Let universities recognise and be recognised

“THIS combination of hafazan and the Cambridge IGCSE curriculum will achieve a modern and transformative education to prepare children for further education at an international level.”

So said the chairman of Maahad Tahfiz Al Ammar in Rantau at its launch recently, at its spacious campus featuring its own spring water: indeed a conducive learning environment.

In several years, I would imagine the students would be familiar with some of the great works of English literature, the process of glaciation, knowledge of different forms of government and competing theories as to why World War II began – and how Malaya got embroiled in it. And in understanding the great inventions of humankind, they will probably be taught how much the European Renaissance owed to the Golden Age of Islam in mathematics, astronomy, physics, chemistry and medicine. And thus, hopefully they will realise that spiritual inspiration for scientific progress is just as applicable today.

After I posted the pictures of that tahfiz school on Instagram, friends with children pointed out that the concept is not new. Other tahfiz schools have long adopted IGCSE, and there is as much competition among them in terms of their educational offerings as in other private kindergartens and schools, including the Montessori method, emphases on extra-curricular activities and the use of phonics when teaching English. Clearly, there is demand from Malaysian (and particularly Malay Muslim) parents for a variety of pedagogies.

In preparing my speech for the sixth anniversary of Genovasi Malaysia – a design thinking school supported by Agensi Inovasi Malaysia and the Genovasi Foundation of which I’m a trustee – I was reminded that government schools also have had the benefit of international educational programmes. Indeed, one of the foundation’s projects is to bring elements of the International Baccalaureate into Malaysian secondary schools, and early evidence so far suggests that students are benefitting from this exposure, with strong support from parents and teachers.

In recent weeks, the issue of recognising the Unified Examination Certificate (UEC) as promised by the Pakatan Harapan manifesto has once again set off hardened views. Various historical arguments have also emerged to argue why the UEC should or should not be recognised, but the promise implicitly assumes that any existing agreements that were made in the past should be revised in order to fulfil the manifesto commitment. Then again, we know the Prime Minister sees the manifesto merely as a guide, and in all likelihood it will be political, rather than educational, considerations that will determine the final outcome.

Still, it is important to be clear on what ‘recognition’ means: primarily the ability to enrol at public universities, but also the ability to work in the civil service and for schools using that curriculum to receive government aid. Already, UEC holders can work as teachers within the civil service if they have a credit in Bahasa Malaysia at SPM level, and the same is true throughout the state civil service in Sarawak, Selangor, Penang and Melaka.

Nevertheless, passionate views have surfaced due to the confluence of race, language and education. At one extreme, opponents say recognition would threaten the status of Bahasa Malaysia, the Constitution and national unity. At the other, proponents say it would improve educational outcomes, fairness and of course, national unity.

The rhetoric largely assumes that the only possible outcome is either for the government to recognise or not recognise the UEC, thus affecting all public universities. But perhaps there is another way forward: an opportunity to give real meat to the concept of autonomy in our universities.

Most high performing universities in the world, regardless of how they are funded, almost always have the power of selecting some, if not most or all, of their students: even if a proportion of students are allocated by a central government agency that processes examination results, the idea of selecting students based on other qualifications, extra-curricular activities and interviews is commonplace.

It is time for our public universities to have that ability (at least to an extent). If they want to accept some students based on IGCSE, IB, A-Level or UEC results – or their aptitude in music, sport or public speaking or proficiency in certain languages – they should be able to. The universities – and not the Minister of Education – will have to be accountable for the decisions they make. Judging by international rankings, such an approach is capable of producing world-class universities: universities that the brightest Malaysians will want to attend.

Until then, it is puzzling that while demand for international qualifications developed in Cambridge and Geneva grow without objections, one particular home-grown qualification (that enables entry into the University of Cambridge) faces such resistance.

Tunku Zain Al-Abidin is founding president of Ideas.

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