Resurrecting Kirby Is Fiscally Irresponsible

M. Bakri Musa
It is incomprehensible that with the Ministry of Education still in the midst of its review of our schools, the Minister and his Deputy saw fit to announce two decisions that could potentially have a profound impact on the system. The first, announced by the Minister, would resurrect the old Kirby/Brinsford Lodge program of the 1950s, and the second, announced by his Deputy, would remove the current quotas on local enrollment in international schools.
Before analyzing the two decisions, it is worth pondering as to why they were made before the completion of this “exhaustive review.” A cynical interpretation would be that the current “review” is nothing more than a charade rather than a serious deliberative process. If that were to be so, then it would be a terrible insult to those distinguished Malaysians who have been co-opted or have volunteered to serve on the panel. On a moral level, it would also be an unconscionable fraud perpetrated upon citizens, especially parents who have been banking on the review to improve our schools.
Another view, equally less charitable, is that the Minister and his Deputy are not fully aware of the potential for enormous consequences of their decisions. A more practical explanation is that both announcements reflect the seat-of-the-pants style of policymaking typical at the upper levels of our government. It would have been more reassuring had both proposals been first vetted by this review committee.
In the absence of the panel’s analysis, I will examine the merits and demerits of the two initiatives, as well as offer my ideas on enhancing both.
Resurrecting Kirby
The old Kirby and Brinsford Lodge program was undeniably superb and successful. Thousands of students benefited from the tutelage and influence of those dedicated professional teachers who were trained at both institutions. Many of those teachers went on for their baccalaureate and graduate degrees to become distinguished Professors of Education at home and abroad, reflecting the high caliber of their talent.
If we wish to resurrect the program it is important to elucidate the many contributing factors to its earlier success. We also have to remember that conditions today are vastly different from those of the 1950s. That may be obvious but is often overlooked. For example, to say that the current Form Five graduates – the potential trainees – are very different from those of the 1950s would be a vast understatement. Thus if we were to send those with Form Five qualifications to Kirby today, the results would also be vastly different if not disastrous.
The success of Kirby and Brinsford Lodge had less to do with their being operated by the British or located in England, rather with the candidates selected to undergo the training. As mentioned earlier, they were simply superior to begin with. It is well to remember that in the 1950s only the top five percent of Fifth Formers could go on to Sixth Form and from there, to universities. The next level would be the potential Kirby candidates; they may not have been at the very top nonetheless they were still high up there above the 90th percentile. I knew a few who were qualified for the local university but instead opted for Kirby simply because of the opportunity to go to England, thus deliberately settling for a teacher’s diploma.
Today however, the top 25 percent of our students are headed for universities. Those left for teacher training would be the next tier, those at the 75th percentile at best. Unless we get the top students – those above the 90th percentile – to go into teacher training, we will never get good, much less great teachers regardless where we train them or by whom.
This is the crucial lesson from countries like Finland that have excellent schools. They get the best students to go into teaching, and the best students make the best teachers. If the lure of spending a few years at Kirby would attract the best and brightest to apply, then by all means resurrect the program. After all, many bright students change their career choices simply because of the opportunity to go abroad. I have met many who dreamed of becoming doctors but instead pursued accounting or engineering simply because of the chance to go abroad.
Economic Aspect of the Proposal
Kirby and Brinsford Lodge had a total of about 600 students at any one time. Let us assume that the cost today would be about RM100K per student per year (a reasonable estimate), for a total of about RM60 million annually. A hefty sum! That is the total outflow of foreign exchange from Malaysia. The money will be spent in Britain with zero multiplier effect in the local Malaysian economy.
Imagine if we were to spend the money differently but for the same purpose and using the same personnel – those British lecturers. Using a faculty/student ratio of 1 to 15 as a guide (comparable to top universities), we would need about 40 professors. With a generous pay package of RM300K per year we would have no difficulty recruiting them. The total cost would then come to about RM12 million annually. With another RM3 million for non-academic support staff, the total payroll would be about RM15 million. We would still have RM45 million remaining!
If we were to pay the trainees RM600 each per month, that would certainly interest top students, and the cost would be just over RM4 million. To entice them even more, incorporate elements of the major matriculation examinations into the curriculum so that these students could sit for their STM, GCE A Level, or SAT tests while in training. Then reward those who are successful with guarantees of scholarships to pursue their degrees in return for their committing to teaching.
Having done all that, we would still have RM41 million left. Out of that I would spend RM6 million for soft costs (food, computers, library books), with RM35 million left over. Assume that to be the annual mortgage payments instead, and spread over 30 years (the typical amortization period for real estate loans) at 4 percent interest rates, you could build a campus costing about RM600 million. Even after accounting for the inevitable leakages through “negotiated tenders” and “facilitation fees” to local politicians, we could still build quite a fancy facility, almost luxurious and definitely far superior to the old barn-like and warehouse structures of old Kirby and Brinsford Lodge.
Then think of the economic impact of RM60 million being spent locally, with the multiplier effect from the construction workers to the gardeners as well as the teh tarik peddlers to the hair dressers. About the only foreign exchange loss would be the remittance by those British professors. After paying for their housing and other living expenses, (which would be high for expatriates), as well as their hefty Malaysian income tax, they would be lucky to have RM40K at the end of the year to send home.
Thus the total outflow of foreign exchange would be under RM2 million in a year. Contrast that to the outflow of RM60 million in cold cash if were to send 600 trainees to Britain; thirty times more expensive! And I have not included the multiplier economic benefits of the RM60 million being spent locally.
There are also other non-economic benefits, the most important being academic and scholarly. Those professors would be interested in doing local research and be consultants to our schools, as well as conduct workshops for the continuing professional education of our teachers. Leading education journals would carry articles with the footnote, “From Kuantan Teachers’ College, Malaysia.”
The Minister’s objective is still being achieved, that is to have Kirby-trained quality of teachers for our schools. The signal difference between my plan and Muhyiddin’s is that I would import Kirby-quality professors to train our would-be teachers while he would export our students (and precious foreign exchange) to Britain.
Of course Kirby would like us to send our trainees there and would lobby very hard to secure the contract. After all we have seen such august institutions as the London School of Economics engaging in shady deals with Third World dictators like Muammar Ghaddafi to secure lucrative contracts and endowments. Thus expect these Kirby folks to engage in intense lobbying to influence the Minister of Education.
Muhyiddin feels that the only effective way for our would-be teachers to learn English is to send them to an English-speaking country. I suggest that he visit Tuanku Jaafar College in rural Malay-speaking Mantin, Negri Sembilan. Not only do those students speak impeccable English, they also have acquired some of the finer Anglo Saxon habits. It would not surprise me that they prefer tea and crumpets for their afternoon snacks!
Those students sent to Kirby in the 1950s were already well versed with matters English, at least in theory from their textbooks. They may be ignorant of the practical aspects as with using knives and forks, chewing with their mouths closed, and not burping after dinner, nonetheless their English fluency enabled them to learn and adapt quickly. Thus it did not take them long to appreciate Beethoven as much as dondang sayang, their tea and crumpets as much as teh tarik and pisang goreng! Sending our students to Kirby today would only aggravate their culture shock. Far from enjoying and benefiting from the English ambience, they would recoil and retreat to their little kampong on campus.
It was unbelievably stupid and fiscally irresponsible for Muhyiddin to put forth that proposal. I began by suggesting that he may be unaware of the potential consequences, monetary and otherwise, and that his announcement merely reflected the seat-of-the-pants modus operandi at upper levels of our government. Perhaps there is a more mundane explanation. Sending our trainees to Britain would be the perfect excuse for Ministry officials to make frequent “official” tours there. It that be the reason, it could easily be remedied; give those senior officers paid annual trips to Britain. That would be considerably cheaper.
Next week: Liberalization of International School Enrolment A Positive Development