Saturday, June 15, 2013

The rotten education system

After three consecutive days of interview, looking at some of the supposedly best fresh grads out there, I am left disappointed. And exasperated. While many were second uppers, they can't describe to me even the most fundamental of chemical engineering principles.

One did heat exchanger design in a school project and yet can't even tell me what's LMTD, (which is supposed to mean Log Mean Temperature Difference), while another did phenol production project and yet cannot tell me anything about phenols. Always their excuse, "I did my project in 3rd year, or I left school six months ago, I have forgotten " etc, and you are talking about 10A's students (SPM) from residential schools and grads from major universities.

Local and abroad.

The common denominator is that all of the grads are Malaysians. Malay, if I may tell you the whole truth. (I could not get other races from major universities to apply.) Many can't even do simple integration and differentiation (from SPM level), or explain dew point, or refrigeration system. (They were given math and chem engineering test after the interview.)

Universities are guilty of dropping the standards. A highly respected simulation engineer friend of mine said last night, "We started with 30 kids in 1st year. Eight graduated!" 

Obviously he graduated in the late 80s.
I have a similar experience. Half of my classmates were gone by the time we graduated four years after. I graduated in 1985.

He said, "Universities are guilty of dropping the standards. Instead of failing them, they simply pass them. For public unis, they are given orders to make sure these kids pass. For private unis, every kid is worth a lot of money, so failure would not be an option either."

I concur. Even if is not 100% true, that's our impression. Our universities tend to pass students with no due consideration of quality. A friend lecturer who responded to my FB posting of this said, "We will most likely be blamed if the students fail."

I saw a posting in my lecturer friend's posting about grades given to his students in his subjects. I am sure it is not normal distribution. It's slanted towards the A's, that's for sure. While his university is an Apex university and tends to get the good SPM students, surely they are NOT Cambridge or Oxford. I would expect their grades to follow some form of normal distribution, not a extremely slanted one. 

What's more since his is not a general science stream while the bulk of good students would pick as as their choice courses.

80% scored HD (High distinction, or A+ if you must) in my class? Fat chance. We would be lucky if we didn't fail. Failure would be a norm then. Tell me how many % would graduate with second class upper or higher from our universities nowadays? A's seems to be the average grade here, even for engineering. 

Let's not talk about non-science streams.

May be I am stern looking interviewer, but I do have some common sense when dealing with youngsters. If they are stuck, and can't answer me, I would try to ease them up by tellling them to take a deep breath. I would then even offer them coffee, if it would reduce their nervousness, although I am sure coffee would do the exact opposite.

I am not perfect, but I do attempt to make them at ease.

But then again, we do have engineers who could not do simple integration or differentiation. And I left them alone for one hour in the office to come up with answers to simple SPM questions:

y = x2; find dy/dx


y=x2, integrate with respect to x.

I am sure Akmal would pass this test, and I have since asked my schoolmates who are not engineers, and they all did it on the go.

The state of our education system!

And we complain about our universities ranking in THES and QS?

For the records, all the candidates are mostly second uppers, and they were from a variety of universities - UTM, USM, UiTM, UKM, UTP (Malaysia), UNSW, UWA, U Sydney (Australia), U Sheffield (UK), USA, etc. Some did better than others, of course.

 We need to revamp our school and university systems. Our students have become parrots and they do things they don't really mean. Computers of course aggravate the situation in such a way that they do not see the equations they need later in the engineering career. Universities should encourage manual calculation, minus even Excel.

SPM should be banned from Malaysian students' life. :) They are the the roots of all evils.

Universities should have a quota for failure and it should be a double digit numbers especially for core science subjects like engineering and medicine. Let they find other calling in life if they can't digest these rocket sciences. I am still sure they could prosper in life in other fields, so it is not a waste of effort in educating them.

In 1982, while in first year at Monash, I was not doing too well. I can't understand the subjects - they are tough. I can't understand the Australian slang spoken in large lecture halls.

So I failed in at least two subjects - physics and mechanical engineering, both requiring good understanding of the topic, but I prospered well in memory subject such as materials engineering.

I was called to the Dean office. I am not sure if they issued me a letter requesting that I be present. There was no cellphone for sure then.

Timidly I went to his office  - one Dr something or sounds like Polish to me. He was the most important person I had to see in all of my 19 years' life.

"Mr Hariri," he said, I am sure he was looking directly into me. And he addressed me formally, My head I am sure held down, "You failed my subject!"

I am not sure what he wants me to say. Yes, I had failed my mechanical engineering exam, but that was merely stating the obvious.

"If you failed again, I am going to kick you out," he told me straight to my face.

No, he did not offer to counsel me, give me extra classes,  blamed his teaching methods and took pity on this Asian student struggling with the language and slang. Instead he demanded that I pass in the final. There was no negotiation.

No spoon fed here from the lecturers then. You either do it, or get out of my faculty.

We only want the best to graduate and if you are not one of them, so be it. There are thousands more out there. I was no loss to Monash, if I did not graduate. I was just one the thousands of students there. I am told in no uncertain term to buck up and live to their reputation.

That's what I would like to see.

In this case, there was no argument on my side that I had done enough and I didn't offer excuses.  I just ploughed through with help of a senior, and I am happy to report that I managed to squeeze through that year and passed all my exams, with rooms to spare for my first year in 1982. The next 3 years was even better as I managed to overcome the language barrier and lectures were no longer a chore. I graduated in chemical engineering with honours and I did it in four years - the minimum one can graduate with an engineering degree.

Spending an hour with my lecturer friend teaching at UniKL last night, a small and non-descript school in Kuala Lumpur, you will hear wonderful stories of students arguing with lecturers on why they should pass them, or them taking orders from management that the students be upgraded a grade or two higher than they deserved..

Or stories on how lenient they were giving marks for their subjects.

What I want as an employer is not students with perfect English (a bonus though), or students with wonderful presentation skill (a bonus again). I prefer a person with decent skills in the above area, and someone who could explain about the fundamentals of engineering. Good understanding of  physics and math is a must. He needs not memorise the whole equations, if it is complex since one can almost always open the book whenever it is needed, but be able to explain them.

(I was bad in English and presentation skills and developed them over my working years, so I can empathise with students on these.)

A good understanding of the concept, and be able to make deduction from his own knowledge or hints, if he was not sure. If you can't or don't understand Boyle's Law and the Bernoulli's principle, then you have no business calling yourself an engineer.

Malaysian universities and the Malaysian education systems - let's do something to improve the way students learn about things. They should not be taught to memorise and be molly-coddled. Learning is the key word.