KHAZANAH Research Institute (KRI) published a research report in March, and its findings are worrying, but not too surprising. The report claimed 60% of graduates were in
high-skilled employment in 2021.

However, it also revealed that
48.6% of the graduates are overqualified for their jobs, and one-third of experienced graduates are working in positions that require different qualifications.

KRI’s report highlighted that we are lagging in terms of high-skilled job creation, which they deemed as a potential cause of overqualification and skill mismatch in employment. However, what KRI did not consider is the quality of graduates and higher education institutions (HEI) they graduate from.

This raises questions: Are the graduates truly overqualified for
their jobs or are they possibly underqualified as graduates? Moreover, do the institutions they graduated from provide education of a high enough standard to be recognised as HEIs?

According to the Higher Education Ministry (HEM), Malaysia has 20 public universities, 36 polytechnics, 105 community colleges, and 404 private higher education institutions (PHEIs), totalling 565 HEIs. HEM’s data from 2022 shows that there were 1.2 million students enrolled at that time.

In comparison, the United Kingdom in 2021 – 2022 provided education for over two million students, with almost half the number of HEIs that we have, at 288 HEIs.

The huge number of HEIs
in Malaysia is not surprising,
given decades of inadequate implementation of affirmative action policies in education.

Although well-intentioned, Malaysia’s affirmative action policy
in education has fallen short of
proper execution. For effective implementation, it should be based
on criteria such as deserving socioeconomic background and academic performance while remaining flexible enough not to disadvantage exceptionally bright students.

When implemented correctly, this policy will benefit the intended group, the bumiputera, who have a higher prevalence of poverty.

Instead, the poor implementation has created a dire situation with ethnic minorities being desperate to find suitable higher education options for their children, and businesses have seized upon this opportunity.

Coupled with a series of legislative changes and government policies,
this has led to a proliferation of
PHEI, resulting in the over-commercialisation of higher education.

When education is viewed as a business and profit maximisation is prioritised, entry standards may become lax, and the quality of education slips. With enough payment, entry standards become negligible, naturally leading to a massive spike in student intake.

These dynamics are evidenced by the massive gap between students enrolled in HEIs and PHEIs from 2015 to 2017. The 2015 HEM report shows that there were 292,217 new intakes in PHEIs compared with 168,127 in public universities. Since 2015, the number of student enrolments in PHEIs has significantly surpassed those in public universities, a trend that persists through 2020.

However, the standards of some PHEIs are questionable. Many institutions have been offering courses that do not meet the standards set by the Malaysia Qualification Agency (MQA). This means that the courses provided by these institutions are not accredited and will not be recognised by the government and other agencies.

While it is illegal for HEIs to provide such courses, incidents where students discover their degrees are worthless due to unaccredited courses are still happening.

However, this does not imply that the quality of our public universities is significantly superior to that of PHEIs.

Setting aside years of citation padding, gifted and forced authorship and predatory journal publications used to inflate rankings by various agencies, it is visible that the quality of public education has been declining.

According to a 2021 report, renowned academician and founding father of Universiti Teknologi Mara
Dr Arshad Ayub highlighted that
over 2,500 professors in the country
do not meet the required standards, and this is a shared concern by
various other academicians.

If the standard of our higher education institutions continues to decline over time, can we still justify calling them “higher” education institutions?

While it affects the quality of our graduates, the quality of education provided by HEIs is not the only issue. The quality of new intakes is also a significant factor to be considered.

During a recent parliamentary meeting, Education Minister Fadhlina Sidek stated that over 400,000 students in primary and secondary schools have learning problems. Additionally, she said that 154,853 secondary school students have yet to master fundamental skills in reading, writing and counting.

Furthermore, an earlier report has shown that Malaysia’s performance in Pisa 2022, which evaluates 15-year-old students’ reading literacy, mathematics and scientific literacy, has dropped.

One cannot help but ponder how many of these students will ultimately enrol in HEIs, potentially displacing those who are genuinely capable but face barriers such as financial constraints or lack of recognition based on merit.

Additionally, the matriculation programme has also been under fire for a long time as a “backdoor” method to help low-performing students enter local public universities and as a way for students to take the easy way into HEIs.

Two key issues emerge here: Our primary and secondary education systems have not adequately equipped students for tertiary education, and at the same time, the entry standards for tertiary education in public and private institutions have declined over the years due to the dynamics explained above. These factors have led to the ballooning of unemployment and underemployment, hence, the “over-qualification” claim.

According to the report, our fresh graduates only scored six out of 10 in terms of career readiness, and many of them did not meet employers’ expectations due to skills gaps, English proficiency issues and difficulties in applying their knowledge in the workplace.

Some employers have unrealistic expectations of fresh graduates, and it is also true that there are outstanding graduates who exceed these standards and are capable of great achievements. However, due to various reasons, many talented Malaysians have chosen to seek better opportunities abroad.

In an attempt to close the gap between the supply of graduates and the demand for jobs, some HEIs have decided to discontinue some courses that do not match the current job market dynamics.

However, does this gap stem solely from differences in courses and job markets or is it primarily attributable to the massive brain drain issue we
are facing?

Over the years, our Critical Occupation List has consistently featured jobs related to engineering and information communications technology, indicating that these positions remain challenging to fill.

Yet, according to HEM, our HEIs have consistently produced over 30,000 graduates from the fields of science, mathematics and computer science, and over 60,000 graduates from engineering, manufacturing and construction fields, with the only exception being 2020 due to Covid-19.

While the “graduates” here encompass PhD and Master’s students and make no distinction between those intending to pursue further studies and those seeking immediate employment, it draws parallels with our medical field, where we have too many medical students. Yet, Malaysia faces a shortage of medical practitioners.

We have to start focusing on the problem and make credible changes. We need to shift our focus from quantity to quality. This does not mean advocating for the crackdown on PHEIs but rather implementing a moratorium on new institutions, similar to what was done in 2013.

At the same time, MQA should consider shortening the time frame between audits from once every five years to at least once every three years. This is necessary to ensure that PHEIs maintain the standard of providing high-quality education to students and to safeguard their interests. The current five-year timeframe is no longer suitable, given the super-high-velocity changes in the global techno-social landscape.

It is strongly recommended that MQA also periodically review the accreditation criteria to keep up with current developments and technological advancements while continuing to improve the quality of education.

The education system, encompassing primary, secondary, and tertiary levels, should be completely reformed to better align with global education best practices/trends. Such reform aims to cultivate better graduates who are equipped to partake in high-skilled jobs.

Education is the cornerstone of our society. With better quality education, the competitiveness of our graduates will improve, subsequently attracting direly needed high-value foreign investment and creating more opportunities for graduates in endless virtuous cycles.

The writer is a research assistant at Emir Research, an independent
think-tank focused on strategic
policy recommendations based on rigorous research. Comments: letters@thesundaily.com

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