Many choices in pursuing studies after secondary school
Students today are spoilt for choice on academic programmes to pursue after completing their secondary schooling. Be it after the Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM) or International General Certificate of Secondary Education (IGCSE), there are 20 public universities (IPTA), 434 private institutions/universities (IPTS), 36 polytechnics and 105 community colleges to choose from locally. Perhaps the choices are wider for post-SPM students as it is the prerequisite for all institutions of higher learning in the country. IGCSE graduates, on the other hand, would most likely opt for IPTS.
Enrolment statistics for IPTA versus IPTS stand on average at a ratio of 1:1. In better economic times before the pandemic, IPTS were the more popular choice. In 2017, IPTS enrolment stood at 666,617 students versus 538,555 in IPTA. In 2021, the enrolment for IPTA was 589,879 while that for IPTS was 517,580. Indeed, the reduced enrolment in tertiary education after the pandemic is a matter of concern.
As it stands, the ratio of job seekers with tertiary qualification is still on average 30%, while 70% have SPM qualification and below. This figure seems to be a static trend for the past 10 years. It is hoped that the qualifications of the future labour force will improve over time so that their economic situation will not be constrained by the low earnings of the majority of low-skilled workers. According to the World Bank, the economic returns for tertiary education graduates are the highest — they enjoy an estimated 17% increase in earnings as compared to 10% for those with primary education and 7% for secondary school leavers.
The Malaysia Education Blueprint 2013-2025 (MEB) was developed to transform the declining standards of our education system. It was supposed to develop knowledgeable and critical thinkers who would be equipped to take on highly skilled work, and ease their transition into tertiary education. However, in the end, much is left to parental guidance to make good decisions about educational pathways, and to ensure that resources are available for their children. This would result in the least dependence on state assistance in order to secure better prospects for themselves.
The choices students make about whether to pursue tertiary education depend on their secondary school qualification, area of interest, capabilities and the availability of funds. Those who are likely to further their studies via IPTAs would most likely opt for Sijil Tinggi Persekolahan Malaysia (STPM), matriculation or a specific foundation or diploma programme. For those who wish to further their studies in an IPTS or a foreign university, the options available are diploma courses, foundation studies, A Levels, United Examination Certificate or UEC, the International Baccalaureate, American degree programmes and Australian and Canadian matriculation.
Students and their parents would need to make informed decisions about the path to take. Doing research and talking to experienced friends and family members are good moves. Most would likely choose A Levels as they are the most obvious and widely accepted entry requirement for universities in the world. It is an easy decision to make, with its proven track record, and is a solid choice indeed for many. But for those who are looking for an alternative to A Levels, they would need to be convinced that their choice is the right one for them.
In my personal experience when planning and taking that journey with my two daughters, I was looking for alternatives to A Levels as my perception was that it is another mugging, exam-oriented study method, with a longer completion time than the alternatives.
Nottingham University Malaysia (UoN), with its foundation programme as an entry point, is a good choice if the student is able to commit to follow through for the whole degree programme from the start. UoN also allows a study-abroad programme for at least one semester in its UK or China campuses, depending on availability. However, UoN is not a twinning programme, although it permits transfer by quota, subject to availability, into the UK/China campus. One would need to apply for transfer should one choose to. My elder daughter chose to complete her degree here though the plan initially was that she would transfer to the UK campus. However, the plan was hampered by the uncertainties caused by the pandemic.
When planning for my younger daughter’s higher education, learning from my past experience, we realised that it was better to have more options for university choices. We chose Sunway College’s Canadian International Matriculation Programme (CIMP), a one-year programme for her pre-university phase. CIMP is the Ontario Secondary School Diploma, which is awarded by the Ministry of Education, Ontario. Most universities worldwide accept the certificate as an entry qualification for undergraduate programmes, on par with applicants from Canada. CIMP is not restricted to only programmes for Canadian universities. It is the STPM of Canada, where STPM is the prerequisite for university entry for applicants from Malaysia. My younger daughter is bound for the University of Liverpool UK (UoL) after completing the CIMP and meeting UoL’s entry conditions.
For students who have supportive parents with sufficient resources, it is indeed easier to plan for their future and ensure that they have better prospects. But what will happen to the rest of the students, who make up over 70% of school leavers, who do not or are unable to pursue their studies after SPM? Who has failed them? Their parents? The problematic education system that we have been trying, with seemingly futile attempts, to correct time and time again? What will become of the nation’s productivity, level of innovation and competitiveness in the near future?