Dr Sharifah Hapsah Syed Hasan Shahabudin is the former vice chancellor of Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM)Tan Sri Datuk Prof Dr Sharifah Hapsah Syed Hasan Shahabudin is the former vice chancellor of Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM)“The Ministry of Education’s concerted efforts to improve the national education standard by reviewing and restructuring the National Education Blueprint should be seen as an important part of the Ministry’s commitment towards better education in the country,” she said.

Commenting on the poor result on the PISA among Malaysian students, she admitted that our students were comparatively weak in terms of scholastic performance and they were ranked poorly in the assessment, compared with their counterparts in some developed countries.

“The National Education Blueprint (2013-2025) will focus on effort to encourage innovative and creative and critical thinking among our students. The Ministry has started making changes and focused on a few initiatives for intervention,” she said.

“The Ministry is fully aware of the weaknesses of our national education system and has taken various initiatives to address the problem. However, improving the national education system takes time as it does not just happen overnight,” she added.

“Unless The Present Attitude Is Changed, We Will Always Lag Behind” - Khoo Kay Kim

Meanwhile, in a telephone interview with Malaysian Digest, Professor Emeritus Tan Sri Dato’ Dr Khoo Kay Kim (pic) said the local universities today are not willing to compete at the international level.

When asked about the academic decline in the country, he said: “They [local universities] just do what they like, unlike in the past where Universiti Malaya (UM) and other public universities always made it a point to outdo foreign universities.”

“Unless the present attitude is changed, we will always lag behind others,” the academician added.Tan Sri Datuk Dr Khoo Kay Kim is an emeritus professor in the History Department of the University of Malaya (UM)Tan Sri Datuk Dr Khoo Kay Kim is an emeritus professor in the History Department of the University of Malaya (UM)

A local online news portal had quoted Opposition DAP MP Zairil Khir Johari last May commenting on the falling global rankings, "Clearly, Malaysian universities are uncompetitive, and will continue to be so until fundamental problems are addressed, such as the lack of academic freedom, autonomy and the quality of the faculty," the Bukit Bendera MP said.  

In view of this, the focus must continue to be on effective implementation as the biggest challenge we face will be on improving our implementation of the well-designed multipronged approaches and initiatives already contained in the new National Education Blueprint.

Our future generation deserves nothing less but a quality education. Nevertheless, the journey to transform and illuminate the national education system is a challenging task. Therefore, everyone must take ownership and action and this includes teachers, parents, school leaders, ministry officers and the general public and NGOs.

-- mD