So, are you express or standard?

FEBRUARY 16 ― I was taking the LRT back from work the other day when a local private college advertisement caught my eye. No, it wasn’t one of those with fancy graphics. Nor was it adorned with smiling students of different ethnicities having a picnic on perfectly manicured carpet grass.

This advertisement was simple enough, but in it contained two words that were marketing genius: Express and Standard. These words are exactly what every parent and his/her 17-year-old needed, no, wanted to hear. Or are they?

Having once faced the uncertainties of a post-SPM future, I opine that this advertisement would appeal to me and my peers. Who wouldn’t want to attend an institution that could promise a quick yet established route to success (though let us leave debate on the meaning of success for another day)?

An express education

As the age-old saying goes, “Time is money”; an express education would ultimately mean spending less money on education. For parents, this means less spent on tuition fees, living and transportation costs before their children graduate and are able to earn their own money.

An express education would also appeal to students who support themselves through loans like PTPTN since they would also owe less money with a shortened study period.

This compounded by the fact that tertiary education, especially private tertiary education, in Malaysia can cost you quite literally an arm and a leg. A quick online search reveals that tuition fees for Cambridge A-levels in a private college can range from RM23,000 to RM39,000 depending on the subjects taken and college of choice.

In a time of inflation and the weakening ringgit, perhaps precious financial resources could be diverted to other needs of the family like healthcare and investments.

Aside from that, employers often look for working experience when hiring potential candidates. Theoretically, if one were to have an express graduation and enter the work force earlier, there is greater possibility of accumulating years of experience as compared to their peers. This will then translate into faster promotions and yearly increments.

Standard education

Form 5 was a tough year not only because of the intense pressure to do well in SPM, but also the prospect of making a potentially career-defining decision. The word standard education would stand out simply because 17-year-olds have never chosen a field of study on their own before.

From the age of seven, the education we received was chosen for us. Everyone had to do it, no questions asked. Other than the streaming exercise after Penilaian Menengah Rendah (PMR) to either Science or Arts, everything else was basically, standard.

Even then, we were “placed” in respective streams based on academic ability, save for the few who actually knew that science was not their cup of tea. But I have digressed; choosing between two streams is vastly different from picking a course from a world of possibilities.

As a singular choice can be daunting, it makes perfect sense for a student to choose a “standard” education; a path that is well trodden with the challenges and risks very well understood. I argue that this tendency is evolutionary.

Wildebeest migrate in search of water in herds while schools of fish form tight balls and move in unison when threatened by predators.

The risk of a single individual being preyed on diminishes while travelling in a large herd. Similarly in the case of fish, by mimicking the movements of other fish in the school, a single individual reduces the chance of being eaten.

Alternatives

But do Malaysian students want express and standard? Not all, apparently.

Many of my peers have taken a break post-SPM or pre-university to pursue other interests or discover what they really want to do in life. However, I must admit that this is not a common occurrence and is a choice often taken by individuals with more well-to-do backgrounds.

It is then very timely that eight public universities have agreed to the gap year programme by the Ministry of Higher Education. Starting from September this year, students from the eight chosen varsities will be allowed to pursue volunteerism, internships or even travel around the world for an entire year!

This is a very strategic move, allowing for room to grow within the relative comfort of being already enrolled in a university.

There are also other avenues for personal enrichment while doing something out of one’s field. For example, the government-sponsored MyCorps Malaysia and iM4U give Malaysian youth the opportunity to volunteer locally and abroad. One can also choose from a multitude of NGO-led volunteering opportunities like the CAT (Citizen Action for Tigers) walks and Kechara Soup Kitchen.

Conclusion

To conclude, I believe that personal growth is an organic process and is separate from academic advancement. One can pass the trials and tribulations of secondary and tertiary education with flying colours yet fail to fully develop individual soft skills.

I then urge Malaysian students out there to avoid rushing into a course. Do not pursue something because the neighbour’s son ― the one you’re always being compared to ― did it or choose an institution because the prettiest girl in your year is attending that college.

Take your time to find something that both engages you and of course pays the monthly bills. Failure to do so would run the risk of being labelled express and standard; very much like the education you will receive.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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