Education woes should not come as a “shock”

Zairil Khir Johari | .

I read with bemusement press reports quoting Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin as saying he was “shocked” by the poor performance of Malaysian students in international assessment tests, despite “huge funds being pumped into the education sector.”

During a speech at Sekolah Kebangsaan Seksyen 7, Shah Alam yesterday, Muhyiddin, who is also Education Minister, said that that our “education standards, although said to be good, is not enough” and that the results of assessments such as the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) and Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) showed that the performance of Malaysian students was not up to par when compared to their global peers.

Malaysian students ranked 52nd out of 65 countries in the latest Pisa report, while the latest TIMSS revealed that 38 per cent of our students failed to achieve the minimum benchmark in Mathematics and Science.

More disappointingly, our downtrend in education standards continues to occur in spite of the fact that the Ministry of Education receives the largest share of the budget every year. For 2015 alone, it amounts to RM56.6 billion, or almost 21 per cent of the total Federal budget.

However, the devil is in the details, as big spending does not necessarily equate to better performance, especially if most of the funds are spent on unnecessary big-ticket projects.

Over-investment in unnecessary infrastructure

Over 10 years ago, the government invested more than RM3 billion on computer hardware and software meant to facilitate the Teaching and Learning of Mathematics and Science in English (PPSMI) programme. Most of this investment ended up collecting dust in school storerooms as PPSMI has now been discontinued.

The same fate appears to be awaiting the RM4.1 billion 1BestariNet project today, as the Auditor-General’s 2013 Report revealed that less than one per cent of students actually used the system even though close to 9,000 schools throughout the country had already been equipped with it.

Hence, while the education budget may get bigger and bigger each year, it is pointless if the funds are channelled towards unnecessary investments in IT infrastructure and hardware that end up rarely used. Instead, the government should invest in teachers and students.

IT spending increased while teacher training budget reduced

Unfortunately, the government does not quite know where their priorities lie. In the 2015 Budget, for example, the total allocation for the “professional development” of teachers has been slashed from RM1.54 billion in 2014 to only RM961 million.

This includes a reduction in “pre-service training” from RM948 million in 2014 to RM851 million this year, while “leadership training” was cut by two thirds from RM181 million to RM62 million. “In-service training” of teachers, however, suffered the worst drop from RM410 million last year to RM48 million.

Even if we add the new expenditure item of RM250 million for “transformation of education service officers,” the total allocation for teacher-related development only comes up to RM1.21 billion, which represents a shortfall of RM350 million when compared to RM1.54 billion in Budget 2014.

Contrast the cut in allocation for teacher training to the allocation for IT expenditure, which actually saw an increase of about RM200 million for this year. If the government thinks that better computers will make up for the weakness of our teachers, then it has not learned its lesson from the PPSMI fiasco.

Misplaced priorities

In truth, our students’ poor performance in international assessments on the back of record spending should not come as a surprise. Instead, what is truly shocking is the government’s denial syndrome and misplaced sense of priorities as they continue to channel billions of taxpayers’ funds into non-productive areas such as big-ticket infrastructure projects that only benefit private technology suppliers at the expense of the people that really matter – our teachers and students.

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