World Bank: Worsening education obstacle to Malaysia’s high-income hopes

Children attend their first day of elementary school in Standard One (Primary One) at a local school on the start of the new school year in Kuala Lumpur 06 January 2003. — AFP pic
Children attend their first day of elementary school in Standard One (Primary One) at a local school on the start of the new school year in Kuala Lumpur 06 January 2003. — AFP pic

KUALA LUMPUR, Dec 11 — Education standards that were deteriorating despite Putrajaya spending twice as much as neighbouring countries on schools could stand in the way of Malaysia’s plans to join the ranks of developed nations, according to a recent World Bank report.

In a report titled “Malaysia Economic Monitor: High Performing Education” that echoes criticism over the recent performance of Malaysian schools, the World Bank highlighted the critical role quality education plays in a country’s aims to gain a high-income status.

In 2011, Malaysia spent the equivalent of 3.8 per cent of its gross domestic product on education, or more than twice the average 1.8 per cent within Asean nations.

“A nation’s human capital, which is largely built by its education system, is a fundamental driver of economic growth,” it said in the report.

“The quality of cognitive skills of Malaysian students, as measured by standardized international tests, is not on par with the country’s aspirations to become a high-income economy.”

In its report, the World Bank noted that while Malaysia has extensive coverage with its schools and achieved near-universal access that has nine in 10 Malaysian adults undergoing at least lower secondary education, a commensurate increase in quality was not observed.

“In addition to ensuring the system has the broadest possible coverage (quantity), the quality of education is perhaps even more critical.”

Pointing to the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) survey results released last week, the World Bank was blunt with its assessment of Malaysia’s underperformance.

It said Malaysia did not only trail high-performing education systems in East Asia, but also poorer nations such as Vietnam, which outperformed the country by a significant margin.

In the latest edition of PISA, Malaysian students lagged far behind their peers in Singapore, who placed second behind top-scorers in Shanghai, China, as well as 15-year-olds in Thailand.

While Malaysian students registered marginal improvement for mathematics, they lost ground in both science and reading ability.

The combined results meant Malaysia was 52nd overall out of the 65 countries, and firmly entrenched in the bottom third of the survey.

Aside from the stagnant PISA performance, the World Bank also highlighted Malaysia’s continued decline in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) benchmark in which the country once performed well.

“Learning outcomes in the TIMSS were above the international average between 1999 and 2003, but declined sharply in 2007 and further in 2011,” it said.

To arrest the decline, the World Bank said Malaysia needed to prioritise teacher quality over quantity, noting that the sharpest fall in education standards coincided with an aggressively expanded recruitment programme for educators.

It noted that the teacher population shot up by 30 per cent between 2004 and 2013, an issue that it said may have since worsened; the number of trainees enrolled in teacher training institutes have ballooned from 37,439 in 2011 to 46,491 this year.

Another problem was the low standards of those seeking to become teachers. It noted that 93 per cent of those applying for the Bachelor of Education programme did not have the necessary academic qualifications (3 distinctions or more at SPM level), while 70 per cent offered a place in the programme also fell into the category.

Only 3 per cent of offers went to applicants considered high-performers.

A lack of autonomy at schools was another noted weakness, saying that rigidity in both the syllabuses and their delivery were not conducive to the nature of education.

Explaining the teaching was “highly discretionary, variable, and transaction-intensive”, it said these characteristics made it difficult to pre-programme student-teacher interaction.

“The high level of centralisation in the Malaysian education system prevents efficient production and distribution of education services,” it concluded.

But the World Bank also pointed out that Malaysia already has a notion of how to arrest the decline, in the form of the Malaysian Education Blueprint 2013-2025 that was launched last month.

It noted that, among others, the blueprint contained a progression towards a school-based management system that would encourage greater autonomy, although it noted a lack of specificity about how such a system would operate.

It also lauded the blueprint’s plan to raise the profile of the teaching profession as well as entry requirements, but suggested the Education Ministry instead prioritise attempts to entice “high-ability” candidates to become teachers.

The World Bank further suggested an overhaul of the country’s teacher training colleges, noting that there existed “deep weaknesses in core skills” in the current set of graduates from such institutes.

The Malaysian Education Blueprint 2013-2025 aims to uplift the performance of Malaysian students from their current place in the bottom third of the PISA ranking to the opposite end.

Malaysia is also aiming to become a high-income nation by 2020.