Urgent need for reform

Act now: Everyone must come together to accelerate education reform. – 123rf.com

THERE has always been a call for education reform but now, more than ever, there is an urgency to act.

Recent events, such as learning loss and the widening digital gap resulting from Covid-19, the worsening climate crisis, the war in Ukraine, geopolitical instability, and increasing poverty rate, have exposed the vulnerability of society that our children will grow up in – and the inadequacy of education systems to prepare our students for the unknown. At the recent Education Summit 2022 hosted by the Asian Strategy and Leadership Institute (Asli), experts from the fields of education, technology, sustainability and sports from around the world gathered in Selangor and were posed the question: “How can we accelerate education reform?” Here’s a summary of the insights gained:


“There’s no magic bullet when it comes to transforming the experiences of students and educators. And everyone on that journey is important,” said University of Cambridge pro-vice-chancellor (Strategy and Planning) Prof David Cardwell in his keynote address.

Cautioning the dangers that exist if we do not learn lessons from Covid-19, he stressed the need to prioritise mental health and well-being as these are pivotal to the future of global universities.

Indeed, he was right to emphasise the importance of “collectiveness”, namely, that universities must embrace differences, collaborate with all stakeholders, and make decisions in the best interest of students.

There should be better opportunities for more flexible, blended teaching and learning (T&L), alongside more problem-based learning, which is the key to improving teamwork, ethics and communication.

Delivery and outcomes

No country is spared from having to find ways to improve education delivery and student outcomes.

Indonesia’s Pusat Studi Pendidikan dan Kebijakan executive director Dr Nisa Felicia spoke about the new Kurikulum Merdeka, which includes alternative assessments, out-of-classroom lessons and flexible timetables, being rolled out in the country.

Sharing that it would give autonomy to local educators to make T&L decisions relevant to the local community, she said this is done to ensure that students remain engaged and that schooling is part of life, as opposed to a daily detour.

Indonesia has embarked on the most radical education transformation in history, said Education, Research, Culture and Technology Minister Nadiem Makarim, and this change includes collaboration between academia and industry, building of entrepreneurs and emancipated learning from the bottom up.

Stressing the importance of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education in inspiring the next generation of innovators and problem solvers, Thailand’s National Science Museums vice president Dr Ganigar Chen revealed that its science events attract over one million visitors yearly, which augurs well for the country’s technological and scientific progress.On the Malaysian front, former education director-general Datuk Dr Habibah Rahim talked about the progress made under the Malaysia Education Blueprint 2013-2025.

While optimistic about the positive development, namely, increases in special needs education access (from 7.5% in 2012 to 74% in 2021), technical and vocational education and training (from 4.6% to 6.3%), and reduction in urban-rural outcomes (from -0.61 to -0.46), she acknowledged that Malaysia needs to improve its PISA scores and take cognisance of the Fourth Industrial Revolution and learning losses caused by the pandemic.

Echoing fomer education minister Datuk Dr Radzi Jidin’s reminder that values-based education is equally vital in this technologically enabled world, she stressed the need for teachers to be continuously upskilled and provided with the necessary resources to raise the quality of the education system. This, she said, is the most important aspect of reform.

Role of sports

Squash changed Datuk Nicol David’s life and the Malaysian sports icon talked about her recently established Nicol David Organisation, which aims to help transform children’s lives through sports and education.

Having achieved global success, Nicol shared the inspiring story of Cahaya, a shy, young girl who transforms into a different person when she steps onto the squash court.

Sports, said Nicol, helps children build self-confidence and self-esteem, as well as learn to dream and have an aim in life.

Beyond that, sports can break down barriers, more so for young children who are often excluded due to poverty, gender discrimination or ethnicity.

Employability skills

No conversation on education is complete without discussing employability, which is often seen as the reason we go to school in the first place. A panel discussion on the topic emphasised that the core purpose of education is to inculcate diversity of thinking, respect, and build skills.Panellists Carsome co-founder Teoh Jiun-Ee, Higher Education Leadership Academy deputy director Dr Norazharuddin Shah Abdullah, and Experian country site leader Chua Chai Ping agreed on the importance of soft skills such as communications and empathy, as these will go a long way when students find work, and how finding mentors as one progresses through life and eventually becomes a mentor is part of the lifelong learning journey.

Promise of AI

Will artificial intelligence (AI) robots replace teachers? Stanford University adjunct professor of genetics and R42 Group founder Dr Ronjon Nag believes “they’ll come very close to it”.

An avid investor in healthcare technology companies, Ronjon was the youngest person to grace the cover of Fortune magazine at age 31 almost 30 years ago for his pioneering work on AI. Since then, companies like Apple, Blackberry and Motorola have acquired his many innovations in the tech space.

After highlighting the growing application of AI in personalised treatment, robotics and the workforce, Ronjon said automation will lead to more innovations in education. AI is interdisciplinary, he said, creating an abundance of opportunities for students, educators and lifelong learners.

Planetary health and sustainability This is a topic close to my heart. Our younger generation must be equipped with the right knowledge to protect and care for the environment and the world we live in. Planetary health and sustainability in education should be embedded in education and research and be taken seriously by all learning institutions.

We know that we need to change behaviours in order to drive change, so why are we not doing it? Perhaps we prefer to stay ignorant of the fact that the entire human race can be wiped out someday or that we may no longer have a liveable planet in the future.

The pandemic itself is a painful lesson, and if we do not learn from it, then no matter how knowledgeable or advanced we are, we may not be able to save ourselves or the planet.

In sum

Education touches every facet of life. It brings people together; it is what defines us.

We must find a way to ensure equitable access to quality education across all socio-economic backgrounds, and to provide the necessary resources for educators to nurture our future generations.

John Dewey, American philosopher, psychologist, and education reformer, was right when he said, “Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself”.

Prof Datuk Dr Elizabeth Lee is the chief executive officer of Sunway Education Group. A veteran in the field of private higher education, Prof Lee is also an advocate for women in leadership. She has been recognised both locally and internationally for her contributions to the field of education. The views expressed here are the writer’s own.

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