WHEN the United Examination Certificate (UEC) was first proposed in 1973, it was a matter of ensuring the future survival of Independent Chinese High School (ICHS) students.
Dong Jiao Zong needed a standardised test that reflects the academic standing of students in their private schools as they could not participate in British GCSE’s equivalent, the SRP and SPM.
Bahasa Melayu only became a subject paper in 1968. The UEC was important back then because it provided ICHS students with the necessary paper qualifications to obtain jobs and opportunities for further study.
Naturally, it took some time for UEC to gain acceptance and credibility.
Most ICHSs, meanwhile, adapted by introducing dual-track systems. About 70% of ICHSs encourage their students to take both SPM (in their second senior middle year) and UEC (in their third senior middle year).
Some even provided an extra year to enable their students to take STPM.
This is logical as not all Chinese are rich and able to send their children overseas.
In 2000, the introduction of SPM Open Certification also meant that individuals, home-schooled or private-schooled students, could register to take the examination as a private candidate (calon persendirian).
The question of ICHS students being denied tertiary education opportunities in public universities does not even arise. Many ICHS students who sat for SPM and STPM have made it into IPTAs.
Dong Jiao Zong has never been supportive of the so-called dual-track system, and in fact it is an ongoing bone of contention between the more practical ICHSs (and their parents) and hardcore monolingual purists.
In Johor, many pragmatic ICHSs even support and encourage their students to take O and A-level examinations to enable them to further their studies in Singapore.
None of this is possible, of course, without money.
ICHSs are private schools, even if they are very affordable ones.
Public schools need to learn from the success of ICHSs and pay less attention to the DJZ.
When the teaching of S&T in English was introduced, proponents of Chinese education were more concerned about it being a conspiracy to dilute the “purity” of their system more than anything else.
The purpose of primary vernacular education is to prepare non-native speakers to master the national language before being taught in Malay, not to encourage a separate stream of education where our children are schooled separately.
So let us think about it for a moment why there is a push for the recognition of UEC to enter public universities. Certainly, there are many valid reasons for concern on why we need to think this over.
It is not even about lofty ideals such as national unity or the position of the Malay language. There are serious and practical matters to be deliberated and considered, and promises made in political manifestos is, in my humble opinion, of the least importance.
1. The proposed SPM BM requirement is not unlike the TOEFL and IELTS requirements for foreign universities, students must demonstrate the capacity to learn in the language of instruction used in these institutions (just like how Japan requires foreign students to acquire at least rudimentary skills in its language).
It can be argued that since ICHS students do study Bahasa Malaysia and there is a UEC paper on the subject, this requirement could be waived. After all, it is wholly legitimate to consider if ICHS students can adjust to using Malay (or English) in writing their assignments and digesting the materials being taught.
2. This brings us to the second issue of equivalency. What is the benchmark for UEC in relation to SPM/STPM and O levels/A levels?
This is an academic matter and there are several ways this can be addressed, especially since we also recognise Matrikulasi and Asasi results for entrance to public universities.
Malaysians ought to take this opportunity to address the various pathways to public-funded tertiary education, and understand if we are really creating fair, equal and level playing fields.
Will the recognition of UEC actually discourage or encourage more private students from taking SPM and STPM? These are neither unfair nor outrageous considerations.
3. The consequence of recognising UEC has another, but often less discussed, impact on the tertiary education opportunities of public-schooled children.
It is one thing to say that it will encourage competition, but is it actually fair to parents who put their faith and invested the future of their children in public secondary schools (and the national education system)?
Places in public universities are limited, and it should go to disadvantaged children who have performed well in government schools, rather than being displaced by private-schooled kids. How can this concern be addressed?
Even without raising the spectre of national unity and the sanctity of the national language, recognising UEC comes with its own set of problems and consequences. I am just pointing out a few issues that come to mind, and I am not even an educator.
What I do know is that it is theoretically possible to address this issue through education research and pilot studies. We only need to identify and select a sample of ICHS students who took SPM and UEC, or UEC and STPM, and see how much of the difference in their results can be attributed to multi-lingual ability, syllabus difference or maturity in years.
I think we should not stifle further debate and deliberation on the matter, especially the concern of public varsity students as they too, have a stake in all this. If recognising UEC will only serve to strengthen DJZ’s agenda, and contribute nothing of value to the public education system, then we should perhaps rethink it.
Just like the removal of the international school quota in 2012, it has only served to widen the gap between the rich and the poor.
Some might argue all this will be good for the national education system, but we need empirical evidence instead of anecdotal ones to back these claims. Many are even pressing for public funds to be channelled to ICHS on a regular basis, a perplexing call considering no other private schools are so privileged.
Our minister and deputy minister of education ought to spend more quality time on how to improve the public education system for all Malaysians rather than meeting the narrow aspirations of some, “Chinese” or religious schools notwithstanding.