When we were seniors in high school in the 1970s, we all aspired to enter the one, real university in the country.
A degree from University Malaya mattered greatly back then because it almost always ensured a reasonably good job.
The quality of the degree mattered even more.
The politician R Sivarasa, for example, was my batchmate until our penultimate year. Then, he dropped biochemistry for genetics.
To no one’s surprise, he got a First and went on to read law at Oxford by way of the Rhodes’ Scholarship.
In short, obtaining a first-class honours degree in any field back then was an achievement. It conferred its recipient great prestige and the pick of jobs. Needless to say, it was rarer than gold dust.
Not anymore, it seems.
I was shocked to read today that 80,000 students had been awarded Firsts from Malaysian universities last year.
You’d think the faculty would know better: churning out such degrees in such numbers is simply to debase their worth. In economic terms, it’s higher education beset by soaring inflation.
It was in the 1970s when I first heard of graduate unemployment. At the time, it was in the Philippines where, apparently, there were too many graduates chasing too few jobs.
I never dreamt that the same thing might happen here. Not in Malaysia, I thought, with its superb education system, where a person with just high school education might go on to become fine writers in English.
Indeed, my teachers in those days largely had diplomas but they were seriouslygood and cultivated in us a love of reading that’s helped enormously.
Here’s a question: Why, ceteris paribus (all things being equal), are graduates from Sunway University more employable, than graduates from public universities?
It’s a fact that makes government officials uncomfortable. But it’s a question the Education Ministry would be well advised to ponder.
How did we come to this?
There is an adage that goes like this: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Our education system was never broken, yet our government, starting in the mid-1970s and, prodded by Malay nationalists who should have known better, thought it needed fixing.
Almost 50 years later, the results are clear, most demonstrably in the difference between the education systems of Singapore and Malaysia.
Both began with similar British-designed structures. One changed while the other did not.
The outcomes are palpable. Singapore has world class education. We don’t.
Even worse is our access. Once open to all races at relatively cheap entry levels, a good education in Malaysia is almost exclusively a preserve for the well-heeled.
Unless you count education in Chinese schools which, for one thing, is ironic. For another, it’s limited: it’s difficult to get approval for new independent Chinese schools.
With his impregnable majority, Dr Mahathir should have tackled this a long time ago. It’s different now: with the fragile coalitions we have, it will take a miracle to unravel the mess that is our education.
Like it or not, we will continue to have graduates working as Grab riders, and waiters, or rubbish collectors in Singapore.
Imagine their dashed expectations. Imagine their despair and hopelessness.
Now imagine their rage.