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Questions on the value of a degree and caps on university admissions

Experts speak on Malaysia's many educational institutes and the role and value of a degree.

Ahmad Mustakim Zulkifli
3 minute read
Students work at the library of a university in Johor in this file picture. Photo: AFP
Students work at the library of a university in Johor in this file picture. Photo: AFP

Amid renewed debate over the matter of minimum wage, the question has arisen of whether tertiary education in Malaysia is still relevant to meeting the demands of the job market.

The minimum wage debate has cast light on the differences in interest between employers and workers.

The Malaysian Employers Federation and the Federation of Malaysian Manufacturers, for example, are against the proposal to raise the minimum wage to RM1,500.

They are of the opinion that this would kill off companies that are just starting to regain their footing after the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Malaysian Trades Union Congress meanwhile say employers should be ready for such an increase in wage.

Beneath the debate though are other underlying issues such as the influx of graduates in the job market and the problem of unemployment.

According to the statistics department, 2020 saw some 5.46 million graduates, an increase of 4.4% from the 5.13 million recorded the year before.

Education site studymalaysia.com meanwhile states that there were at least 20 public universities and 47 private universities in Malaysia as of September 2019.

Malaysia also boasts 34 university colleges and 10 foreign university campuses.

The abundance of institutions has enabled many youth to pursue their education at the tertiary level – but it has also invited criticism from those who say that the easy access to college and university education has diluted the value of a degree.

Educationist Dzulkifli Abdul Razak told MalaysiaNow that in terms of proportion, there are more institutions of education and universities in the country than there are people.

“Not all of them were established on the basis of knowledge and scientific pursuit, either,” he said.

Dzulkifli, who is the rector at the International Islamic University of Malaysia, also questioned the effectiveness of the mass approach to tertiary education.

He said tertiary education should not be seen as a factory process.

He also said that the value of a degree would decrease when every other person has one.

“Employers are not looking at degrees anymore,” he said. “What matters is a person’s attitude, skills and integrity.

“This is not emphasised in our education system, unlike Japan’s, for example.”

Anuar Ahmad of Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia however was of the opposite opinion.

“Easy access to tertiary education is actually a good plan,” he said. “It has nothing to do with a decrease in value of education or degree.

“There are clear guidelines for entrance into university, and legitimate conditions that should be fulfilled by the applicant.”

According to him, discrepancies between the type of work and the qualification of a graduate are due to the rapid changes in industries.

“Universities and industries need to work more closely so that university managements know the industries’ needs for the next three to five years,” he said.

Annuar also disagreed with the suggestion for a cap to university admissions, saying not everyone enters university in order to land a job. On the contrary, he said, some enrol purely for the sake of gaining knowledge.

If university admissions are capped, he said, the government and employers would need to create opportunities for school leavers to enter the working world.

Dzulkifli meanwhile said there was no need for more schools offering specialisations.

“What is needed more right now is a transdisciplinary approach,” he said.

Habibah Abd Rahim, a senior fellow at think tank Institut Masa Depan Malaysia, said it would be inaccurate to compare school and university qualifications when entering the workforce.

“Secondary school graduates are different from university graduates,” she said.

“The type and level of work that can be pursued are different. There is a big likelihood that school leavers would be unable to compete and to perform the same job as a university graduate.”

For Dzulkifli, the problem of a surplus of graduates might be rooted in policies that push universities to become vocational in nature, or places to train future workers.

“Education without a soul,” he said, adding that this differs greatly from the national education philosophy which seeks to produce well-rounded citizens.

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