Our schools are better than those in the USA, UK, and Germany? — Wan Saiful Wan Jan
APRIL 9 — In his speech closing the National Higher Education Carnival 2012 on March 31, Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin claimed that Malaysia was ranked 14th globally for the quality of our education system.
He added that this means our younger generation is receiving a better quality of education compared to those in America, the United Kingdom and Germany.
The ranking that Muhyiddin, who is also the education minister, quoted was from the Global Competitiveness Report 2011-2012 published by the World Economic Forum (WEF). It is just one of 111 indicators — each of which can individually be turned into rankings — that the WEF used to calculate our country’s competitiveness.
In fact, the ranking is not for the overall quality of our education system. Rather, we were 14th globally only for our higher education and training. We scored lower for primary education, at number 21.
Muhyiddin’s blunder was to be too selective in choosing what to quote from this 500-page document. As a result, his speech gave the wrong impression to the public, and created a field day for his critics.
Unsurprisingly, critics jumped on this rare blunder. The simplest criticism is, if our education system is really that good, then why does the government spend millions every year to send students to the very countries Muhyiddin said are inferior to us? Shouldn’t we be having an influx of students from America, the UK and Germany instead?
But even if we were to follow Muhyiddin’s selectiveness, the rankings that WEF gave Malaysia for our primary education as well as higher education and training are very telling of the state of our education institutions today. To understand why I say that, allow me to explain how the data collection was done for this report.
The WEF did not collect the data themselves. Instead they work through local partner institutes. In Malaysia, these are the Institute for Strategic and International Studies (ISIS) and the Malaysia Productivity Corporation (MPC). The report states that these two organisations were chosen, among others, because “of their capacity to reach out to leading business executives.”
They surveyed 87 “leading business executives”. This is a rather small sample size. However, we have to acknowledge that this is a global survey and the total global sample size is actually very big. The WEF surveyed over 15,000 respondents from 142 economies between January and June 2011.
After some editing, which is normal in any survey, a total of 13,395 surveys were retained, giving an average of 98 respondents per country, while the median country sample size is 89 responses. So Malaysia’s 87 respondents is comparable to other countries. But the sample size is a rather technical issue that I do not wish to debate at this juncture.
What really attracted my attention was the fact that these 87 respondents gave Malaysia relatively respectable scores for our primary education and higher education and training. I mean, number 21 and 14, respectively, out of 142 countries is really not that bad.
It would be very interesting if we can study the demographics of these respondents. Unfortunately such data is not made public. But I suspect the respondents are not vegetable sellers at the Tamu Bintulu market or taxi drivers in Kaki Bukit. I bet most of them have never set foot to schools in Titi Gajah or Triang. They probably have never even heard of these places. If we were to ask the opinions of villagers from these places — and it is a shame that nobody seems interested in their views — I doubt they share the respondents’ sentiment.
The reason for that is, it is more likely that these “leading business executives” are urbanites living in relatively wealthier townships. It is also more likely that their children go to either some of the better and more affluent government schools, if not the private schools that are beyond the reach of the vast majority of Malaysians.
It is therefore not surprising that they would rank their experience of the Malaysian education system quite highly. And it is also not surprising that the ranking seems to be detached from the day-to-day realities faced by the lay public.
Thus Muhyiddin’s statement actually highlights a serious concern in our education system. It shows that there is a gap between the institutions attended by the wealthier “leading business executives” and the common people. Muhyiddin has inadvertently highlighted the increasingly wide education inequity gap between the haves and the have-nots.
I am very happy that the 87 “leading business executives” surveyed for this report feel that Malaysia’s education system is good. Clearly some of our public schools, and perhaps many of our private schools, as well as the higher education institutions these executives send their children to are globally competitive. We should be proud of what these institutions have achieved, and we must create a policy environment that will allow them to flourish further.
But the question is, how do we help government schools in rural areas catch up? How do we ensure children in Ajil and Sipitang have the same life chances as those in Damansara Heights and Sri Hartamas? How do we make the public universities in Perlis and Kelantan comparable to the Malaysian campuses of Monash and Nottingham?
These are the million-dollar questions and I don’t claim to have an answer immediately. But I do know that the ranking that Muhyiddin quoted implies a worrying education inequity — i.e. children from wealthier families continue to enjoy better quality education while the rest in our society do not have such access.
The Ministry of Education (MoE) is currently undertaking a national review of our education system. They have put together a truly committed and passionate team to conduct this gargantuan task. This team must now ensure they reach out to the poor and underprivileged as part of the consultation process.
If they only capture the views of the wealthy and articulate urbanites, their data will be highly skewed towards the views of one demographic group. The MoE officials tasked with the review process must avoid the blunder of being selective. They must find ways to listen to the voices of the poor and the low-income group so that their findings are truly holistic.
* Wan Saiful Wan Jan is chief executive of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (www.IDEAS.org.my). This article first appeared in The Edge on April 9, 2012.
* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication. The Malaysian Insider does not endorse the view unless specified.