On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Results and needs come first


STUDENTS applying for entrance into British and American universities are told precisely what to expect.

For the United Kingdom, an applicant needs a minimum of three A-levels to get into a Bri­tish university. To go to a top university, the three A-levels should be distinctions. The appli­cant is allowed to list down the top five preferences in terms of courses and institutions.

In the case of Oxford University, the selection process is very transparent. It lists down the number of places available, particularly for popular courses, and also the number of applicants to date.

Through Oxford’s website, applicants have an idea of the odds stacked against them should they choose a course where places are limited.. They are also told how to prepare themselves in the selection interviews for certain courses. Applicants who have undergone internship, or attachment in the case of law firms, also stand a better chance.

In the past, undergraduates would only carry out their internship during their second or third year, but UK universities now prefer that they undertake such training, even in hospitals, before they enrol – that’s how much the education system has changed.

The rules are simple – 3As and they can look forward to studying in the top British universities and anyone with lower grades have to look for places in lesser-known universities.

In the United States, applicants have to sit for the SAT or Scholastic Achievement Test to gain entry into college.

Some universities give extra points to applicants who have done community work in areas such as the environment and conservation, which have become key concerns, and even in the UK, such involvement helps.

It is clear that they expect the young to be involved in more than just academic pursuits.

The older ones among us would recall that previously, one could only score a maximum of 5As in the Lower Certificate of Education (LCE), the Form Three exam, and maybe 9As for the Malaysian Certificate of Education (MCE) in Form Five.

Not many young Malaysians are aware that previously, those who failed the LCE would have to drop out of school.

But as British Council education director Peter Clark correctly said in a report yesterday, foreign universities are looking beyond those with a string of As at the SPM level, as they prefer all-rounders who also excel in extra-curricular activities. He said British universities were “put off” by the number of As which Malaysian students boasted about.

Clark welcomed the Government’s move to limit the number of subjects that students could take for the SPM.

It must also be made clear that excellent grades at the SPM level only helps one to gain a place for the STPM, A-levels or other foundation or matriculation courses, which are the real entry level requirements into universities.

The hype given to these top SPM scorers has helped to emphasise the importance of education but, at the same time, it has led to unrealistic expectations among students and parents.

The media, in fact, should tone down on their coverage of results at this level. In many countries, including the UK and US, public school exams are certainly not national news.

Many Malaysian employers have found that a distinction in English at the SPM level is not reflective of one’s competence in English. It would probably be equivalent to a “C” previously. That’s how badly our standards have dropped.

Many British schools offering A-levels are used to hearing protests from Malay­sian parents and students when their applications are rejected. They find it hard to accept that they are considered to have a low command of English when the SPM grades show otherwise.

The suggestion by Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin to limit the number of papers a student can sit in the SPM is most welcomed. But that is a separate issue from scholarship awards for students. Limiting the number of subjects would not help resolve this yearly issue.

Something is horribly wrong when a simple scholarship application process becomes an emotive issue, and in some warped way, given a racial twist by some parties. It shouldn’t be if we are genuine about forging the 1Malaysia spirit.

Everyone who applies for a Public Services Department (PSD) scholarship, or any government scholarship, deserves to be treated as a Malay­sian. We can never excel if we are still stuck in the 1950s era.

PSD scholarships are popular among the young because it offers a substantial amount in financial aid.

The people, as taxpayers, also see that the Govern­ment is obligated to provide scholarships for those who have financial needs.

Each year, more than 12,000 applicants vie for 2,000 PSD scholarships for overseas education.

If the criteria for selection is perceived, even if wrongly, as unjust with allegations of racial profiling, it would not help in nation-building. It would only lead to frustration when the only scholarship they can get is the “Fa-Ma scholarship” (father and mother), as it is often called among many students.

As a student in Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia in the 1980s, I recalled the deep unhappiness among students who failed to secure financial support, especially after they found out how many others had at least five scholarships to pick from.

At the university’s multi-purpose hall, Pusanika, there would be a long line of students outside the bank’s campus branch each time the money was banked in. And because they were predominantly from one race, it led to unnecessary alienation.

It is highly commendable that Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak has spoken about such unfair scholarship awards openly. Not once but many times. He has met Cabinet members and talked about how to resolve this issue, once and for all.

Scholarships should be given based on two grounds – performance and need. We should not make this process unnecessarily complicated.