Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Consequences of Schooling Autonomy

Written by johnleemk on 1:22:44 pm Aug 8, 2007.

At the recent inaugural Malaysian Student Leaders Summit (yes, I know I've been plugging this again and again, but quite a good lot of stuff was said), I participated in a group discussion of education in our country. The discussion apparently continued after the summit, at a friend's blog.

My friend was constantly harping on the subject of funding whenever we discussed education. As she pointed out, there are a lot of areas where our schools simply don't seem to have money — our libraries are a good example. The last school I was in which had a decent library was a private school I attended for slightly over a year.

But, I argued, the problem is not inadequate funding. As was pointed out by one luminary at the summit, we spend 8.4% of our GDP on education — a staggering sum. Think of all the money Malaysians spent last year — RM8.40 out of every RM100 was spent on education. (Yes, economists, I know this is far from an accurate representation of what the GDP stands for, but it's roughly accurate enough for our purposes here.)

The problem is what we spend our money on. We spend our money on building libraries, but not books to shelve in them. We build computer laboratories, but we don't hire enough teachers to train students to use them.

And, as was pointed out on her blog, a lot of money spent on education is diverted into the pockets of cronies. Our education system is structured to reward people for spending more, not less — and spending inefficiently, at that.

Take, for instance, the civil servants. (Yes, I know, many of them are fine people — but at the same time, many of them sadly are corrupt.) What personal benefit do they get for doing a good job? Their boss will see them as a possible threat to his position and have them transferred to some hulu area.

Meanwhile, what benefit do they get from contracting large jobs for meaningless stuff, such as printing brochures nobody will read, to a friend? They look like they are doing their job, and they also get a kickback from the friend who gets the overpriced contract. And the more they spend, the more their friend is happy and the larger their kickback is.

The situation is similar with educators themselves. I have a friend whose father is a headmaster. Every time something breaks at his school, he has to order a new replacement (probably from some crony of the civil servant who decides which contractor all such equipment must be sourced from) rather than repair it, even though it is still usable. If he breaks this rule, he is of course, a goner. Is it any wonder why we waste so much money on frivolities, while the true needs of students and educators go unmet?

This is why I am a strong advocate of choice and autonomy in our education system, which at the moment runs like some insane Marxist-Leninist-Maoist nightmare. Ours is a system where the government, rather than the students and educators, decides everything.

Most decisions of consequence are made by the federal government. The states have some autonomy; the districts have less autonomy; the individual schools have virtually no autonomy, having to follow almost every order of the federal, state and district governments.

How much sense does this make? It seems to me that every student, every teacher, and thus every school, would have different needs and priorities. We may all have the same end in mind — education — but how we attain that end must differ for each and every one of us. What worked for me need not work for you, and vice-versa.

It thus seems to me that individual students and teachers must have the most freedom in deciding how they will learn and teach. The schools will also have a large role to play. Districts will have a lesser role, because they must formulate policies which will work for most schools in their district. Likewise for the states, and thus for the federal government, which should focus only on some means of national-level assessment so it is possible to know where every Malaysian student stands.

Let us return to the issue of funding in education. What would happen if the government allocated money to schools, but let schools make their own decisions? What would happen if schools could cut or hike up teachers' wages in proportion to their success (which only schools are best-placed to evaluate), and decide what and where to spend their money on?

We would see schools focus on cost-cutting and making sure their money goes farther. There would be a clear incentive to do this if, for instance, funding was tied to the number of students for each school. Schools would not waste money on frivolous projects unless somebody was telling them to do so.

At the moment, the hands of schools and communities are completely tied. When the government announced all public servants would have holidays on every weekend, my scout troop was unable to meet on weekends because no teacher could be present to supervise. My father offered to pay the teacher's salary for the weekend, but was turned down because the headmistress had no authority to authorise such a request.

At the moment, schools are completely divorced from their communities because they are alien environments, subject to the rules and orders of the civil service, rather than the communities they serve. Teachers and students are cogs in the government machinery, rather than the foci of the education system.

As long as this overcentralised bureaucracy persists, how can we hope to have anything resembling efficiency? When the government stifles the ability of individuals and communities to pursue what is best for them, how can we expect to see significant good come out of this system?

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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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