Universities can add value by giving students a real-world environment to apply their knowledge, and to make it safe for them to fail.
I remember when I was about eight years old, I got 84% on a test and the only person who scored better than me answered two more correct answers.
When I got home, the first question my mother asked was, “Why didn’t you get full marks?”
I suspect my story is relatively mild compared to what some other Malaysian children went through. I didn’t have my palm caned with a rotan for every wrong answer I got, and I only had to undergo tuition for my worst subjects.
But still, I do wonder what would have happened all those years ago if I had said, “You know, the Ministry of Education will in the future realise that there is more to education than just getting good grades”.
Yes, I would have probably gotten a clip on the ear for that. But it doesn’t change the fact that in conjunction with the new Higher Education Blueprint released earlier this week, Second Education Minister Datuk Seri Idris Jusoh said that a new integrated CGPA would not just be based on academic results but that institutions will “aspire to produce a balanced and holistic graduate with entrepreneurial skills”.
The full blueprint runs to 240 pages and aims to be comprehensive, encompassing everything from producing graduates fit for the modern workplace to embracing innovative financing models.
But I find their plans to produce a well-rounded student the most interesting, given I wrote about this last year (“Is it time to rethink tertiary education?”).
The Blueprint admits there is a “a mismatch in the supply and demand of graduates”. On first reading, the biggest concern I have is that Malaysian universities will continue to be protective and prescriptive. What I mean is that students come in and are told what they should learn, and are led along by hand to the end.
I have no statistics on the current situation in local universities, but when I talk to students and lecturers, the impression I get is that if students simply follow the professor’s lead and memorise the things on the curriculum, they will graduate with ease.
I know of one case where even though lectures were presented in English (because that is the course requirement), the lecturer translated all the notes and slides to Malay because the students say they can’t understand it otherwise.
And some lecturers are so keen to see their students succeed, that they basically train their students to answer questions they know will turn up in the exams. (Incidentally, these lecturers look good on paper because their students have a high passing rate.)
A recent editorial in the Economist argues that it is difficult for employers to judge exactly how good university graduates are, citing that employers “took graduates from the most prestigious universities not because of what the candidates might have learned but because of those institutions’ tough selection procedures”.
In fact, making graduates think they are better than they really are causes issues. A recruiting management company asked candidates whether they knew how to use a word processing software. A little later, they then made the candidates actually use the computer to do some tasks.
People either fell into two groups: Those who were pretty accurate in their self-assessment, and those who were wildly overestimating their abilities. What they found was that those in the first group were also more likely to perform well when tested on other performance metrics.
So it is heartening that the Blueprint suggests that universities do more to incorporate knowledge (ilmu) with morals (akhlak). (Although professors should themselves question what morals they are demonstrating by spoon-feeding students exam answers.)
Even more crucial is whether students are being taught how to learn well. The Blueprint makes it clear that “technological disruptions reshape industries”, thus “imbuing (students) with transferable skills” is a priority. If you can learn well on your own, you can prosper with what is available online today.
But learning on your own isn’t about waiting for information being given to you, but going out to seek and understand the world. Where universities can add value is by giving students a real-world environment to apply their newfound knowledge and to also make it safe for them to fail.
At the end of it all, the new GPAs for institutes of higher education seem to be a good step forward, as long as it is recognised that this isn’t a checklist of things that need to be done, as much as producing a student who recognises good and bad learning when they see it. Even if that means turning a mark of 84 into 92.
Logic is the antithesis of emotion but mathematician-turned-scriptwriter Dzof Azmi’s theory is that people need both to make sense of life’s vagaries and contradictions. Speak to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.