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Malaysia’s education system in need of ‘urgent’ reform

KUALA LUMPUR — As Malaysia strives to grow its economy to catch up with richer Asian countries, doubts are rising about whether its education system can provide the types of graduates needed to fill high-skilled jobs considered key to economic development.

KUALA LUMPUR — As Malaysia strives to grow its economy to catch up with richer Asian countries, doubts are rising about whether its education system can provide the types of graduates needed to fill high-skilled jobs considered key to economic development.

In a recent report, the World Bank pointed out the “urgent need to transform Malaysia’s education system” for it to produce the type of workforce required by a high-income economy.

The World Bank defines a high-income economy as one where economic output per citizen is a minimum of US$12,616 (S$16,000) a year.

Last year, Malaysia’s gross domestic product per capita was US$9,928, placing it among the ranks of upper-middle-income economies such as Turkey and South Africa.

The results of the latest Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) test serve as an example. Out of 65 countries surveyed in the test conducted by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, Malaysia ranked 52, ahead of Indonesia in South-east Asia, but widely trailing second-placed Singapore. It even lagged well behind low-income Vietnam, which was 17th.

Mr Ulrich Zachau, the World Bank’s South-east Asia Director, attributes Malaysia’s dismal performance to government schools’ lack of autonomy over employment decisions and spending plans. Such schools account for the bulk of educational institutions in the country.

About 65 per cent of teacher hires are conducted by the national government rather than schools, compared to 5 per cent in South Korea, where public schools have more autonomy. Schools also have little input regarding spending on new buildings or equipment, creating assessments for students or choosing textbooks — decisions regulated by the Education Ministry. Public information about an individual school’s performance is difficult to access and parents rarely provide feedback to school administrators — factors that make schools less accountable, said Mr Zachau.

While the number of teachers is adequate, according to the World Bank, their quality is an issue, said some parents, while others said they are concerned with what they perceive as misdirected government policies.

“The government’s frequent education policy shifts, such as switching the (language) of instruction to Bahasa from English, just add confusion in an already muddled system,” said Ms Sarah-Jane Thomas, whose children attend a government school in Ipoh. Deputy Minister for Education P Kamalanathan admitted such shifts might confuse the students in the short term, but said the Education Ministry is “determined to overcome” the challenges in implementing proposed education reforms.

The government has drafted a detailed policy road map, the Education Blueprint, and is spending heavily to implement it. Launched in September, the blueprint seeks to raise the appeal of teaching as a profession, give more freedom to state and district education offices in managing their affairs and promote greater parent involvement.

Prime Minister Najib Razak has also allotted RM54.6 billion (S$21 billion) towards the education sector in the 2014 Budget — the highest amount marked for any sector next year. But doubts remain over how well the government will be able to execute planned reforms.

A report by recruitment consulting firm Kelly Services shows that 20 per cent of Malaysia’s most highly educated now opt to leave for richer nations. The exodus of local talent means the country faces a shortage of skilled professionals and that does not fit well with its goal of vaulting into the league of high-income economies, which include Singapore — a current magnet for Malaysian talent.

DOW JONES

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