It is an annual outcry that some years reaches a crescendo. The trigger: high-scoring students, typically of Malaysia’s minority groups, not getting admission to public universities or pre-university matriculation colleges.
On July 30, Klang MP Charles Santiago, hearing word that over 200 SPM “straight-A” Indian students were not admitted to matriculation, demanded answers for the perceived unfairness: “What is the policy towards Indian and even Chinese students? How come high-performing students were not given a chance in matriculation?”
A few students have publicised their plight on social media, screenshotting their academic scores and the devastating application results.
These public complaints recall words loudly articulated some years back. A senior politician lambasted the “rigid quota system” that had extensively promoted Bumiputera upward mobility but deprived “many young and qualified non-Bumiputeras”. He then demanded that the government bring the “racial quota system... to an end as quickly as possible”. The source: former Gerakan party president Lim Keng Yaik. The year: 1984.
Of course, there are some differences between 2022 and 1984: now, ethnic quotas apply to matriculation colleges (where the contention lies); then, de facto ethnic quotas were in force in university admissions. These days, as the higher education ministry director-general explained, applications are automated with “no human touch”.
Well, humans designed UPU’s “pure merit” computer algorithm that sifts through applications displaying each student’s academic results and co-curricular scores and sorts through their ranked preference of up to 12 university programmes, then churns out an offer to each applicant. Or a rejection note.
At heart, it has been 40 years of essentially the same tune, same heartache, same cycle of hard work and academic achievement denied the seemingly deserved reward. Cue the rallying cry of the aggrieved: abolish the ethnic quota and enforce meritocracy, or give a leg up only to the poor while prohibiting all ethnicity-conscious selection.
The publicised top scorers often find redress. They can appeal directly to universities, or someone steps in to offer enrolment in a private institution, a scholarship, or both. Anger is assuaged, life goes on. Calls for the non-Bumiputera matriculation quota to be increased from 10% may echo, now and then.
Unfortunately, this cycle neglects the fuller picture of the education system, and the commonly proposed alternatives may impact negatively in ways we often overlook. However, we can mitigate the disappointment, and work toward a better balance of reward for excellence and equitable access for diverse groups, by rethinking three important issues.
First, we must broaden the definition of who ‘deserves" to get admission or scholarships. The plight of the top scorers denied entry to higher education, especially if they come from disadvantaged backgrounds, is real and must be shown empathy. It is difficult to deny that they should be given a chance to pursue their education programme of choice. But are they the only deserving ones?
The annual cycle, being continually reactive and limited to the top-scoring students, scarcely advocates for other deserving candidates. Indeed, in our zeal to aid the straight-A high-achievers, we may unwittingly omit the greater number of disadvantaged students who did not ace the exams. We also reduce academic ability to exam results.
From my university teaching experience, the top scorers are invariably motivated and industrious, but many students with modest grades are highly engaged and curious, and some of them have not – despite their striving – been able to overcome the disadvantaged conditions of their upbringing. Does higher education open enough space for them?
Second, we need to go beyond demanding more non-Bumiputera spaces in matriculation colleges. The deep dissatisfaction with the matriculation system is understandable, moreover when the alternative is to take the much harder STPM. However, while a larger non-Bumiputera quota in matriculation (currently 10%) seems a morally appealing and pragmatic solution, this will cause a rush of already high-scoring Chinese and Indian students into this easier pre-university programme, and exacerbate inequalities within the community by compounding the disadvantage of those who miss out on the matriculation spots.
Expanding matriculation enrolment as Pakatan Harapan did in 2019 – while retaining the 90:10 Bumiputera-non-Bumiputera ratio – was a stopgap compromise that cannot keep repeating. It also may not quite achieve the intended outcome of increased non-Bumiputera access to higher education if the spaces in Bumiputera-exclusive Asasi or Mara programmes are increased.
Third, we must break the false dichotomy of "pro-Bumiputera" versus "pure meritocracy", or "race-based" versus "need-based" policies. The choice is not between absolutes. Would those who object to preferential treatment for Bumiputeras also object to preferential treatment for Orang Asli university applicants? The solution is not to sweepingly abolish ethnicity-conscious admissions, but to strike a balance of academic, socioeconomic and student diversity considerations.
So, how can Malaysia do better?
First, matriculation and STPM must be revamped – basically made more rigorous, with a focus on equipping students for higher education instead of providing an easier pathway to university. The post-secondary school years are formative, a time when thinking, communication and creative skills can be inculcated. This idea might seem daunting and wishful, but don’t we seek better quality in schools and universities? Oddly, we rarely express the same aspiration for matriculation colleges and STPM.
Quota tweaks to the current illusory “meritocracy” will perpetuate an underperforming programme. System-wide change, including the prospect of a single university entrance examination, is not feasible until we narrow the quality gap in the parallel university entry programmes. The difficulty of scoring in the STPM has been a badge of honour, but it is also notorious for extending rote learning to the post-secondary level.
Second, review the current automated and centralised admissions systems. The “no human touch” approach might help reduce subjective bias and relieve the load of routine labour, but the existing equation of 90% academic and 10% co-curricular scores is woefully restrictive (Technical college admissions at least includes a 15% socioeconomic category that accords points to students from low-income households).
Within the UPU scheme – while transitioning to decentralisation – Malaysia must find ways to incorporate more criteria that reflect academic ability and potential, as well as socioeconomic situation.
Admission to university is surely too important to be left to a computer algorithm. Broadening the selection criteria, though, will ultimately require not only the restoration of a human touch, but also some decentralisation to the universities.
University autonomy is Malaysia’s perennial stalled project; some institutions have experimented in the past with self-administered admissions but reverted back to UPU. Nonetheless, the record will show that autonomy, at least partial if not full, can be granted – especially for admissions. If the universities claim to lack resources, they can productively redeploy staff stationed in futile tasks like compliance audits to reinvigorated admissions offices.
Third, the admissions process should be redesigned to be more holistic, perhaps by conducting a few rounds of selection. The first round can appraise applications based primarily on achievement. After that round of admission offers, the next can select entrants by evaluating ability and potential while also accounting for socioeconomic disadvantage – family income, parents’ or siblings’ education, housing situation. A further round of selection can be formulated to balance out student diversity – not just by ethnicity, but also region, language, and other aspects.
Minority groups have been anguished at higher education admissions for many decades now. Unless Malaysia goes beyond reacting, to systematically reforming post-secondary education, these grievances will continually fester, and the disadvantaged will be further left behind.
Lee Hwok Aun is a senior fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of MalaysiaNow.