Piecing the education jigsaw puzzle
A professor came to visit me in the office a couple of months ago and we had an interesting chat. He teaches accounting at one of Malaysia's top public universities.
It turns out that he has quite a lot of students. Too many, in fact. He says he has about 400 students for one lecture, which is way above the normal size of about 150.
"I used to know a lot of my students by name. Now it's hard to do that, and how do you manage lecturing to 400 people?" And it is not just peculiar to his field, the institution itself is taking on more students than it can handle.
How did this happen, I asked. He explained that it started when the government decided to cut back on the number of students sent overseas. This means there are still many qualified ones in the country and they are being absorbed by public universities. According to the Higher Education Ministry website, there are 20 public universities.
The professor also said the problem is also being felt at other public universities.
The most immediate question to this issue is how do you maintain the quality of our graduates if our lecturers cannot teach them effectively?
"You can't. I asked for more teaching assistants but the university didn't have the budget," the professor said.
It was after listening to the professor that the pieces of the education jigsaw puzzle started to fit. On January 26, the Genting Group chief Tan Sri Lim Kok Thay said universities are not producing people that are wanted by businesses. Coming from the boss of Malaysia's seventh most valuable company, that's a damning verdict.
The chief executive officer (CEO) of a Bursa Malaysia-listed software company has a slightly different concern. His company has to train local graduates further after hiring them.
But it doesn't mean that all is not well with our graduates. The IT firm CEO said local grads have the right work ethic and he plans to hire more this year to expand business.
In fact, a group of local university students were so good that the Singapore government wanted them to work in the island republic, complete with funding support for their project. These students apparently found a way to send information through the Internet without any security encryption.
I'm not sure if they were persuaded to move but my point is that we have bright students and our institutions do not require overhauls. What they need is to be closer to industries, to understand what they need and be able to prepare students for working life. Graduates can then hit the ground running.
If our public universities do not have enough lecturers, maybe the private sector can help. For example, accounting firms can have a programme where staff can volunteer to lecture or become teaching assistants at universities for a short period. It's corporate social responsibility and talent scouting rolled into one.
It is quite easy to complain about the standards of education. Question is, will anyone do anything about it?