Innovate to soar upwards

I refer to Datuk A. Jalil Hamid’s exhilarating interview with Higher Education Minister Datuk Seri Idris Jusoh (NST, Aug 24 and 25). Idris gave an open and impressive account of the progress made by his ministry in implementing its Education Blueprint. I wish he and other ministers will give more interviews for us to better understand the government’s plans and performance. Taxpayers need to know how their money is being spent. To his credit, the government’s education reforms are on track, after some initial problems of understanding and support. One of his targets is to make one or two universities equal to Oxford, Cambridge and Harvard in 20 to 30 years. That may be too long for us all to wait. The world of education is moving at a faster pace and our universities need to raise their quality and soar upwards faster. This is essential for Malaysia to compete more effectively. It is laudable that there has been much progress in implementing the blueprint proposals. However, these proposals can be refined and strengthened to enable Malaysia to soar upwards faster.

Firstly, the moratorium on new colleges and universities is commendable. However, some small and weak colleges are struggling to raise their quality and keep themselves financial sustainable. Can these colleges be urged to consolidate, like our former small banks, which are now much stronger and more competitive? Idris is right in saying that “universities must not be too obsessed with rankings” of their performance. However, they should be encouraged to compete more, to strive for higher standards and to show their worth. How else can the people judge our universities’ standards? In fact, like top universities worldwide, their graduates should reflect the quality of their universities. This was the case of University of Malaya in Singapore many years ago. But its competitive position and reputation in Kuala Lumpur has since declined in international rankings. What happened? We need to learn from our mistakes and improve, for that is what good education is all about.

It’s true that no vice-chancellor or university can soar fast upwards if it’s micromanaged, particularly by politicians and officials who might have short-term vested interests. To ensure Idris means business and is well served, he must have a mechanism to ensure that micromanagement and interference from the top will cease. Vice-chancellors of public and private universities must, therefore, be encouraged to bring instances of imposed micromanagement to Idris’s attention. Otherwise, his policies will become rhetorical and empty policies. Idris is right in stating that public universities’ dependence on government funding has to be reduced. After all, how is it that private universities are fully self-financed? Of course, private universities charge higher fees, but they, like Sunway University and the Jeffrey Cheah Foundation, also provide millions of ringgit for scholarships every year. Public universities can also be allowed to raise fees suitably, but the government can provide more loans and scholarships, according to merit and financial needs, based on the higher revenues from the higher fee-paying universities and colleges. Public universities should also be urged to establish endowments. To raise funds for their endowments, they should commercialise research and compete for the enrolment of the best students, instead of just being provided students, some of whom may not benefit from a quality education. The government’s provision of 70 per cent funding should be adequate and could even be lowered, according to a reasonable time schedule. This proposal will push public universities to further cut costs, reduce wastage and prevent any abuse of our tax funds. How can universities and colleges soar upwards faster? They need to innovate more. Public universities could focus more on science and technology to raise the potential and opportunities for higher graduate employment. How are young private universities able to have 79.5 per cent graduate employability, compared with 76.1 per cent in older and government-subsidised public universities?

The government has to make its university and college graduates more relevant and marketable. It will also be useful to consider converting lower-quality public and private universities and colleges to polytechnics or community colleges, which have higher employability than public universities. Frankly, most private universities and colleges feel they are neglected. This should be rectified to win more support and create a level playing field. Admittedly, it’s not fair nor reasonable to expect the government to provide such large financial allocations of about 23 per cent of the budget for education. Has the time not come for the business sector to be encouraged to enable our education to soar faster upwards? This move will strengthen our human resources and arrest the brain drain. Can the government provide more innovative and attractive tax incentives to encourage the private sector to be more involved in the existing Public Private Partnership?

Now, universities and colleges that have education endowments have to pay taxes on their surpluses, even before they are contributed to their tax-exempt endowments. Applications for tax exemption on the surpluses before being transferred to endowments have been repeatedly and regretfully rejected, without reasonable explanations. There seems to be an obsession to conserve revenue, even at the punitive price of denying incentives for endowments to do much more to provide scholarships to students. This is where Idris can help. He can consult with the Treasury to better coordinate policies to encourage the business sector to play a bigger role in promoting higher education and expand the quantity and quality of our human resources.

Finally, university education can soar only as fast as its environment allows it. If the quality of the staff and student intake is poor, universities cannot be expected to excel and reach the standards of Oxford, Cambridge and Harvard or even top Asian universities. Our school system has to be improved faster. Our Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) scores have to be considerably raised. Selection of staff and students into our universities should be based increasingly on merit and competition for the most qualified. Some concessions, but not too much, can be given to students from less privileged backgrounds. We also have to use more English in schools, colleges and universities. It’s such a pity to come across bright Malaysian students who struggle to articulate their views in English during interviews and meetings. They may be our own children who, I believe, have been let down by our indifference to their growth and development. Idris and his staff deserve our compliments and support for wanting to raise the quality and standards of higher education. The government has to listen more to parents, teachers and students and follow the best practices in education and employability to better meet the needs of our United Nations sustainable development goals. Please let better quality education enable Malaysians to soar upwards faster in education and other fields. Let that be our Merdeka pledge.

Article published in The New Straits Times.

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