Malaysia’s Education System Needs A New Map Not Another Band-Aid

By: Dr. Syed Alwee Alsagoff Fellow, Majlis Profesor Negara

Headlines trumpet record SPM straight-A’s, but is it cause for celebration? While the numbers (11,713) are impressive, high failure rates in some subjects raise concerns. Is the system failing our students? The blame often falls on teachers, but the truth is simpler: they’re drowning in work.

The Ministry of Education acknowledges the need for change, seeking a balance between teacher well-being and improvement. However, they face immense pressure. Decades of education reform chasing a utopian ideal have left a system groaning under endless initiatives, standardised tests, and curriculum changes. Teachers, once respected professionals, now feel like lab rats in a never-ending experiment. Morale is plummeting, and the pressure to constantly adapt stifles true progress. Isn’t it time to rethink our approach?

A New Map, Not Another Band-Aid
We need to chart a new course and our education system needs a route-map, not another Band-Aid. This was the message I delivered at the recent G25 forum in Kuala Lumpur, titled “Institutional Reforms and the Federal Constitution for a Better Malaysia” where I proposed an “Education Reform Map” that outlines seven interconnected routes – individuals, society, and more – with 51 key stops, like parental support and research contributions.

Let’s use this map to tackle teacher overload. The key may lie right under our noses: university students. We can create a win-win situation by fostering collaboration between universities and schools, utilising the talent pool of university students during their internship semesters.

The Internship Disconnect
Are conventional internships failing our graduates? Consider a quick snapshot. Malaysia’s education system is churning out graduates at a record pace, with a booming STEM graduate rate (43.5%, exceeding many developed nations). However, a troubling disconnect is emerging: skill underemployment. A recent Department of Statistics report show a staggering 1.6 million graduates in 2021 took clerical or field-sales jobs, positions that don’t utilise their hard-earned degrees.
Experts blame repetitive, rote-task internships that fail to equip students with the “soft skills” employers crave: communication, leadership, and critical thinking. This, coupled with our exam- heavy education system, risks creating a generation of “overachieving robots” ill-equipped for the modern workplace.

Furthermore, a decline in youth civic engagement is alarming. The latest Youth Index score, measuring political and social participation, dropped from 60.3% in 2021 to 58.4% in 2022.

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Education experts are raising red flags about a system overly focused on “following the rules”. They argue an emphasis on process compliance is stifling critical thinking and social awareness, potentially creating a generation of graduates ill-equipped for the complexities of modern life. While company-based internship programs offer exciting possibilities, hurdles remain for student participants. Short internship durations, particularly for out-of-hometown placements, can turn into
logistical nightmares. Finding affordable temporary housing and managing daily commutes become major challenges. These hassles can significantly undermine the intended benefits for students, turning a valuable learning experience into a stressful scramble for basic necessities.

We need a radical rethink. Internships shouldn’t be a checkbox on the path to graduation or resume fillers in glossy scrolls. Instead, they should ignite a sense of purpose in future generations. We need to empower graduates not just with skills, but with the passion to become engaged citizens ready to tackle the challenges of tomorrow.

Unleashing Student Talent: A Win-Win for Schools, Universities, and Students
Imagine a future where universities can unleash students from all disciplines, not just education majors, to bolster our schools. Inspired by programs like Mexico’s “Jóvenes Construyendo el Futuro” (Young People Building the Future) and student placements in Finland, Australia, Singapore and Canada, this approach frees schools to focus on their core mission: fostering engaging learning environments.

Forget photocopying drudgery: it wouldn’t be just clerical support. Tech students could analyse test scores to identify learning gaps and even building digital tools to personalise instruction. Subject experts could co-create innovative lesson plans with teachers, sparking a knowledge exchange. Arts and sports students could energise extracurriculars, coaching teams and leading clubs – all while honing their own leadership and communication skills. Universities can even bridge the well-being gap with trained student mentors who provide peer support, helping school students manage stress and learn effective study habits.

This isn’t a one-way street either. Strategically matched, university students become positive role models, offering guidance to younger learners. But the benefits go both ways. These mentors develop responsibility and leadership skills as they give back to their alma-maters, fulfil their civic duties, and enrich the education of a new generation. Ultimately, it’s not just about internship punchcards – it’s about creating a stronger learning community.

A Thriving Educational Ecosystem
The result? Lighter workloads for teachers, allowing them to refocus on inspiring students. Universities empower their students by bridging theory and practice, fostering a strong work ethic. Internship programs, at schools easily accessible to university students, equip them with valuable experience, communication skills, and the chance to be role models.

This fosters a beautiful symbiosis. Teachers get breathing room, schools receive valuable manpower, and university students gain an internship unlike any other. By working together, universities and local schools can strengthen the crucial link between them, ultimately building a thriving educational ecosystem that benefits all of Malaysia.

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