Academics worry about widening skills gap as Malaysian school dropout numbers increase

Ili Shazwani
Kuala Lumpur
Academics worry about widening skills gap as Malaysian school dropout numbers increase A student reads a textbook at the Kota Kinabalu High School in Sabah, Malaysia, June 24, 2020.
[Syu Shakur/BenarNews]

Teenager Amir Shah is among tens of thousands of Malaysian students who dropped out of formal education last year by deciding not to sit for the all-important school exit exam.

Having taken on a job at a restaurant when schools were shut down during the COVID-19 pandemic, he found he could easily earn U.S. $400 a month instead of having to endure the “pure torture” of listening to teachers drone on for hours.

Outdated curricula and an exam-oriented and pressure-packed schooling system were already causing many youths to lose interest in their studies, but the pandemic accelerated their departure from the classroom, say educators, who warn that Malaysia could be sitting on a skills-gap tinder box if the trend continues.

Nearly 30,000 students of a total of 403,637 did not take the school-leaving Malaysian Certificate of Education (SPM) exam in 2022, Deputy Education Minister Lim Hui Ying told Parliament recently.

That means around 7.4% of students missed the exam. By comparison, only 2.7% of total eligible students sat out the exam in 2021, according to The Star, a local newspaper.

Amir, 18, works as a helper at a seafood restaurant in Perlis, a northern state in Malaysia, and earns around 1,800 ringgit (U.S. $386) a month, which is enough to live on comfortably, he said.

“I started to work part-time at a restaurant near my house to kill time when school was closed during the lockdown and earned between 30 and 200 ringgit a day depending on the number of patrons,” he told BenarNews.

“When school reopened, I often skipped classes so that I could work and earn income, since I don’t actually gain much at school,” he added.

Amir decided that earning was better than sitting and listening to teachers in class, which he described as “boring,” so he quit school just months before the SPM exam last year.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that others who decided to ditch the exam and drop out of school to work felt similarly.

Noraizah Baharin, 35, describes her niece who lives in Sarawak as a smart young woman. The niece declined to speak to BenarNews to protect her privacy but agreed to let her aunt speak on her behalf without naming her.

To Noraizah’s acute frustration, her niece, who was also supposed to sit for the SPM exam this year, decided to quit school “as it was more fun to work than reading books.”

“I tried to knock some sense into her thick skull. Told her she would lose if she quit school but she did not listen,” Noraizah told BenarNews.

“She feels happy with what she has now, which is money of her own to spend.”

Secondary school students wait to receive the COVID-19 vaccine at a school in Putrajaya, Malaysia, Sept. 20, 2021. [Lim Huey Teng/Reuters]

‘Curriculum is irrelevant’

Academics blame the Malaysian education system for students’ aversion to school.

The grades a student scores in the SPM exam solely determine which college or university they can attend, making the last two years of school a huge stressor, said Noorazeela Zainol Abidin, a senior lecturer at Universiti Malaysia Perlis (UniMAP).

Additionally, she believes teachers rush to complete courses, which are outdated to begin with.

“There are also students who perceive the SPM curriculum is irrelevant and does not meet their needs or interest. The curriculum … prevents them from honing their interest or talent, causing them to lose interest in pursuing studies,” she told BenarNews.

“If the pedagogy used is unattractive or unsuitable for the students’ learning style, they might have difficulties in understanding the lessons.”

BenarNews contacted the Education Ministry for comments from the minister about how  the government was planning to address the problems, but did not immediately hear back. When contacted by BenarNews, several state education directors declined to comment, saying that only the federal minister could address the issue.

A counselor at a secondary school, who declined to be named because she was not authorized to speak to reporters, said the pandemic catalyzed the departure of a chunk of students from the system.

“Losing interest in education has been happening but COVID made the situation worse. These youngsters are the nation’s future generation,” she told BenarNews.

“What will happen to Malaysia in years to come if half of them [students] abandon education and contend with low-income jobs? Who will fill the sectors that require skills and training? Will there be sufficient professional workers in the future? If left unaddressed, the country’s development would regress.”

Earlier this year, Economy Minister Mohd Rafizi Ramli told Parliament that Malaysia’s high youth unemployment rate of 10% is largely due to a skills mismatch, according to The Edge Malaysia, a local publication.

“We have a huge [skills] gap between the jobs in demand and the talent quality produced by our system,” Rafizi was quoted as saying.

The counselor said she had come across many students such as Amir and Noraizah’s niece during her career. 

The solution, she said, was for school authorities to take proactive measures in identifying students with poor attendance, investigating the reasons behind their absence and providing assistance where needed.

“We have children who are forced to miss school to take care of their ill parents, or those who are in dire financial situations. In these cases, we would rope in all relevant quarters or NGOs to provide necessary aid,” she said.

“For those who have no passion for in-class learning sessions, even if they would be sitting for the SPM in a few months, we could advise them to consider signing up for the TVET program that provides students with practical skills and knowledge for a specific trade or vocation.”

She was referring to the Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) program, which according to her could also use a curriculum upgrade.

“Instead of wasting their time and quitting school, at least they could put their skills to use, giving them a fighting chance in securing better jobs in the future,” she said.


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