Sarawak's public and private sectors work together to revamp education

The Malaysian government is committed to transforming the country's education system to produce a cadre of graduates armed with the creative and critical thinking skills necessary to thrive and lead in the 21st century's increasingly international workplaces. Through an array of programmes, projects and initiatives, the aim is to begin instilling these learning values in the population as early as possible, both now and in future. To this end, early childhood education is considered as important as gaining university degrees and training quality teachers, as the Ministry of Education (MoE) takes a holistic approach to the education of the Malaysian people.

REGIONAL STRATEGY: This approach is tailored to each area of the country. In Sarawak, which has a higher proportion of rural schools than Peninsular Malaysia, the ministry is prioritising support by providing funds for upgrades to the state's education infrastructure, among other programmes.

Indeed, the educational requirements for both Sarawak and Sabah differ in important ways from those of the mainland. According to the MoE report "Malaysia Education Blueprint, 2013-25," student performance in these states is weaker than in those with more urban schools. In Malaysia’s primary school achievement test (Ujian Pencapaian Sekolah Rendah, UPSR), for example, urban schools ranked four percentage points higher than their rural counterparts – a gap that widens to eight points by the time students sit for the Malaysian Certificate of Education, the national public exam taken by all students in their fifth year of secondary school.

Exceptions to the rural-urban divide do exist. Since 2006, for example, Sekolah Kebangsaan Ulu Lubai, a small, rural school in Sarawak, has maintained a 100% pass rate in the UPSR. It was also the first rural school in Malaysia to achieve the status of High Performing School (HPS). HPS schools are considered Malaysia’s best, meeting stringent requirements and producing students capable of competing at international levels. The state's other strengths include a literacy rate of 90% and almost universal access to education at all levels. The main issue, therefore, is how to raise the number of high-quality schools.

Another distinguishing feature of Sarawak's demographics is its high proportion of indigenous and other minority groups (IOMs), such as Penan, Pribumi Sarawak, Pribumi Sabah and Orang Asli. Sarawak and Sabah are home to 80% of the country's IOMs. Approximately 68% of IOM students live in rural areas, and statistics show that, on average, only 30% of Orang Asli students complete secondary school – less than half the national average of 72%.

The requirements of a school in Kuala Lumpur therefore likely differ in substantial ways from those of a school in, for instance, Sarawak’s inland rural district of Kapit. For the government's drive to transform the country into an advanced economy to succeed, it is of vital importance that these students be equipped with the skills necessary to become technical workers in, for example, a company in the Sarawak Corridor of Renewable Energy (SCORE), the state’s large industrial development project.

VOCATIONAL TRAINING: It is partly for this reason that educators are stressing the importance of technical and vocational education and training (TVET). The industries involved in the SCORE project are highly dependent on skilled workers – SCORE is expected to create an additional 1.6m jobs by 2030, according to RECODA, the agency overseeing and managing the SCORE project – and currently a large percentage of these are foreign workers.

LOCAL ROLE: To ensure that the people of Sarawak benefit from the huge amounts of foreign investment that are pouring into their state, authorities are eager to train more local people to take up these positions. In October 2014 Sarawak’s chief minister, Adenan Satem, warned that it was essential for Sarawak to produce a critical mass of highly skilled technical workers to staff the SCORE industries. “Eventually, after the process of technology transfer,” he said, “Sarawakians themselves will have to take over from foreign manpower in order for the industrialisation programme to actually benefit us.”

A wide range of TVET skills will eventually be needed for the engines of SCORE to hum smoothly. In the energy sector, hydroelectricity technicians will be needed, as well as oil and gas technicians. Transport and logistics firms will need to hire logisticians to manage the state’s position in global supply chains. The tourism sector will require medical and agrotourism specialists, while nursery management, agricultural biotechnologists and aqua-culturists will be needed to ensure the growth of the agriculture and fishery industries. “Employment in SCORE offers opportunities for Sarawakian students in diverse fields of study,” Marzuki Umi, CEO of Sidma College Sarawak, told OBG. “Not only is there a need for those with a technical education background; there is also a need to localise management among new investors in the long run, which is ideal for local students pursuing management-related degrees.”

The national oil and gas company, Petronas, is collaborating with the Sarawak government to help students develop these soon-to-be-essential TVET skill sets, sponsoring 150 low-income students in junior science colleges in Kuching, Betong and Mukah in 2015. Its Vocational Institution Sponsorship and Training Assistance programme also provide support to four technical institutions in Sarawak: the Sarawak Skills Development Centre (Pusat Pembangunan Kemahiran Sarawak, PPKS), the Centre of Technical Excellence, the Industrial Training Institute Miri and the Institut Kemahiran Belia Negara Miri.

SECONDARY SCHOOLS: In 2012, Sarawak had 185 government or state-aided secondary schools, of which 177 were academic schools, two were technical and five were vocational, according to the MoE's Social Statistics Bulletin 2013. The bulletin listed only five community colleges in Sarawak – Kuching, Mas Gading, Branch Betong, Miri and Branch Santubong – with a total enrolment of 392 students.

And yet, nationally, demand for TVET places is outstripping availability. In his 2015 speech on the national budget, Prime Minister Najib Razak noted that applications for entry to TEVT programmes “far exceed the capacity of 20,000 places”. By 2020, the prime minister added, at least 46% of jobs will require technical and vocational qualifications. To prepare for this, a budget allocation of RM1.2bn ($365m) was made, along with the government’s pledge to increase entrants into TVET and community colleges through the state’s Vocational and Technical Transformation programme launched in 2013.

Sarawak's PPKS training centre focuses on teaching precisely those technical skills which are set to be in demand for SCORE-related industries. Its target students those are in middle management, and many of its programmes have linked up with private companies. “There is currently a great demand for technical skills and manpower development, most coming from SCORE-related projects,” Baharudin bin Abdullah, the centre’s executive director, told OBG. “More specifically, the sectors driving industrial growth are manufacturing, the timber industry and energy projects, including oil and gas.”

To meet TVET demand, the government has allocated an additional RM100m ($30.4m) to the MoE for 10,000 placements in private TVET colleges. To encourage private companies to invest in the TVET field, the prime minister also proposed enhanced tax incentives, such as allowing double deductions for scholarships awarded to students in TVET courses and other exemptions for expenses incurred in implementing internship programmes.

SKILLED WORKFORCE: To make sure the state's educational institutions are meeting the needs of industry, the MoE has launched a programme to gather statistics on the number of graduates produced by institutions of higher learning. Dubbed USCORE, the programme assists the state government in monitoring both supply and demand of the labour force required for SCORE. Among the institutions cooperating in the U-SCORE programme are Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (UNIMAS), Universiti Teknologi MARA, PPKS, MARA Skills Institute Kuching and the Industrial Training Institute Samarahan. “Sarawak must cater to its own manpower development rather than relying on schools and universities in Peninsular Malaysia to train the eventual local workforce,” Abdul Hakim Juri, vice-chancellor of the University College of Technology Sarawak, told OBG.

In the private sector, Curtin University of Technology Sarawak in Miri has begun offering its more than 3500 students advanced subjects such as engineering, geology, petroleum science, chemistry and physics to assist the state's development of a highly skilled workforce. “Sarawak is going beyond the traditional sectors and venturing into very high-tech sectors in the super-heavy industries,” said George Chan Hong Nam, council chair of Curtin’s Sarawak branch, while launching the university’s open house at its Kuala Baram campus in September 2014. “This university plays a very pivotal role in training manpower needed to service such sectors.”

INTERNATIONAL SCHOOLS: With Sarawak preparing to face the challenges of educating a skilled workforce that will meet the needs of SCORE, the curricula and perspectives offered by international schools provide a different pathway to education for the children of expatriates and Malaysians alike. Satem, the chief minister, has made clear in public statements his high expectations that international schools will help ensure the rapid development of science and technology in the state.

Sarawak is currently home to four international schools, two of which are in Kuching. One, Tunku Putra School, is a primary and secondary school offering both national and international curricula, the latter following the Cambridge exam system. The other is Lodge International School, which began as a prep school for British expats and now offers primary, secondary and international school curricula to both Malaysian and expat students. It uses the British National Curriculum and the Cambridge International Advanced Level, and senior students prepare for the University of Cambridge A-level exams.

In Bintulu, Shell's Kidurong International School provides primary school education for the children of its expatriate employees. Although the school caters primarily to the children of its expatriate staff, non-Shell expatriate children are allowed to enrol in Kidurong as space allows. Shell also provides international schooling to both expatriates and Malaysians at Tenby International School's new campus in Senadin, with classes beginning in early years and continuing up to the secondary level. “To cope with changes and ensure that they will help to develop our society, the younger generation has to understand complex problems ... They must be highly knowledgeable and able to work in a team, able to exercise moral judgement and to take a global perspective,” Satem said at the opening the new Tenby International School campus on May 20, 2014. “I cannot think of a better place to instil understanding and passion in the younger generation other than international schools such as this.”

HIGHER EDUCATION: Sarawak's numerous higher education institutions cater to a variety of student populations and research programmes. Many of Sarawak's universities offer the same coursework and grant the same diplomas as their counterparts in Peninsular Malaysia and overseas – and often at significantly lower prices. Students at such institutions can earn educational certificates up to and including the PhD level, attending either full-time or part-time, and on-campus, off-campus (at paired schools) or through online distance learning programmes.

The largest of these in terms of enrolment, UNIMAS, is certified by the international standards organisation and has eight faculties ranging from creative arts to cognitive sciences, computer science, economics, engineering and medicine. It educates nearly 6000 students a year and employs more than 1450 staff. Notable accomplishments at UNIMAS include the development of a candidate vaccine for dengue fever by its Institute of Health and Community Medicine, and the development of a process to produce bio-friendly plastic derived from sago, a palm starch, by its Faculty of Resource Science and Technology.

Other universities are more specialised. For students interested in pursuing technical careers, the Universiti Teknologi Mara Sarawak, one of 12 state campuses of Malaysia's largest university by size and population, offers 26 programmes ranging from certificates up to PhD, with its current enrolment totalling about 4800 full-time and part-time students. The state's agricultural school, Universiti Putra Malaysia, Bintulu Campus, offers qualifications ranging from diplomas to PhDs through its faculties of Agriculture and Food Sciences, with departments in crops, forestry, engineering, animals and fisheries, and the social sciences. The business and management-oriented Universiti Utara Malaysia offers three bachelors degree programmes – business administration, public management and communications – at its off-campus branches in Kuching and Sibu.

Although the emphasis is on preparing a skilled workforce to support SCORE and other industrial programmes, Sarawak's universities also offer an assortment of courses of study for non-technical careers. Some educators question whether it is necessary to make a division between a TVET and traditional education at all. “Technical and vocational training and university education should have a closer relationship,” Anthony Cahalan, deputy vice-chancellor and chief executive at the Sarawak branch of Australia’s Swinburne University of Technology, told OBG. “Instead of making graduates decide between them, it would be advantageous to allow more flexibility so students could access both systems.”

Originally created to address the needs of SCORE, Swinburne Sarawak is a joint venture between the Australian university and the government of Sarawak. Graduates are granted their degrees from Swinburne University of Technology, Australia. Today, 33% of Swinburne Sarawak students are international, and 95% of students find employment within six months of graduation, usually in professional fields such as skilled engineers, according to the university.

Cahalan would also like to see the percentage of international students studying at his institution increase, but admits to obstacles in this. “Escalating levels of competition among higher education institutions is a major challenge due to Sarawak’s slow population growth,” he said. “For colleges to expand, they must try to attract foreign students.”

It can indeed be challenging to attract foreign students in large numbers to study in Sarawak. Many prospective students choosing to study in Malaysia prefer to stay near Kuala Lumpur or other large cities on the peninsula. However, recent policy changes in Peninsular Malaysia may have given Sarawak an edge in this regard. Because the state of Sarawak controls its own immigration policies (as does Sabah), when Peninsular Malaysia recently made its rules for student immigration more restrictive, Sarawak was able to opt out of the changes. This has made it easier for foreign students to apply for studies in Sarawak than for those in Peninsular Malaysia.

A NEW PLAN: With the Malaysia Education Blueprint 2015-25 scheduled to be launched at the end of March 2015, more changes are in store for Sarawak’s higher education system. The blueprint reportedly recommends 10 adjustments to the country's higher education sector that are meant to transform higher education in Malaysia. These changes will trickle down to state level operations as well.

Although the blueprint had not been released at press time, comments made by education minister Idris Jusoh at a February 2015 press conference suggested that the nation's higher education sector would be seeing changes intended to nurture entrepreneurialism among graduates, foster excellence in higher learning educators and create a nation of lifelong learners. The changes ranged from offering high-quality TVET and graduate training to supporting financial sustainability, creating an innovative ecosystem, empowering governance, driving global prominence and globalised online learning, and transforming higher education delivery.

OUTLOOK: Sarawak is on the edge of a radical transformation of its labour force that will likely change the landscape of the state for generations to come. Policymakers and educators are clearly on course in planning for the changes that SCORE and other projects will bring to the people of Sarawak. The funding and the right intentions are there, on both the federal and state levels. Yet, as always, implementation is key, and it is crucial that all of the state's people gain from the private and public investment now being made in the state's education system.

Raising awareness of Sarawak's inherent advantages as a place to study, especially at the university level, will also go a long way towards making the future workforce a skilled and well-educated one that can support both the government's efforts to transform the nation and its people’s aspirations.

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The Report: Sarawak 2015

Education & Training chapter from The Report: Sarawak 2015

The Report: Sarawak 2015

The Report

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