Danial Rahman has education close to his heart and welcomes feedback at danialrahman0330@gmail.com.



by Danial Rahman

WITH a handshake, the handover of duties was complete. Former Higher Education Minister Datuk Seri Idris Jusoh has passed the baton to incoming Education Minister Dr Maszlee Malik.

The handover on May 22 was historic, the first of its kind, and it was an honour to witness the moment.

In his parting speech, Idris thanked the ministry’s officers for enabling it to “soar upwards” and reminded them to continue to serve with dedication.

Dr Maszlee thanked Idris for his service and spoke passionately as well as reassuringly of his vision for Malaysian education.

Both men share some similarities besides being alumni of Sekolah Tuanku Abdul Rahman in Ipoh, namely, they believe that learning at its core must be fun, humanised and enculture a spirit of love and care (kasih sayang).

The occasion was reflective of the kind of politics many Malaysians have been expecting of their elected leaders – mature, civil and yes, educated.

Dr Maszlee’s appointment as Education Minister was met with great interest, both positive and negative. Various labels were thrown around: Islamist, liberal, moderate. I dare say there has not been a politician in recent memory who evokes such contrasting ideological positions.

It also goes to show how passionate Malaysians are about our education system (yes, right up there next to food!).

Though we were both from the International Islamic University Malaysia, our paths never crossed, but many have said good things about him. Upon reading up on his background and civil society participation, I am impressed. I was Whatsapp-ed a video of Dr Maszlee’s campaign, with his wife and children speaking in multiple languages. It was different, unique even.

I believe our new Education Minister deserves this opportunity.

Dr Maszlee and his team will be facing interesting challenges in an always evolving education landscape.

For starters, managing a merged ministry is no small order. There are over 10,000 schools, half a million teachers and five million students in the primary and secondary schools system.

Higher education covers 20 public universities, over 500 private institutions, 36 polytechnics and 100 community colleges, with over 70,000 academicians and 1.2 million students, including 170,000-plus international students.

It’s like running a small country! Having a robust communications team is vital to convey progress, allay fears and share successes.

Second, the new Education Minister needs to quickly rise above the ongoing time-consuming merger and focus on the policy initiatives and reforms. Both Malaysia Education Blueprints, for schools and higher education, will be his best friends at this initial stage.

Third, let’s look at the school system. Promise 49 of the Pakatan Harapan election manifesto is about “making government schools the best choice for its people”. One challenge in achieving this revolves around whether Malaysia should have a single- or multi-stream education system.

The manifesto indicates continued support for a multi-stream system (vernacular, religious, national, boarding, missionary, private, etc). So, while it would appear that this debate is settled, it would be prudent not to close the door on this matter.

Go out there and listen to the stakeholders. Get their thoughts on unity, quality and capacity. The argument that national schools will naturally be the top choice if they are of quality, has become the chicken-and-egg debate of our era.

Similarly, if we aim to benchmark against Finland, we must ask, “Why don’t they have private schools?”

Fourth, let’s look at the higher education ecosystem. Promise 50 and Youth Commitment 4 of the manifesto speak of greater autonomy and free education, among others.

Autonomy is good for the ecosystem and effective leadership is essential. If I may suggest, when the next appointment of a vice-chancellor is due, the decision can be handled by the university’s board of governors (with the minister signing off on their choice).

The amendment of the Universities and University Colleges Act can take place in tandem. Such a simple yet pertinent gesture would instantly raise confidence within the higher education ecosystem and signal an important step along the path towards autonomy.

On free education, I have argued before that this isn’t feasible yet in Malaysia without tax increases or more income generation by the Government.

Related issues are the sustainability of the National Higher Education Fund Corp (PTPTN), whether free education can lead to complacency, and whether there is a better model to fund higher education in light of limited places and finite resources.

On technology in education, MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) is mentioned under Promise 50. Under the Malaysia Education Blueprint (Shift 9), there’s the Malaysia MOOC initiative, which began in 2015. It aims to reduce costs and enhance quality as well as access. I’ve written about this initiative and a few others, such as CEO@Faculty Programme, 2u2i, Waqf and more.

While different policy makers have different priorities, many of these programmes were introduced to address various challenges within the education system. It would be worthwhile to measure the impact of these initiatives and strengthen those that are delivering real results for students.

With the public eager for transformation, the new minister and his team must be given time and space.

The education system isn’t starting from scratch. Great strides have been made over the years and the imperative is to be brave in evolving.

Lastly, we are currently in a period where political goodwill is at its best. Now is the moment to make the hard decisions and transform the education system.

I wish Dr Maszlee and his team the best.

This column was originally published in The Star on Thursday June 7, 2018.