Friday, 15 September 2017


On Monday of this week, I participated in a conference on A-levels conducted by Cambridge International Examinations, with whom we work for all our external examinations. It was well attended and I was able to discuss issues of mutual interest with fellow Heads from institutions such as Taylor's and Sunway. We also benefited from the experience of Dr. Ben Schmidt, the regional Head of Cambridge exams in the SE Asia region, who spoke about the competition A-levels face from alternatives. One of our KYUEM governors, Dato' Richard Small, was the keynote speaker and gave us all a great deal to think about in a stimulating and engaging speech. KYUEM featured in a video presentation about Cambridge exams in Malaysia. This was filmed earlier in the year. You can view the clip here.

Of course, our most obvious competitor in terms of assessment is the International Baccalaureate (IB) which many schools use instead of the various A-level syllabuses. British universities say they make no distinction between the two systems: an IB candidate stands the same chance of acceptance as an A-level student. Having taught or worked in schools that offer both systems, I am more than happy to concede the point. We may be talking about apples and oranges here, but they are equally nutritious and pleasant to consume. It's a matter of individual choice - nothing more. The fact that KYUEM chooses the A-level option is based on our history and experience, the knowledge and expertise of our staff and the fact that we believe it's a natural progression for students who have taken SPM or IGCSE thus far.

The situation changes, however, when we look at the growing importance of university foundation courses. In case you are unfamiliar with these, they all broadly offer the same thing: students study for one year, after which, if they are successful, they proceed to an undergraduate degree course, usually of three years' duration. In Malaysia, the foundation programmes that most concern us are those offered by local campuses of overseas universities or medical schools affiliated to foreign institutions. Consider these two scenarios:

1) A young person completes IGCSE or SPM. S/he chooses to come to KYUEM for 24 months, takes AS exams after one year and A-levels after two. If successful, s/he is accepted on a Bachelor's degree programme in the UK, the US, Australia or at a satellite campus here in Malaysia.

2) The same student attends a satellite campus in Malaysia immediately upon completion of SPM or IGCSE. S/he takes part in a 1-year foundation programme and proceeds immediately to a recognised degree course. One whole year of study has, in principle, been saved.

The reality is somewhat different. Firstly, the satellite campuses would prefer to take students with good A-levels because they have already demonstrated their intellectual ability and now have an internationally-recognised qualification to support that claim. Students on a foundation programme have typically failed to get into a demanding college such as KYUEM. So, here we have a situation where a potentially weaker student is entering a shorter programme of study. This makes very little sense. Moreover, at colleges such as ours, a graduation requirement is to get an internationally-accepted certificate of English language competency (in our case, a high band score in IELTS). All too frequently, foundation programmes accept students with low band scores in the hope that their linguistic ability will improve alongside the training they will receive in that first year of study.

This is asking a lot of students, I think. Not surprisingly, the record around the world for drop out rates from foundation programmes is high. Equally worrying, the number of students who finish the course, but are not considered ready to embark on the full degree programme is much higher than their peers in an A-level college. Even if you don't proceed to university, possession of AS and A2 certificates is an achievement the world recognises. Completion of a foundation programme is not an internationally bench-marked qualification.

I suppose my bigger point here is that if you are intending to take a serious degree programme from a major, world-class university, you stand a far better chance of achieving your aim with a bunch of good A-level grades. Foundation courses may look attractive in terms of the time saved, but in reality, in education as in life, there is no such thing as a quick fix.

One final point on this subject: university campuses in Malaysia are run as businesses and they need to maximise their student throughput (the old cliche of "bums on seats"). This may well be why students who fail to get into KY can be accepted for foundation programmes. The bottom line has to be this: if you are good enough to come to us, the intellectual rigour of an A-level programme considerably outweighs the apparent time saved on a foundation course. I would suggest that such programmes are considered only as an option if you fail to be accepted by a college such as ours. Don't be misled by the shortness of the alternative programme.

Two bits of excellent news with which to end this week's blog. According to Cambridge University's own website, KYUEM received the highest number of acceptances this year in the whole of Malaysia. Secondly, I can now report that 98.5% of our students have obtained good university places for September 2017. It has been, yet again, a record year.

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