A friend of mine, Rajan Rishyakaran, has written a good blog post critiquing the Malaysian university admissions process. While I don't know enough about local universities to comment on many things he raises, there are a couple of points which I think are worth emphasising: the difference between policy in theory and policy in reality, and the importance of decentralising some decisions.
are many illustrations of the difference between something in theory
and something in practice, but Rajan's example of coursework is as good
as any. In principle, adding coursework to the evaluation process for
university admissions would be a good thing.
After all, a major
problem with our education system is that it focuses a lot on
examinations which only assess students at one point in time, and often
encourage rote memorisation instead of actual learning. If you fall sick
during exam period, it can dramatically change your life's course,
because you might not get into the university you otherwise could, or
not pursue the degree you otherwise would attain. And because the format
and style of exams is so predictable, all you need to do is practice
with enough exam papers from previous years to be prepared -- you don't
necessarily need to understand anything on the exam (I have found that
understanding too much can actually be detrimental to your marks in some
If we emphasised coursework more, then one-off
incidents which might negatively impact your exam performance would
matter less: you have a substantial amount of time to do your
coursework. Because the key element of your coursework is usually a
report on something you have researched, you actually learn something
useful: you learn how to write academically, and you learn some basic
research or factfinding skills.
That's the theory; the practical
reality is something else altogether. When I was in school, nobody took
coursework seriously. Or rather, they took it the same way they took an
exam: they figured out the best way to game the system, and they did it.
Everyone would Google their topic, and instead of writing up a report
about it, they would plagarise the most relevant websites. If they were
too lazy to do this, they would plagiarise from one another very openly
-- there was no stigma to copying or cheating off someone else's work.
not that they were lazy; it's that they knew this was the most
efficient way to get things done. Teachers don't really care if the
material is obviously plagiarised -- to them the coursework system is
often a burdensome imposition on them because they have to read through
dozens, if not hundreds of reports. Students know this, so they
intentionally put a lot of work into making their reports more
burdensome on teachers. One teacher's son told me that he intentionally
put lots of irrelevant diagrams and photos in his coursework because
this would discourage the teacher from looking too hard at his work --
she would see he had obviously worked hard on the report, and give him
The problem with coursework is that it is an
arbitrary, artificial system of evaluation imposed by the central
government with little thought as to what the schools and teachers can
do, and little thought for what universities want to see. As Rajan
notes, our university admissions process is extremely centralised --
everything is boiled down to a couple of numbers, which are then fed
into the government's system. The government then tells you what
university you will attend, and what degree you will pursue.
with coursework, the government tells schools how to grade students'
work, and it tells universities how these grades must translate into
admissions decisions. There is no room for a teacher to assess students
in his or her own way, to try something different. Neither is there room
for a university to assess students in a different way, such as through
tailored interviews or personal statements.
Obviously, there are
pitfalls to granting educators more autonomy. But I don't think there
is any question that at the moment we err far too heavily on the side of
ridiculous centralisation. The government has attempted to standardise
the education system to an extreme, and the result is something easily
gamed by the pretence of ability, instead of actual demonstrable
results. The government needs to grant universities more leeway in
making their admissions decisions, and at the same time experiment with
giving schools more freedom in coming up with alternative methods of