ANALYSIS: For undergrads, it's all about 'cari makan'
By : Chok Suat Ling
The higher education minister is concerned about the dwindling number of students taking up humanities courses. This has opened up, once again, the longstanding science versus humanities debate, writes CHOK SUAT LING.
The offer letter from a prestigious public university was quickly given a once over. Lim was pleased with the course offered -- her first choice -- but her parents were deeply concerned.
Lim recalls her father's immediate reaction. "He asked me what kind of job could I possibly expect to get with this degree?"
She eventually decided to take up the offer to pursue a Bachelor of Arts in history.
"It is not exactly what I want to do, but with my Sijil Tinggi Persekolahan Malaysia results, which are only average at best, it would not be wise for me to aim for the more competitive courses. What if I didn't get a place at all?"
Her story is apparently one shared by many other undergraduates who opt for humanities courses.
They settle for fields of study perceived to be less in demand, or less demanding. Many humanities students appear to be where they are not because they want to be, but because they had no choice.
What students want, or indeed clamour for, are those programmes bluntly referred to as the cari makan courses, that will enable them to easily secure jobs, preferably well-paying ones, when they graduate. These are the science-related courses and, to a certain extent, business management programmes.
The dwindling number of students taking up humanities courses was serious enough for Higher Education Minister Datuk Seri Mohamed Khaled Nordin to voice his concern last week. He said if the trend continued, the humanities -- which encompass courses such as literature, philosophy, music, art and history -- might become irrelevant in future. This would have negative consequences, he cautioned.
There are not many employers who prefer employing humanities graduates in Malaysia.
Universiti Pendidikan Sultan Idris (UPSI) vice-chancellor Prof Datuk Dr Aminah Ayob agrees that humanities courses are becoming less popular among students.
When she was based at Universiti Sains Malaysia, Aminah recalls how they could not fill the 200 places offered for social science.
"There were hardly any takers. However, for the science-based programmes, we had to allocate more places."
She observes that students flock to courses they are confident will secure them jobs upon graduation.
Of course. If they have no jobs, are they all going to become lecturers ?
"The job market determines the type of courses they choose. That is why many steer clear of history, philosophy and other similar courses. Students who do go for these courses are usually those who are content to just grab anything in order to secure a place in university."
She points out, however, that teaching remained a popular arts-related course, going by the numbers enrolled at UPSI.
The nation's aggressive emphasis on science is another factor that has caused arts and the social sciences to be pushed to the side.
One example is the fact that more scholarships are allocated to those pursuing science-related courses at graduate and postgraduate levels.
"I have always believed that when we do something, we tend to emphasise one thing and ignore the others," notes former Universiti Malaya (UM) vice-chancellor Datuk Rafiah Salim:
"It is a pity really. History, for instance, is important as we stand to learn a lot from our past.
"But now, UM is the only public university left offering a BA in history. The swing towards the sciences, therefore, is hardly surprising. It is the whole approach taken by the education authorities."
A general lack of awareness of the job opportunities available upon graduation is another factor why students shy away from humanities courses.
According to Monash University senior manager (relationship management) Gavin Gomez, there is a different level of maturity in Malaysia as regards arts-related courses, compared with other countries:
"In Australia, there is awareness that if you take history, it does not mean you must end up a historian. You can become a researcher, for instance, or something else. But here, students are unaware of the other options."
In Australia and in other western countries, the work culture is different. Australian companies are willing to employ all types of graduates and retrain them to suit the work. In Malaysia, companies do not really want to send time retraining graduates. Further, when there are so many graduates with "preferred degrees" chasing so few jobs, which employers would want to employ humanities graduates ?
There is also a perception in Malaysia that humanities graduates are less intelligent than science or business / management graduates.
The declining popularity of humanities is glaringly obvious going by the type of courses offered by private institutions of higher learning.
Not one offers humanities-related disciplines such as history, geography, literature or philosophy, notes Chu Chin Koo, a lecturer at the Asian Institute of Medicine, Science and Technology University.
The reason is simple. As private educational institutions are market driven, it would not make economic sense to offer courses which are not in demand. "They would be committing business suicide if they did," says Chu.
He believes the aggressive focus on science was likely to have an adverse impact.
"We would have a generation of highly-educated people but they might be totally clueless about things outside their areas of specialisation. I have encountered PhD holders in science-related fields who cannot form grammatically sound sentences in English."
This scenario is even more glaringly apparent here, he adds, as Malaysians generally do not read for pleasure.
In the West, the reading habit is still very much alive. Science graduates can thus contribute meaningfully in conversations about subjects outside their scope of expertise. In Malaysia, it is all about getting that gilt-edged scroll and securing a job thereafter."
Many believe the trend is irreversible.
The focus on science will not wane, but become even more unrelenting. "We can't run away from this. It is the way forward and we will just have to adjust and adapt," says UPSI's Aminah.
But the outlook is not entirely sombre. She believes that humanities will not become irrelevant, only less favoured.
"And if job prospects are indeed the prevailing concern, students should be reminded that it does not matter whether they take science or arts.
"In the end, it is whether they have the requisite soft skills. It is those with excellent communication, leadership and critical thinking skills who are most likely to land the jobs."
Whilst those with soft skills are more marketable then those without, depending on the career, someone with a "preferred degree" will always get priority over others.
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