THE Education Ministry has been pushing for a 60:40 science to arts student ratio by 2008 for the last decade. The reason for this is the fear that the country will be “in trouble” if students continue to opt for arts courses.
Nevertheless, despite the Government’s efforts to promote the study of science and technology, the current ration remains arts-centric – at 41:59.
Although this is an improvement from the 21:79 ratio in 1995, the slow progress recently provoked strong reactions from ministry secretary-general Datuk Ambrin Buang who said parents and educators have the responsibility to address the misconception of science being a difficult subject.
“Overcoming this problem would be a priority for the Government as it has a direct bearing on our move towards a knowledge-based economy,” he said.
The push towards science, however, is not intended to devalue arts programmes. As former Education Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak noted: “We need as many philosophers as we do scientists”.
As such, many local universities are promoting cross-disciplinary programmes – for instance, arts students are encouraged, or required in some instances, to take a course or two from the science faculty and vice versa.
At Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, for example, most faculties require students to take courses from another faculty, to expose them to a wider range of issues.
Says its deputy vice-chancellor (academic affairs) Prof Dr Mohd Ikram Mohd Said: “This is so students have a broader understanding of issues and not just knowledge from their own course. It will also give graduates a better standing, especially since most jobs require both technological know-how and management skills.
“Most faculties make it compulsory, although the number of units required vary. It should be a requirement as our national education policy aims to make individuals more balanced.”
UKM, he adds, has been quite successful in reaching the 60:40 target. Thus far, its ratio of science to arts students is 56.9% to 43.1%. Nevertheless, Dr Ikram says, the emphasis on science programmes has not affected the standing of arts programmes.
“There has been no devaluation of arts programmes as they too are needed for national development. However, there are some programmes that have been modified or altered to be more attractive and relevant to the present times and the impact of globalisation,” he says.
In contrast, private colleges and universities have been reluctant to provide liberal arts courses, primarily because of “low demand”.
Says Malaysian Association of Private Colleges and Universities (Mapcu) secretary-general, Dr Lee Fah Onn: “We have to see where parents are coming from. Many have to borrow money from the bank to send their children to college. These loans need to be repaid straightaway; that is why most parents want their children to take a course that can guarantee their employment after graduation.”
Hence, for job purposes, courses on business, information technology, engineering and the sciences are popular in Malaysia. Lee says that until the country’s economy becomes developed, these “utilitarian” programmes are vital for its growth.
Nonetheless, this is not to say that the upper levels of management and administration in the business world are closed to liberal arts students as those who have succeeded would attest.
“Employers now realise that arts students have better social, communication and creative thinking skills compared to their science counterparts. Arts students are also known to be able to solve problems better than science students,” says Dr Goh Chee Leong, director of Help Institute’s Center for Psychology.
In certain professions in the media, advertising and marketing, business players are beginning to realise the importance of knowledge in anthropology and philosophy, he adds.
The closest to a “balanced degree” at private colleges at the moment are American degree programmes, where students can combine subjects from various streams.
Dr Lee hopes Malaysian higher education will have the flexibility to provide cross-disciplinary programmes in the future as in the West. “This will create more well-rounded students. It will be too narrow to restrict students to only one discipline.”
“Joint” programmes currently high in demand in foreign universities include Law and Pharmacy; Law and Business; and Anthropology or Sociology and Information Technology.