Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Mission Schools and Deregulating Malaysian Education

Written by johnleemk on 2:33:39 pm Apr 30, 2007.

A recent proposal which has captured the attention of many people concerned about arresting the ever-declining standard of Malaysian public education is to restart the mission school system.

There are naturally many benefits to this plan. Mission schools are what trained and prepared many of our middle-aged middle class for life. They provided a culturally integrated setting, and their academic standards were second to none.

The effort to "nationalise" mission schools led to their demise, and most of them are now pale shadows of their former selves. It is a timely and sound idea to resurrect the mission school system, so as to provide alternatives to our horrible (and sometimes segregated) public schools.

But how far would these schools go when it comes to innovating and constantly improving the quality of the education they provide? It is telling that in a sense, our education system is forced to move backwards to progress.

Harking back to an old system which may not be entirely suited for modern society is not necessarily a good idea. Without incentives to innovate and improve education, our schools will remain stuck in a rut. Their precise ruts may be different — national schools will be stuck in one situation, mission schools in another — but stuck they will be.

It is not too surprising that we are not going anywhere educationwise, since most school systems around the world are also still teaching students the same way their parents or grandparents were taught.

In any field, there are always advances made. Few areas ever lie stagnant. Even if we've explored the whole world (which we haven't, considering our unexplored oceans and seas), there's always the question of exploring it better and faster — today amateur mountaineers can potentially climb Mount Everest faster than professionals did half a century ago.

For this reason, it is impossible to accept that our schools must always be the same, always unchanging. We are still stuck in the same educational paradigms of two centuries ago, and this is true anywhere in the world.

This is mainly because most education systems are regulated by central authorities, which make experimenting with new ideas difficult, and curtail the successful spreading of good ideas.

Malaysia can truly move ahead of the rest of the world if only we abandon this regimentation and centralisation, and allow the market to take over in our education system. Deregulate our schools, and the market system will provide education for every imaginable niche, every imaginable type of student.

Under a market system, certain types of schools would of course still dominate. But if the education in these schools deteriorates, or other schools overtake them, then the market will automatically adjust and parents will send their children to the better schools.

At the same time, because the market is not a one-size-fits-all bureaucracy, schools for students with special needs would flourish. There might be schools catering to autistic children, schools catering to dyslexics, and so forth — all very difficult to establish under the heavily regulated Malaysian education system today.

Of course, by now you're probably wondering how this market system will fare when most parents can't afford private schools. Well, the first thing is that a private education probably won't be so expensive after deregulation.

At the moment, there are artificial barriers to entry constraining the entry of new schools into the education market. As a result, the huge demand is unfulfilled, and prices are sky high. Firms also cannot benefit from the economies of scale which would result if they could serve more students.

So if we deregulate the market, the increased supply will ease pressure on prices. At the same time, the resulting economies of scale would lower the costs of operating schools for larger firms, and these firms would also lower their prices to compete.

There is also another card to play: government funding. Deregulation does not mean the government stops funding education. It just stops controlling it; it puts the control in the hands of parents and educators.

I think an ideal scheme for implementing this funding would be school vouchers. Basically the government gives a voucher to each parent; the value can depend on, say, which tax bracket they are in. (So rich people still have to pay full price for private education.)

The result? Parents can choose the ideal school for their children, and educators can easily try new ideas and reforms. At the moment, if I want to make a difference in Malaysian education, I have to convince bureaucrats in the Education Ministry to take my ideas seriously. If our education market were deregulated, I would just have to convince a few venture capitalists to take my ideas seriously, start a school, and try them out.

The school voucher system would ensure that no child has to suffer without an education, and is also better than artificially keeping the price of education low through things like price controls. Implemented properly, a deregulation of our education system would result in a true flourishing of intellectual thought and education in our country — and would move us very far ahead of the rest of the world, which continues to stay stuck in their own educational ruts.

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Infernal Ramblings is a Malaysian website focusing on current events and sociopolitical issues. Its articles run the gamut from economics to society to education.

Infernal Ramblings is run by John Lee. For more, see the About section. If you have any questions or comments, do drop him a line.

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