SPM absenteeism: The end result of mismatch between education sector and job market

The trend of skipping tertiary education in favour of earlier employment for financial gain or a higher starting salary, has become skipping SPM or potentially the upper secondary...

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Published in AstroAwani, image by AstroAwani.

On May 27, 2024, the Ministry of Education (MOE) released the results of the Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM) for the 2023 batch. Notably, 11,713 students, or 3.1% of the total student population, scored straight As.

The results are positive. While some subjects have declined in performance, more have made improvements. As a result, the National Average Grade (GPN) has decreased to 4.6, compared to last year’s 4.74 (where lower values are better) (New Straits Times, 2024).

However, there is a concerning statistic: approximately 2.65% of new candidates who registered for SPM did not sit for the exam, totalling 10,160 students, as reported by the MOE (2024).

It is alarming that over ten thousand students did not take the examination, but the absence rate for the SPM 2023 session is nothing out of the ordinary except for the sudden uptick observed in batch 2022 (Figure 1).

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Accounting for only the new candidates who have registered for six or more subjects, the absence rates were 2.3% in 2021, 3.82% in 2022 and 2.65% in 2023 (MOE; New Straits Times, 2022). Earlier data did not differentiate between new candidates, repeating candidates, and candidates who registered for fewer than six subjects, resulting in much higher reported absence rates.

Regardless, SPM absenteeism is an issue that requires comprehensive solutions to prevent any potential increase in the absence rate in the future.

Despite the MOE’s commitment to addressing SPM absenteeism, progress appears limited. Furthermore, the absence of sociodemographic background of the absentees on MOE official website and the scarcity of research into the causes of exam non-attendance complicates pinpointing the root of the issue.

Nevertheless, experts and NGOs alike have attempted to address certain aspects of SPM absenteeism. Some based their insights on personal experiences as educators, while others draw from general observations. Some of these experts attribute the issue to social media influencers. Additionally, financial hardships faced by students have been identified as another contributing factor (New Straits Times, 2023; Sinar Daily, 2024; Sinar Daily, 2024a; The Malaysian Insight, 2023).

Based on experts’ opinion, the students who skipped the SPM can be generally categorised into two groups: A) voluntary absenteeism and B) involuntary absenteeism.

The students who voluntarily abstain from the SPM examination consist of those who are influenced by social media influencers who promote the notion that success can be achieved without the SPM certificate, as suggested by experts. Additionally, some students view influencers as a shortcut to attaining wealth without the need for education.

It is difficult to qualify or quantify the extend of influence students receive from internet personalities.

Studies have shown that during the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a significant increase in screen time among adolescents (Choi et al., 2023; Madigan et al., 2022; Neiva et al., 2023). Some might assume that an increase in screen time equates to increase in social media usage, leading to increased exposure to these influencers.

However, studies have shown mixed results regarding the relationship between screen time and social media usage in the pre- and post-pandemic eras.

Pashke et al. (2021), despite finding a significant increase in social media usage during the lockdown, argued that the predictive value of social media usage patterns and screen time has decreased compared to the pre-pandemic era.

Meanwhile, Yu and Zhou (2024) state that more students claimed to use social media to forget about personal issues, they did not find a significant difference in social media addiction between pre- and post-pandemic periods. Similarly, Akdağ et al. (2023) found no significant difference in smartphone, gaming, and social media addiction scores between pre- and post-pandemic eras.

One possible explanation to the mixed results found in different studies is that some samples might have had high social media usage or addiction scores even before the pandemic. Furthermore, the social media boom happened long before 2020, and the pandemic merely exacerbated people’s existing dependency to some extent.

Additionally, the increase in screen time could be due to the switch from classroom settings to remote learning.

Social media influencers might not be the only factor that caused voluntary absenteeism in SPM examination. The rise of gig economy could have contributed to it as well, where the low entry barriers to the job, yet relatively high pay, have attracted more school leavers to join it instead of pursuing further studies (The Star, 2023).

Othman et al. (2023) found that Malaysian youth now prioritises employment over education, primarily due to the salaries disproportionate return on educational investment. Other contributing factors mentioned include financial constraints, disinterest in academia, and the prerequisite of work experience by employers.

This is especially attractive in time of crisis, where these are virtually the only jobs with relatively higher pay available to continue working outside during lockdown and with no education requirement.

Industry experts have long believed that students would choose between further education or employment after completing their SPM. Yet, the advent of social media as an information gateway and the economic strains induced by the pandemic might have pushed this decision-making point to an earlier stage.

What it means is the trend of skipping tertiary education in favour of earlier employment for financial gain or a higher starting salary, has become skipping SPM or potentially the upper secondary education as a whole.

The data from the MOE have seemingly supported this hypothesis, as the total number of registered candidates and new candidates for the SPM examination has been on a downward trend for some time (Figure 2).

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Students facing involuntary absenteeism, often due to necessity to skip school or examinations to support their financially-strapped families, can benefit from properly designed and implemented targeted welfare programmes. These programs can ease the economic burden on their families, ensuring they continue their upper secondary education and earn their SPM certificate.

However, tackling voluntarily absenteeism is complex. As multi-faceted as it may seem, the factors identified by Othman et al. (2023) and the influencers’ arguments are merely symptoms of a deeper problem—a significant misalignment between the education sector and job market, with neither’s needs fully satisfied.

In terms of job market, it could be the lack of opportunities such as high-skill vacancies or high-paying jobs. For education, it could be the lower quality of graduates produced over the year due to our education system being unable to keep up with global best practices (Refer to “Overqualified For Their Jobs, or Underqualified as Graduates?”).

The conflict between the two has led to underemployment, underpay, or unemployment, which has caused the youth to lose confidence in our education system and subsequently abandon it, as tertiary education and SPM certificate have had a diminishing impact on job prospects and salaries over the years.

While a temporary measure to counteract the influence of influencers might serve as a short-term solution, it is just a mirage before skill-related underemployment rises, which would only reinforce the erroneous narrative that the SPM certificate is useless.

The government must commit to a solid strategy that could reduce SPM absenteeism over the longer term and dismantle the arguments against pursuing further education for better opportunities ahead.

This would require the simultaneous improvement of education system and job creation, as they are interconnected and are dependent on each other.

Only by creating more high-skilled occupations that prove the benefits of holding an SPM or higher education certificate can the youth be persuaded that this is the safest path leading to stability and success in the future.

At the same time, our education system must undergo a major reform that takes into account global trends (refer to “Urgent Need to Reform Malaysian Education System”). Doing so could not only ensure our students are more competitive globally but also foster a norm of critical thinking, which could serve as a deterrent to the misinformation on social media platforms.

The many factors contributing to SPM absenteeism reflect a critical issue needing multi-sectoral solutions. With our nation’s ambitions in semi-conductors, Artificial Intelligence and hopefully Quantum Technology in the future, swift governmental action is essential to rebuild the youth’s confidence in education and future job prospects.

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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