Overqualified For Their Jobs, or Underqualified as Graduates?

If the standards of our higher education institutions continue to decline over time, can we still justify calling them “higher” education institutions?

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Published by BusinessToday, AstroAwani & theSun, image by BusinessToday.

Khazanah Research Institute (KRI) published a research report in March, and its findings are worrying, but not too surprising. The report claimed 60% of graduates were in high-skilled employment in 2021. However, it also revealed that 48.6% of the graduates are overqualified for their jobs, and one-third of experienced graduates are working in positions that require different qualifications.

KRI’s report highlighted that we are lagging in terms of high-skilled job creation, which they deemed as a potential cause of overqualification and skill mismatch in employment. However, what KRI did not consider is the quality of graduates and higher education institutions (HEI) they graduate from.

This raises questions: Are the graduates truly overqualified for their jobs, or are they possibly underqualified as graduates? Moreover, do the institutions they graduated from provide education of a high enough standard to be recognised as HEIs?

According to the Ministry of Higher Education (MOHE), Malaysia has 20 public universities, 36 polytechnics, 105 community colleges, and 404 private higher education institutions (PHEIs), totalling 565 HEIs. MOHE’s data from 2022 shows that there were 1.2 million students enrolled at that time.

For reference, the United Kingdom in 2021 – 2022 provided education for over 2 million students, with almost half the number of HEIs that we have, at 288 HEIs.

The huge number of HEIs in Malaysia is not surprising, given decades of inadequate implementation of affirmative action policies in education.

Although well-intentioned, Malaysia’s affirmative action policy in education has fallen short of proper execution. For effective implementation, it should be based on criteria such as deserving socio-economic background and academic performance while remaining flexible enough not to disadvantage exceptionally bright students!

When implemented correctly, this policy would naturally benefit the intended group, the Bumiputera, who have a higher prevalence of poverty. However, empirical data starkly demonstrates that, thus far, due to poor execution, affirmative action has failed to bridge the intended gaps (refer to “Ruthless colonisation Mat Kilau could not even imagine”).

Instead, this poor implementation created a dire situation with ethnic minorities being desperate to find suitable higher education options for their children, and businesses have seized upon this opportunity. Coupled with a series of legislative changes and government policies, this has led to a proliferation of PHEI, resulting in the over-commercialisation of higher education.

When education is viewed as a business and profit maximisation is prioritised, entry standards may become lax, and the quality of education slips. With enough payment, entry standards become negligible, naturally leading to a massive spike in student intake.

These dynamics are evidenced by the massive gap between students enrolled in HEIs and PHEIs from 2015 to 2017. The 2015 MOHE report shows that there were 292,217 new intakes in PHEIs compared to 168,127 in public universities. Since 2015, the number of student enrolments in PHEIs has consistently significantly surpassed those in public universities, a trend that persists through 2020.

However, the standards of some PHEIs are questionable. Many institutions have been offering courses that do not meet the standards set by the Malaysia Qualification Agency (MQA). This means that the courses provided by these institutions are not accredited and will not be recognised by the government and other agencies.

While it is illegal for HEIs to provide such courses, incidents where students discover their degrees are worthless due to unaccredited courses still happen.

For instance, in 2016, the Limkokwing University of Creative Technology (LUCT) knowingly offered unaccredited courses, and students unknowingly enrolled in them. It wasn’t until their fourth year of study that they found this out. Even until their graduation in 2019, the LUCT had still not obtained accreditation for the course from MQA.

Unfortunately, that is not the sole incident.

In 2021, several foreign students discovered that the MQA had revoked accreditation for some courses offered by LUCT, leading to significant losses for students. Subsequently, a 2022 report revealed that a group of 15 ex-postgraduates was seeking RM7.5 million in damages from the said university. One of the former students alleged that those pursuing an MBA in Project Management were coerced to enrol in other unaccredited programs that cost more under the threat of visa renewal issues.

However, all the above does not necessarily imply that the quality of our public university is significantly superior to that of PHEIs.

Setting aside years of citation padding, gifted and forced authorship, and predatory journal publications used to inflate rankings by various agencies, it is visible that the quality of public education has been declining.

According to a 2021 report, Dr Arshad Ayub, a renowned academician and the founding father of Universiti Teknologi MARA (UiTM), highlighted that over 2,500 professors in the country do not meet the required standards. Alarmingly, this comes as a shared concern about the standards of our higher education by various other academicians (See Dr Ranjit Singh Malhi, 2022; Dr Sharifah Munirah Alatas, 2022; Dr Teh Yik Koon, 2021).

If the standards of our higher education institutions continue to decline over time, can we still justify calling them “higher” education institutions?

While it certainly affects the quality of our graduates, the quality of education provided by HEIs is not the only concern. The quality of new intake is also a significant factor to consider.

During a recent parliamentary meeting, the Minister of Education, Fadhlina Sidek, stated that over 400,000 students in primary and secondary schools have experienced learning problems. Additionally, she said that 154,853 secondary school students have yet to master fundamental skills in reading, writing, and counting skills.

Furthermore, earlier report has shown that Malaysia’s performance in Pisa 2022, which evaluates our 15-year-olds students’ reading literacy, mathematics, and scientific literacy, has dropped.

One can’t help but ponder how many of these students will ultimately enrol in HEIs, potentially displacing those who are genuinely capable but face barriers such as financial constraints or lack of recognition for their qualifications based on merit.

On top of that, the matriculation programme has also been under fire for a long time.

Ex-prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad admitted that the matriculation programme was a “backdoor” method to help low-performing Malays enter local public universities. At the same time, Dr Ranjit Singh Malhi said the quality of education declined over the years because students were taking the easy way into HEIs.

Two key issues emerge here: Our primary and secondary education systems have not adequately equipped students for tertiary education, and at the same time, the entry standards for tertiary education, both in public and private institutions, have declined over the years due to the dynamics explained above. The deadly combination of these factors led to ballooning unemployment and underemployment, hence the “overqualification” claimed.

According to the report, our fresh graduates only scored 6 out of 10 in terms of career readiness, and many of them did not meet employers’ expectations due to skills gap, English proficiency issues, and difficulties applying their knowledge in the workplace (refer to “Fresh grads lack passion to progress in career, forum told”, Free Malaysia Today, 2022).

It is true that some employers have unrealistic expectations of fresh graduates, and it is also true that there are outstanding graduates who exceed these standards and are capable of great achievements. However, due to various reasons, many talented Malaysians have chosen to seek better opportunities abroad (refer to “Malaysian brain drain – don’t go chasing waterfalls” report by EMIR Research, 2022).

In an attempt to close the gap between the supply of graduates and the demand of jobs, some HEIs have decided to discontinue some courses that do not match the current job market dynamics.

However, does this gap stem solely from differences in courses and job markets, or is it primarily attributable to the massive brain drain issue we are facing?

Over the years, our Critical Occupation List (COL) has consistently featured jobs related to engineering and information communications technology (ICT), indicating that these positions remain challenging to fill.

Yet, according to MOHE, our HEIs have consistently produced over 30,000 graduates from the fields of science, mathematics, and computer science, and over 60,000 graduates from engineering, manufacturing, and construction fields, with the only exception being 2020 due to Covid-19.

While the “graduates” here encompass both PhD and Master’s students and make no distinction between those intending to pursue further studies and those seeking immediate employment, it draws parallels with our medical field, where we have too many medical students, yet Malaysia still faces a shortage of medical practitioners (refer to “Malaysia’s Healthcare Dilemma: Tackling the Issue of Brain Drain”, EMIR Research, 2024).

It is imperative to start focusing on the problem and make credible changes.

We need to shift our focus from quantity to quality right from the start. This does not mean advocating for the crackdown on PHEIs, but rather implementing a moratorium on new institutions, similar to what was done back in 2013.

At the same time, MQA should consider shortening the time frame between audits from once every five years to at least once every three years. This is necessary to ensure that PHEIs maintain the standard of providing high-quality education to students and to safeguard their interests. The current five-year time frame is no longer suitable, given the super-high-velocity changes in the global techno-social landscape.

For the same reason, it is strongly recommended that MQA also periodically review the accreditation criteria to keep up with current developments and technological advancements, while continuing to improve the quality of education.

Of course, the education system, encompassing primary, secondary, and tertiary levels, should be completely reformed to better align with global education best practices/trends (refer to “Urgent Need to Reform Malaysian Education System”). Such reform aims to cultivate better graduates who are equipped to partake in high-skilled jobs.

Education is the cornerstone of our society. With better quality education, the competitiveness of our graduates will improve, subsequently attracting direly needed high-value foreign investment to come in and create even more opportunities for the said graduates in endless virtuous cycles.

Chia Chu Hang is a Research Assistant at EMIR Research, an independent think tank focused on strategic policy recommendations based on rigorous research.

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