COME Oct 27, the 20 public university dons are going to be glued to their television screens, waiting for the magic figure in the 2018 Budget that Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak had hinted about in a tweet on Wednesday night. Expect it to be more than last year’s allocation of RM7.4 billion. There was general uproar last year among the public universities as many saw their operating budgets cut, some losing as high as 30 per cent. Najib’s tweet should be music to the dons’ ears.
But, they should not stop at just being pleased. The universities must work hard at producing quality graduates. Many Malaysian employers have been lamenting about the competency of our graduates, especially their employability skills. The Malaysian Employers Federation (MEF) has, on many occasions, spewed laments in the media, especially about our graduates’ command of English. As recently as last week, a hotel general manager from Johor wrote to this paper, expressing his shock at a hospitality graduate who could not even manage a decent sentence in English. This problem is not unique to public universities; private universities, too, are similarly impaired. Are the universities chasing revenue by hiking fees and hiring less qualified teachers? Just last week, four universities — three private and one public — were blacklisted by Oman for “administrative and academic discrepancies”. Public or private, such incidents dent Malaysia’s reputation. Hampered, too, will be Malaysia’s vision of becoming a regional education hub by 2020. The Higher Education Ministry needs to add more bite to its enforcement arm to ensure quality is not traded for quantity.
The problem of quality seeps deeper than funding issues. The problem is birthed much earlier than in the campus of the universities; it starts at primary schools. We need to produce school students with higher order thinking skills (HOTS), who will enter the university and leave it with work-ready skills. While the government is trying to solve this through the Malaysia Education Blueprint, universities must do their part. For starters, they must work hard at developing not only academic skills, but also employability skills of their graduates. Universities in the United Kingdom and United States do this very well. A check on some of our public universities’ websites show that we are not that savvy in this department. Our universities need not reinvent the wheel; they can take a leaf out of the UK’s Nottingham University’s book, which has devoted an entire centre to employability skills.
Employers, too, should not spend their time just lamenting the state of our graduates. They should do more. They should take some responsibility to train fresh graduates by sponsoring employability skills development programmes. Or, better still, they should follow the philosophy of former Petronas managing director Datuk Rastam Hadi by hiring as many graduates as they can afford to be mentored, even if they are not needed now. This is laying the human capital pipeline for the future. Call it compassionate capitalism, but it is one of the many strategies that has made Petronas the only Malaysian Fortune 500 company.