Thursday, 1 August 2013

A question of distrust

Brave New World (The Star)
24 July 2013

Distrust in the system will cause far deeper repercussions in university education than what one may think.


EVERY year we get the same old story of school leavers clutching their certificates chock full of As, weeping piteously because they could not get into their university or course of choice.
How can anyone not feel sorry for these young people who have worked so hard?
The hard truth is that not everyone can get what they want when it comes to university education. And the way the system currently works, even straight-A students may not get what they want.
This is due to the fact that exam results only account for 90% of the entry criteria. The other 10% is made up of extracurricular activities.
This means that if there are 100 spaces on offer, even if you scored four As, there could well be a hundred other applicants with the same exam results but with higher extracurricular marks.
Add to this the tiered system we have when choosing universities and courses, where if you don’t get your first choice, you are moved to the bottom of the line for your second choice, and so on.
Well, what this means is that once you missed the boat for your first choice, it is nigh impossible to get a place in the universities you have placed lower in your application form.
I am sure all applicants know the way the system works, and yet they are still disappointed and the whole issue becomes a political one, where the ruling government, afraid of a public relations disaster, year after year try to find ways to limit the fallout by providing scholarships in private institutions and other such measures.
Perhaps we can fix the system of university application, but I am afraid the problem is much deeper than that because what we have here is a lack of trust in the entire education system.
Let’s talk about that elephant which is trumpeting and doing handstands in the room, shall we? The elephant that the government does not seem to notice.
The elephant’s name is Racial Quota, or RQ to his pals. Now, apart from UiTM, which takes great pride in being the equivalent of a university in the American Deep South of the 1950s, all public universities are officially not using the quota system any more.
But is this true? Is there a quota by the back door? For example, not all university applicants come with cap in hand holding onto the same certificate. Some are STPM holders and some are the product of matriculation.
What has to be asked is who gets accepted into the various matriculation courses offered around the country.
Universities are not supposed to have quotas, but does that same principle apply to the matriculation centres? Furthermore, just what are the standards in these matriculation centres?
If there is a disproportionate number of Malay (and I suppose native) students taken into matriculation centres and if the standards of these centres are dubious (for example with unnaturally high number of straight-A graduates), then we have a backdoor quota system.
Now, let me be clear, I am asking questions, I am not saying categorically that this is the case, but it is clear to me that when we have a dual system for university entrance, then it is imperative that there is complete transparency to ensure that all our school leavers are treated equally and fairly when applying for universities.
And frankly, I can understand the non-Malays’ frustration at the situation. Our news is littered with divisive treatment from the powers that be.
For example, an idiotic stunt by moronic attention seekers get punished (and rightly so) and yet callers for the burning of bibles get off scot-free (wrongly so).
Furthermore, we hear of university dons calling for racial quotas. In this kind of atmosphere, how can there not be distrust?
And ultimately, this distrust will cause far deeper repercussions in university education than what one may think.
The way I see it, certain university courses require certain skill sets which may not be reflected in exam results alone.
For example, I would much rather have law students with poorer results but with an ama­zing grasp of language and the ability to express himself or herself with clarity and conviction.
These seem to me some reasonable criteria to have and in a society without such deep racial distrust, a student who fails to make my grade may very well understand why someone with weaker exam results has obtained a seat in my lectures.
Not so here; there will be, and quite understandably so, calls of prejudice and for my head to be stuck on a pole.
In the end, I will have a student who may have done brilliantly at Form Six, but really does not have the right qualities to make a good lawyer.
At the end of the day, even with the clearest of criteria, our country, after years of racially-based policy making, is suffering from a lack of trust.
And this lack of trust means not only that we will continue to have heartbreaking stories every year, but that we are not able to think about a more holistic and ultimately more productive method of choosing our university students.
This is a problem that will not go away unless there are serious and meaningful systemic changes in the entire way this country is run.
It could start with a leadership willing to deal with that frisky elephant, now doing cartwheels across the room. But who knows where we are going to find that?

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