The perennial paradox in the issue of supply of teachers in Malaysia

A teaching crisis resulting from a supply shortage would potentially impact and disrupt the nation-building process.

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Published in The Malaysian Insight, Astro Awani and The Malaysian Reserve, image by The Malaysian Reserve.

A paradox by definition is a statement or situation that is seemingly self-contradictory or opposed to common sense and experience and yet has the possibility of being true (in reality). This is where two propositions as ostensibly reflecting two inter-related and inter-connected situations actually contradict each other – so much so that both are held up to the point of being contrary to one’s expectation, assumption and presupposition.  

Hence, the paradox which cannot be resolved or dissolved into a coherent, unified “synthesis” where the fusion or amalgamation carries within itself consistency and the quality of non-contradiction as embodied by Aristotelian logic.

Then again, experience runs deeper than logic, as the saying goes. 

Less is more and highly skilled but low paid jobs are some examples of real-world paradoxes. The latter of which rings true for teachers in Malaysia. 

Teachers should indeed be regarded as highly skilled since they possess specialised knowledge in their respective areas, especially in relation to the fields and disciplines of the natural sciences (biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics, etc.) – all of which entail higher order thinking/thought processes and sophisticated coordination or synchronisation between intellection/abstraction/conceptualisation and sensory motor action as the physical and tangible medium of expression and transmission of knowledge which definitively encompasses the “whiteboard”, science and non-science laboratories, multimedia, among others.

The capacity and ability to impart and transmit knowledge also requires techniques and methods – considered as skills and aptitude in their own right. 

This is why teachers are the critical mass in our quest to be a highly-developed nation and leading knowledge economy – riding on the back of digitalisation. They are the frontliners in the education system – training and development – of our human resources in the formative years that will be the foundations for a highly-skilled workforce in the future. 

A teaching crisis resulting from a supply shortage would potentially impact and disrupt the nation-building process in this regard. 

In June 2021, Education Minister Datuk Radzi Jidin announced that the Ministry of Education (MOE) will be hiring 18,702 grade DG41 teachers through a special “one-off recruitment drive”. Fast forward to a year later, the programme managed to hire approximately 14000 new teachers to fill in the gaps arising from the nationwide shortage. 

Notwithstanding, the programme would still amount to a stopgap measure as it does not address the actual crux of the problem – why is there a shortage of teachers in the first place?

Teaching is often held up as being one of the “noble” professions in life. 

Educating and shaping young minds to become well-functioning members of society is no small feat. However, it is no secret that government teachers are not paid as well as they should. 

The basic starting salary for government teachers ranked DG41 is around RM2200 with an RM225 increment increase per year. The base salary for starting teachers is RM700 more than the new minimum wage rate. 

The entry level or starting salary for a DG44 teacher (i.e., the next rank after DG41) is around RM3600.

While teachers also receive allowances based on certain criteria such as locality, the amount received when compared to the actual job scope of teachers is heavily imbalanced and disproportionate. A meagre increase when considering the workload teachers have to bear. 

For a DG41 teacher to rise to the next rank of DG44, they need to have been working for at least 8 years to be considered. 

Within these 8 years (as DG41 teacher), the basic salary would only cumulatively increase by RM1800 over the period (i.e., RM225 x 8 years). 

The problem arises when teachers are expected to take on a slew of add-on responsibilities (i.e., in addition to teaching and related activities such as preparation for exams and marking, etc.) with only that basic salary as the compensation.

Teachers are not eligible for overtime payments as stipulated in their contracts. With government teachers often times having to do administrative work as well as added school duties such as doing extra-curricular activities and planning for school events in tandem with their teaching duties, they could end up working up to 11 hours per day. 

The working hours would be more when considering some boarding school teachers also act as wardens for the school. 

A common situation for teachers is also having to prepare teaching materials out of their own pockets. Some schools especially in rural areas do not have photocopy machines, thus teachers have to cover the costs of printed materials on their own. A month’s worth of teaching materials could cost teachers up to RM200 – further reducing their disposable income. 

Some argue that such sacrifices are a given and expected of those who aspire to become teachers. However, teachers need to be fairly compensated too – as they too have bills to pay and other cost of living expenses to bear.

As such, it is not surprising at all that one of the reasons contributing to the nationwide teacher shortage is the lack of fresh graduates applying for teaching positions with the government. 

The lack of attractive remuneration is a deterrent. 

As confirmed by Teach for Malaysia co-founder Dzameer Dzulkifli, a reason for this lie in the grossly underpaid nature of the teaching profession. 

It is possible, however, that there are other barriers other than the unattractive salary prospects of the profession that disincentivises the taking up of the teaching profession.

The standard route to becoming a teacher takes around 4-5 years depending on the programmes. 

The usual pathway is to enroll in one of the institutes of teacher education (IPG) found in several states in Malaysia. Alternatives such as the Teaching English as a Second Language (TESL) courses are also offered in several public universities. 

In addition, there are also the education degrees offered at universities such as Bachelor of Education. 

As a requirement for graduation and accreditation, there is a need for some form of practical training. The teaching practicum requires trainee teachers to be attached to a government school and assume the role of a teacher for 3 months. The practice is similar to internships.

The teaching practicum is unpaid. The trainee teachers are given responsibilities as full-fledged teachers without salaries. 

Like normal teachers, the trainee teachers would be required to cover transportation, teaching materials and other costs at their own expense.

Their placements are also determined by the IPG or university. Meaning that for students attached to schools in Kuala Lumpur and Selangor, they would have higher living costs as compared to the other states. 

Most students rely on pocket money from their parents, bursaries or even loans such as the National Higher Education Fund (PTPTN) to finance their practicums. This situation would prove burdensome for students who come from B40 households. The financial barrier would see youths from the B40 communities deterred from enrolling in teaching courses due to this situation. 

Furthermore, the shortage of teachers is also attributed to the fact that many quit before the end of their career, i.e., opting for early retirement. 

According to the National Union of the Teaching Profession (NUTP) Secretary General Wang Heng Suan, it is estimated that more than 10,000 teachers have been submitting their papers annually for early retirement over the last few years. At the same time, an equal number of teachers leave the service on mandatory retirement.

And although the government has said that they will absorb contract or interim English teachers on the basis that the required proficiency level under the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) C1 is fulfilled to ensure that our students achieve “independent proficiency” in the language (as a critical foundation), these non-financial incentivisation measures are still inadequate.  

Hence, to mitigate the problems mentioned, EMIR Research proposes several policy recommendations for the government to consider:

  1. Provide for salary increments based on regional cost of living differentiation. EMIR Research previously published an article titled “More than the bare minimum: adopting the living wage in Malaysia” whereby we highlighted the importance of reconceptualising the minimum wage as starting point instead of a benchmark. 

The concept would similarly also apply in the case of a teacher’s salary wherein the base increment of RM225 should be adjusted according to the locality of the schools. After all, cost of living allowance (COLA) is already provided according to the location.

  1. The Ministry of Education (MOE) should allocate funds to every school in the country for teachers to claim back their expenses for teaching materials and other ad hoc (i.e., for any situation that arises from the teacher performing his or her duties) expenses. At least, the fund can be used by the school to partially reimburse (up to 50%, at least) the teachers so as to help mitigate the burden on their disposable income. 
  1. Extending the scope of the compulsory minimum allowance of RM900 for internships for government ministries and agencies to cover teaching practicum – but where it is further topped up with RM200, for example.
  1. Introduction of incentive packages to retain and attract teachers in difficult-to-staff positions especially in rural areas. A retention “bonus” of RM2000 can be offered to teachers in rural areas in Sabah and Sarawak where there is less supply for teachers. 

They would be eligible for the “bonus” up to five years. 

To reiterate, the future of a country heavily relies on the ability of the country to educate its citizens. 

The responsibility of the said monumental – but often under-recognised – task falls onto the shoulders of teachers and educators. 

In short, higher salaries and financial incentives go beyond attracting, retaining and inducing good performance. 

It is because teachers deserve to be recognised as such – with a financial package that aptly commensurate with their responsibilities and sacrifices.

Jason Loh Seong Wei and Rosihan Addin are part of the research team of EMIR Research, an independent think tank focused on strategic policy recommendations based on rigorous research.

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