IF money is not a problem, where would you study medicine – the Royal College of Surgeons Ireland (RCSI), Cardiff University in Britain, Trinity College Dublin, or Universiti Malaya (UM)?
I’m sure many would opt for a foreign university. After all, aren’t these universities superior in every conceivable way to our homegrown ones? But hold on for a second.
Looking at academic reputation for medicine and life sciences (QS World University Rankings 2015/2016), UM scored 82.7 while none of the other universities scored above 80. RCSI wasn’t even included in the top 400 of the list. In fact, UM’s score was equal to Singapore’s NTU.
For engineering and technology, the top ranking universities are Yale University, King’s College London, University of Edinburgh, McMaster University and Universiti Malaya.
If you chose Universiti Malaya, you are not only an extremely patriotic individual but, more importantly, you would also be absolutely correct! Referring again to the same QS Rankings, UM (54) is ranked significantly higher than Yale (65), Edinburgh (73), King’s College London (153), Cardiff (176) and McMaster (215).
For added reference, even the world renowned University College London (ranked seventh overall in the world) is barely a whisker above UM at 50th place.
The point I’m trying to drive home here is that, contrary to what many think, Malaysia does indeed possess world-class education.
Last year, Higher Education Minister Datuk Seri Idris Jusoh came under a lot of flak when he commented that our higher education was on par with developed nations such as the UK, Germany and Australia. Many disagreed, arguing on the following points of contention:
1) International syllabi are far superior to our national curriculum; and
2) Malaysia’s position near the bottom of the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) rankings.
For the sake of argument, let us compare a world renowned Pre-U syllabus, the Cambridge International (CIE) A-Levels, with our local equivalent, STPM. Where the syllabus is concerned, STPM trumps A-Levels comprehensively.
For instance, does A-Levels Chemistry require knowledge about phase equilibria? What about the Aufbau principle, Hund’s rule or the Pauli exclusion principle?
In Physics, does the A-Levels syllabus mention Bohr’s postulates? What about phasor diagrams? Gauss’s Law? Law of equipartition of energy?
In Biology, do A-Levels students learn about the chloride shift? What about parturition? Or type I, II and III survivorship curves as well as K-strategies and r-strategies?
For Pure Mathematics, does the A-Levels syllabus cover matrices? Or de Moivre’s Theorem? What about conics or the Mclaurin series? None of these concepts are introduced at all in the A-Levels syllabus, yet STPM students learn every single one of them. Anybody who has done both STPM and CIE A-Levels will know this. So which syllabus is superior now?
Critics will counter by arguing that STPM encourages rote memorisation while the A-Levels necessitate application of knowledge. Having done both before, I know what I am talking about when I say that if anything, the opposite is true.
For instance, STPM Physics requires frequent derivation of formulae, unlike the A-Levels equivalent which generally allows a statement of formulae to be made without any derivation.
Moreover, A-Levels questions have been blatantly repeated over the years with no change whatsoever.
This means that A-Levels students can do tonnes of past year papers, memorise the necessary working and, with a bit of luck, expect to encounter the same type of question in the real exam! I know I did.
Contrast this with the latest STPM Baharu syllabus which came out only in 2012, and you begin to understand how impossible it would be to predict the type of questions coming out. So which syllabus is encouraging factual recall now?
Let’s now consider the Pisa rankings. According to their official website, Pisa is a “triennial international survey which aims to evaluate education systems worldwide by testing the skills and knowledge of 15-year-old students.” The fundamental flaw with this methodology is students in different countries finish compulsory education at different ages.
For instance, UK students generally enter university aged 18 (after A-Levels) while our Malaysian students enter aged 19 (for matriculation and foundation students only) and above (after STPM, A-Levels, IB).
Since we start and complete our secondary education at a later age, our performance at any particular age will always be at a distinct disadvantage compared to countries that finish their secondary education sooner.
Bottom line is society in general will always look at our highest qualifications, not the age at which we attained them. Quality of education should not be assessed on how fast we enter university. Instead, it should be based on the knowledge we have acquired when we actually enter university regardless of age.
Hence, a fairer method to evaluate student performance would be to conduct the same survey on all pre-university students irrespective of their age.
Sadly, until such a test is conducted and the results published, we cannot consider Pisa a reliable gauge for the quality of our education system.
I agree that there is still plenty of room for improvement before we can go toe to toe with the top universities from Britain, the US, Australia, Singapore and Japan. But to dismiss our education system as inferior is gross injustice.
For the final nail in the coffin, I invite all of you to compare the now defunct STPM Further Mathematics syllabus with every Pre-U Further Mathematics syllabus out there, including CIE A-Levels Further Maths, Singapore’s GCE A-Levels H2 Further Maths, IB Higher Level Maths and HKDSE (Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education) Extended Mathematics Modules. If this does not convince you of the quality of our education, nothing ever will.
What saddens me most is that parents are willing to sacrifice their entire life savings for an education overseas which may not even be as good as the one at home. It is high time we wake up. The grass is not always greener on the other side.
► Read more on Malaysia Education is World-class