Why our education system continues to churn out weak graduates

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Most academic graduates have very little industry-relevant knowledge and skills to perform well in the workplace.

MMO

Over the past decades, there had been many discussions and initiatives trying to raise the quality of education in our schools and institutions of higher learning. But little progress has been made, going by the poor quality of those awarded with certificates, diplomas or degrees.

Last Tuesday, Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim spoke at the “Meet Anwar” programme at Kolej Kemahiran Tinggi Mara in Kuantan. In attendance were Education Minister Fadhlina Sidek and Mentri Besar Wan Rosdy Wan Ismail.

The prime minister expressed concern that Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) graduates are generally paid below RM2,000 whereas skilled workers overseas earn much more. He called for TVET education to be improved to produce better-trained graduates.

Anwar said, “The target should be between RM2,500 and RM3,000 or higher from the existing level. This has been proven and not a theory. In Germany, the focus is on TVET, as these graduates earn higher wages. For decades, our salary has been flat, rising a little.”

He stated that improvements can be carried out through cooperation between TVET institutions with industry players such as national car manufacturer Proton to assist TVET at Pekan in Pahang, or Zhejiang Geely Holding Group Co Ltd in Tanjung Malim in Perak.

He also disclosed that plans to improve TVET training and skills have been voiced by several industry players, including Tesla Sdn Bhd during discussions with the government, before proposing additional elements to TVET programmes in his speech.

More of the same

However, it is likely that not much will change, not because the call by the prime minister will fall on deaf ears, but because the relevant parties are rather clueless. And they include government authorities and educational providers, the students, their parents, and the public.

It is customary to send children to study in schools and young adults to continue in institutions of higher learning if they do not have to work to support themselves or their families. However, we ought to reexamine the purpose of education in general, including TVET.

Do we aim to provide students the opportunity to acquire useful knowledge and skills that will enable them to develop their full potential and become successful members of society? Or just to get large numbers to obtain diplomas or degrees so as to categorise them as skilled workers?

Success is a subjective concept as the same achievements could be perceived as failures by different individuals or sections of society. For example, those uncouth ought to be deemed as uneducated, regardless of their titles, awards, qualifications, or how learned they may be.

Similarly, those who spew hatred against other races and religions are not truly religious, as it goes against the teachings of all religions. Yet many loud-mouthed politicians are very popular with their blind supporters that could not think for themselves and allow their emotions to rule.

Memorising superficial knowledge

Sadly, politicians are highly influential as many of our citizens are poorly educated and made worse through indoctrination. Students study mainly through rote learning and expediently believe in what they read or are told to them without much thinking or proper understanding.

Students that put in enough effort to study and memorise are bound to do well in school exams, and many in higher learning institutions use shortcuts to complete their assignments through copy, cut and paste or outright plagiarism, unable to describe well in their own words.

This is especially so for those pursuing academic programmes and such cheats form the bulk of unemployed and underemployed graduates we have today. Most would apply for jobs wherever there are vacancies, regardless of industries or positions, and are largely directionless.

They are vastly different from those focused and studying to work in licensed professions such as accountants, architects, doctors, engineers and lawyers; or those pursuing technical courses to qualify as skilled workers such as chefs, electricians, mechanics, plumbers and welders.

These professionals may start off their careers as employees and those who are eager to earn more could later venture out on their own or in partnership with their peers or investors. But for them to be truly successful in their careers, they must also have two more essential qualities.

Character and communication

They are good character and communication skills. But sadly, these are not given due emphasis in our educational system, resulting in not just the poor quality of graduates but also a largely oblivious population, often lacking in courtesy, civicmindedness and civic consciousness.

A person with good character and attitude usually thinks, speaks, and acts in accordance with virtues such as respect, humility, kindness, and empathy. He must have integrity with moral principles such as honesty, fairness, equality, and the courage to stand up for and practise ethics.

Here, communication skills encompass mastery of a language by being able to think, speak, read and write well; interpersonal communication skills; effective digital communication; and a host of leadership skills that include conflict resolution, creativity, delegation and empathy.

Many Malaysians may be able to speak several languages or dialects, like a jack of all trades but a master of none. But few could think critically and describe correctly or write accurately, which are essential in developing and excelling in their jobs or in business.

Their language is further weakened and corrupted by the widespread use of abbreviated words and slang in phone text messages and occasionally creeping into emails that are inappropriate for work. Assumptions and superficial understanding have become the norm in our daily lives.

Interpersonal communication

And as a result, misunderstandings leading to unnecessary quarrels are common occurrences and many politicians often claimed to be misquoted after what they have said backfired. If so, they should improve their communication skills when making speeches and not be carried away.

Remember, it is not just the words you say but more importantly, how you say it. The same words can have opposite meanings, depending on the tone of your voice, facial expressions and gestures. The most potent is visual communication, followed by vocal, and lastly verbal.

Lest we forget, conveying a message or providing information is just one small part of face-to-face communication. What is even more important, but often overlooked, is communicating our feelings toward each other, and they could be family members, coworkers, and customers.

We must always take into cognisance that there is no healthy relationship or customer service without giving attention and showing courtesy.

Hence, all undergraduates must learn interpersonal communication skills so that they can succeed in the workplace by getting along well with coworkers, customers, suppliers and the public. They ought to realise they are communicating without speaking when seen by others.

Knowledge and skills are not enough

This includes TVET graduates, as they would not be able to succeed in their careers or business based on technical knowledge and manual skills only. They must communicate effectively and may have to use a commercial language, such as English, to reach out and gain more customers.

Today, highly skilled but repetitive work has been taken over by robots in modern factories, and even more sophisticated tools and equipment would be used in many skilled jobs such as cooking, construction and farming, without the need for skilled human labour.

And if those pursuing general programmes in universities limit their learning to memorisation, what is stored in their heads is quite useless compared to what is kept in a digital file, as all the texts, pictures and videos could be shared instantly and accurately with anyone globally.

As a long-time trainer, I discovered that almost all attendees that came for training and working in the travel trade are unable to define basic terms meaningfully, such as tourism, tourists, visitors, inbound tours, domestic tours, and the basic job of tourist guides and tour leaders.

They may know and use all the above terms frequently, but their knowledge is only at a very superficial level, no better than the layman. And just like academic and TVET graduates, they need to understand much deeper to see the opportunities and excel in their jobs or business.

Key Performance Indicator (KPI)

And finally, what is the point of targeting 35 percent of the total workforce in the country to have diplomas or degrees by 2030 after failing to achieve this target under the 2016-2020 Eleventh Malaysia Plan? Just to categorise all of them as skilled workers and achieve the KPI?

The truth is, most academic graduates have very little industry-relevant knowledge and skills to perform well in the workplace, and fresh graduates are recruited for training but would be given the boot if their character, attitude and communication skills turned out to be bad or weak.

In the private sector, salaries, incentives and bonuses are based on staff’s performance, productivity and contribution to the organisation’s savings or earnings. They have little to do with staff’s academic qualifications or even their knowledge and skills, if not put to good use.

The views expressed here are strictly those of YS Chan from Kuala Lumpur.