Of schooling and the Budget
Writer: Tricia Yeoh
Published: Fri, 21 Oct 2011
In my conversation with Malaysian parents, the topic almost always steers back to the issue of the country’s education system. They are most often in a dilemma about which schools they should place their children in, and which system to opt for.
Most parents who have been through the national education system in their youth, and benefited from its multiracial atmosphere, want their children to experience the same thing, yet fear the consequences of the combined effects of poor syllabus content, low-quality teachers, and an atmosphere that just does not encourage critical thinking, growth and development of the child.
As a result, parents of different ethnicities have gravitated towards national-type Chinese schools, national-type Tamil schools, and other types like government-assisted religious schools, mission schools, private schools, international schools and the new kid on the block: home schooling.
The government is surely aware of the urgency of the matter, that if we do not correct the education system that produces unemployable graduates with a poor command of English, this will be the major source of economic slowdown, no matter the sophisticated infrastructure that Malaysia already possesses.
And what has the budget got to show for improving the quality of education in Malaysia?
The government will spend RM50.2 billion in education in 2012, out of which RM1.9 billion will be contributed to national schools, national-type Chinese and Tamil schools, mission schools and government-assisted religious schools; as well as RM1 billion for construction, improvement and maintenance of schools.
One of the interesting announcements was the removal of primary and secondary school fees, which will cost the government RM150 million in total (schoolchildren currently pay RM24.50 and RM33.50 annually for primary and secondary school fees).
And then, a slew of incentives for private and international schools (if registered with the Ministry of Education and in compliance with regulation): income tax exemption of 70% or investment tax allowance of 100% on qualifying capital expenditure for five years; double deduction for overseas promotional expenses to attract more foreign students; import duty and sales tax exemptions on all educational equipment.
It is all well and good for the government to increase incentives for private and international schools – they have in recent years been given greater liberalisation to operate on home ground. And there have been an increasing number of such schools, which raises the variety of options available to parents.
On the one hand, this may seem a positive thing, which allows private and international schools the option to price down (with their incentives and such, but only if the school chooses to do so), thereby making quality education available to a wider spectrum of people.
But on the other hand, let’s not kid ourselves. Ultimately, only those in the highest income categories would be able to afford private education, whereas 60% of Malaysians have a household income of less than RM3,500 on average.
This creates silos of the educated, a fundamental problem with greater liberalisation of the education sector, where you have the rich and educated layer of society versus the less well-to-do having no choice but to receive education in national schools.
Sure, a budget on its own accord would not be able to solve all of the country’s education policy problems.
But it does seem as if more efforts have been channelled to boosting the popularity of private education this time round.
Education is one of the National Key Results Areas under the helm of Pemandu in the Prime Minister’s Department. The four sub-areas are focused on pre-school education, literacy and numeracy, high-prestige schools (a target of 20), and giving achievement-based incentives to school leaders (headmasters in particular).
These four sub-areas, combined with the lack of description within the 2012 Budget on how to actually improve the quality of syllabus and of educators itself, are of great concern and worry. The country does need a severe overhaul of the national education system, right from its roots of the teachers’ training colleges. (The flip-flop policies on English in Science and Maths are an added problem, but much has been said about this).
In short, parents want to feel secure in the knowledge that when they drop their children off at school every morning, the kids are maximising their potential, absorbing knowledge and being enthusiastic about learning, being exposed to the right material and being developed as better human beings.
If the current national school system fails to deliver on this, we will get a situation of increasing fragmentisation, where the poles draw slowly apart in the contexts of not just race and religion, but of socioeconomic status.