To arrest the decline in the number of students pursuing tertiary education after the Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM), the Education Ministry said it was carrying out personal development and career education plans in schools to increase students’ awareness of the importance of education while also equipping them with knowledge, skills and interest for future careers.
But do our young students need more awareness programmes, or is there something else amiss?
The lack of interest in pursuing higher education has been attributed to a number of causes, including the lack of educational attainment during the Covid-19 period, the escalating cost of university, and the endemic graduate unemployability.
Another challenge we are facing is the dwindling number of secondary school students choosing to study science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects.
This is of national concern as our country needs leading scientists. Interventions that focus on more awareness programmes and more educational content are just not working.
We live today in a world of abundance in multiple domains, especially in those of information and knowledge. High-quality content to learn almost anything is available for free and on demand.
The real obstacle to learning is not the availability of books, programmes or learning content, but the motivation to learn.
We need to look at how we can raise the aspiration of students leaving school, so that they choose to further their studies, and especially in STEM.
To build an education system whereby students are motivated and ambitious to learn, I suggest we consider these strategies:
- Enhance students’ agency Young children around the world dream of making the world a better place. They aspire to be teachers, doctors, police officers and more. We need to keep their dreams alive as they navigate the school system and help them to evolve and mature by continuously asking them, “What impact do you want to have on the world?”
By encouraging them to see learning as a pathway to making an impact on the world, students will understand why they must learn, particularly subjects that are perceived to be difficult.
- Develop a sense of purpose - Every human being is a unique individual, both genetically and experientially, and education will do our youth a great service if it helps them realise that they, individually and collectively, have a role to play in the human story and that their individual presence matters.
- Make learning funThis is rooted in personalising learning and in bringing learning to real life. The first step is discovering the learning style of each and every student (there are simple and free tools to do that), while real-life learning can be done through pedagogies such as project-based learning.
- Motivate teachers to do all of the aboveTeachers themselves need to be motivated to enable the above strategies to work. Besides being adequately paid, trusted as professionals, and empowered to bring along some change in their classrooms, teachers, just like students, will need to develop a deep sense of purpose and feel that they have an impact on the world.
While a wholesale curriculum change or even heavy investment in technology might be good to have, without addressing the lack of student motivation and ambition, no intervention, no matter how expensive, will work.
Raising ambition is the ultimate objective of education and addressing the motivational gap is the key to delivering that. When we become better at creating and sustaining that, we will be better at addressing any other challenge. I hope that we are motivated to do so.
Professor Mushtak Al-Atabi
Provost and Chief Executive Officer
Heriot-Watt University Malaysia;
Vice Chancellors’ Council for Private Universities