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Higher education: Quality not quantity

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The building up of a skilled force, especially one of calibre, one that Malaysians can be proud of, takes time. There is no short cut in a transformation process, warns Prema Devaraj.

Khaled Nordin - Photo credit: mynewshub.my

According to an article in NST (31 May 2011) ‘Polytechnic courses to be shortened by up to a year’, the duration of non–technical polytechnic diploma courses in commerce and hospitality will be shortened to two and two-and-a-half years from the current three years to save time and costs.

This move is meant to increase the number of polytechnic graduates and skilled workers. According to Higher Education Minister Mohamed Khaled Nordin, “only 28 per cent of the Malaysian workforce is skilled while the percentage in developed countries ranged between 37-40 per cent.” Under the National Key Economic Area, the government’s target is to produce 1.5m skilled workers. The Minister is reported to have said, “We want 680,000 of them to be diploma holders by 2020.”

One cannot help but wonder about the rationale behind this move. Having a more skilled workforce in itself is not an issue and is in fact laudable. However churning out graduates of polytechnics (or universities or colleges for that matter), be they private or public institutions, in a shorter time, needs questioning. It should not be about saving costs or about achieving targeted numbers on paper. The quality of the ‘graduates’ from these institutions is very important.

The current criticism against some of our local graduates from certain institutions is that they are of poor quality. Such criticism includes a lack of critical thinking, a lack of skills and a lack of knowledge. How did this situation come about? Are some of the reasons to do with low entry requirements or compromising on course standards (i.e., low pass marks)? Or perhaps teaching standards are not up to mark? Then again is there sufficient time to teach all that is necessary given the short duration of a course?

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Sacrificing quality for quantity shows short sightedness in the overall vision for development. It also has dangerous consequences. We are already seeing the impact of this type of ‘quantity not quality’ policy – as these ‘graduates’ who join the workforce in various sectors are showing us just what they are capable of (or not!).

It must be said that many local graduates have indeed made the grade in employment; certainly not all local graduates are of questionable quality. But what is worrying is that many have reportedly not been able to make it in the labour force.
The Higher Education Minister and his team must take this matter into consideration when making decisions about courses (course content, duration of courses and quality of graduates) in institutions of higher learning. By all means aim to have a skilled labour force. But be aware of the process involved. The building up of a skilled force, especially one of calibre, one that Malaysians can be proud of, takes time. There is no short cut in a transformation process especially where people are concerned.

Dr Prema Devaraj is an Aliran executive committee member

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