Managing Malaysia’s education crisis

Author: M Niaz Asadullah, University of Malaya

The Malaysian government should look to civil society for support in strengthening the nation’s education system.

Evidence can be seen in the 2014 UNESCO Global Monitoring Report on teaching and learning. According to this report, there is an ongoing global education crisis that is costing governments US$129 billion a year. For Malaysia, which has consistently allocated a very large proportion of its national budget to education, this finding is worrying. Results from recent assessments such as the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) confirm that Malaysia remains stuck at the bottom third of the international league table of schools.

Malaysia’s performance in TIMSS slipped to below the international average in Mathematics as well as Science by 2011. In PISA 2009 and 2012, Malaysia ranked in the bottom third of 74 participating countries. A comparison of PISA scores suggest that an average Malaysian 15-year old would take at least 3 years of extra schooling to catch up with her peers from high-performing East Asian economies such as Singapore and South Korea. Poor results, despite high government spending, indicate that return on educational investment in Malaysia is not as high as expected.

The government has responded positively to the emerging evidence by launching the Education Blueprint. Malaysia aims to move into the top third of countries in PISA and TIMSS in 15 years. But developing the right institutional framework to assess progress in learning is essential if Malaysia is to overcome the ongoing educational crisis. Assessments like PISA and TIMSS are undertaken only at certain time intervals and assess a single group of students. In the case of TIMSS, Malaysia participates only with older students. And only a small number of schools participate in the assessment exercise. For these reasons, knowledge of Malaysia’s performance in PISA and TIMSS, while extremely useful, is not adequate to guide the national reform agenda. Overall, the factors causing low level of student learning remain poorly understood.

The UNESCO report therefore emphasises that national assessments of the level of learning are indispensable for informing and guiding policy to reverse the decline in student learning. Yet there is a lack of effective mechanisms that allow policymakers and school managers in Malaysia to assess school performance and measure student achievements on a regular basis. Current mechanisms do not allow for systematic examination of progress in learning across different cohorts of students.

Every year, children throughout Malaysia participate in examinations at the end of their schooling cycle such as primary, lower secondary, forms 5 and 6. But the public examination system is not the same as a national assessment system. It is hard to ascertain from exam pass rates whether students are attaining minimum competency in key areas of learning. Unsurprisingly, published national examination records appear to show absolute improvement in grades over time in English, Mathematics, and Science while TIMSS and PISA data suggest the opposite. We do not know how much a Malaysian child learns (against what is expected) after one full year in school. The true extent and nature of the country’s education crisis remains unknown. It is likely to be very severe if schools participating in PISA and TIMSS are the country’s best.

In this context, Malaysia should not hesitate to learn from experience of other developing countries. The UNESCO report highlights the case of Brazil where a national assessment system has been used creatively to inform educational policymaking and planning. In India, the government has partnered with a national NGO, Pratham, which publishes a very detailed Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) to help the Indian government independently monitor progress in learning outcomes. Pratham works in collaboration with academics in India and abroad to ensure that the data collected is analysed correctly to generate policy-relevant insights. Inspired by the Indian model, Pakistan has also introduced a similar citizen-led initiative to generate reliable evidence on the schooling and learning status of children.

According to the UNESCO report, ASER’s findings contributed to India’s 12th five-year plan (2012–2017), helping to place emphasis on basic learning as an explicit objective of primary education, and on the need for regular learning assessments to make sure quality goals are met. Pratham has also used ASER results to influence education policy and practice at state level. In Rajasthan, for example, ASER results have led the state government to focus on improving instruction in early grades.’

Clearly government action is not the only route to an effective assessment system for informing national policy. Civil society organisations in Malaysia can also play an important role. Civil society needs to bring important issues to the government’s attention as well as get local communities to voice their demands for quality education. This can help parents obtain valuable information about the usefulness of schooling and the quality of locally provided education. This will help the poor improve their choice when deciding on their children’s education.

At the same time, a repository of longitudinal records on students and schools should be created and made available to academics for independent and complex analysis of the relationship between learning outcomes and education inputs. Without a reliable evidence base, social debates on education issues can neither have a meaningful policy impact nor lead to the development of a mechanism that can aid choices of poor households. Alongside state-sponsored initiatives, the government should actively encourage wider participation in the evaluation process. Partnership between the state and local research bodies should not only complement the government’s own efforts to improve educational governance. It could also go a long way in creating a more inclusive and sustainable approach to educational development.

M Niaz Asadullah is Professor of Development Economics at the Faculty of Economics and Administration and Deputy Director of the Centre for Development Studies (CPDS), University of Malaya. He is also a visiting fellow at the ESRC Centre on Skills, Knowledge and Organization Performance (SKOPE), the Department of Education, Oxford University.