IN the era of globalisation and the Fourth Industrial Revolution, English language plays an important role in commerce and technology, and at the workplace on the world stage.
To compete effectively, Malaysian graduates need more than academic qualifications alone.
Today’s employers expect graduates to possess smart social and soft skills, including the ability to communicate effectively.
The industry and talent recruiters say some job applicants lack communication skills and the Higher Education Ministry has taken steps to deal with this in the Malaysia Education Blueprint 2015-2025 (Higher Education).
The country needs a highly educated workforce with the right combination of knowledge and communication skills.
Tertiary institutions play an important role in raising the standard of English of the country’s graduates and future generations.
Recently, the ministry introduced the Malaysia English Assessment (MEA) which is embedded in the Ecosystem for English Language Learning and Assessment in Higher Education to nurture holistic, entrepreneurial and balanced graduates.
The MEA has three development phases. The first phase, which started in September, involves the construction of the Higher Education English Language Test Repository system — a “question bank” — developed by Universiti Pendidikan Sultan Idris (UPSI).
This question bank will be used to construct standard Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) exam questions for the English empowerment programme in the public universities at the end of Semester 1, Session 2017-2018.
CEFR was originally developed to improve language teaching in Europe and it is recognised in practice as the international standard worldwide.
The second phase is the construction of test specifications for formal and informal assessments while the third phase outlines the MEA Guidebook and Test Repository Manual for users.
These developments are expected to be completed in stages by end of next year.
Higher Education Minister Datuk Seri Idris Jusoh said assessment is not only critical to learning as it provides a bridge between teaching and learning, but it can also enhance the latter and drive a student’s educational experience.
“MEA will bring about a paradigm shift in the field of English language assessment,” he said at the launch of MEA in Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM).
MEA consists of two components — formal assessment (MEA 1) and informal assessment (MEA 2).
Aligned with the CEFR, MEA 1 focuses on English proficiency and includes on-going assessments on listening, reading, writing and speaking. MEA 2 involves evaluating students’ ability to complete tasks using English in different situations comparable to those they will face when they enter employment.
CEFR includes a proficiency scale containing six levels from A1 to C2, and undergraduates are expected to improve their proficiency by at least one level, for example from B1 to B2, by the time they graduate.
In simple terms, the CEFR proficiency scale can be described as A1 (can communicate only about self); A2 (can communicate in simple and routine language); B1 (speaks with limited vocabulary); B2 (speaks fluently); C1 (able to teach English); and C2 (native speaker).
“Accomplishing the assessment tasks will require not only knowledge of English but also its appropriate use within a given cultural and social context,” added Idris.
MEA 2 requires students to go through a review of performance in engagement sites such as extra-curricular and co-curricular activities; interdisciplinary collaboration; online resources; community engagement; industry-academia collaboration; and global engagement, which should be regarded as part of learning (see infographics).
“It is to ensure that undergraduates are active participants in the assessment process, which is necessary for student-centred learning.
“This manner of engagement with English requires the use of a full range of capacities including the intellect, emotions, willpower and practical skills.
“In this way, learning English will be part of the student’s preparation for life after graduation. This is why we have to find ways of making more effective use of resources that are already available on campus.
“There are many informal opportunities for learning English on campus. We need to recognise them and make use of them.”
MASTERING THE LANGUAGE
Dr Zuwati Hasim, a senior lecturer at the Language and Literacy Education Department in University of Malaya (UM), said learning and mastery of another language is an advantage, as being bilingual or multilingual opens up opportunities to build a global network.
She added that the mastery of the English language or accomplishing a certain level of English language proficiency is deemed necessary in the wake of globalisation as it is one of the widely used languages, other than German and French.
“Learning another language will not lower the status of the national language. Being able to communicate in English fluently adds value to graduates, especially in the workplace,” said Zuwati.
Various initiatives have been introduced to promote the learning of English at tertiary institutions such as making the language a part of the compulsory university curriculum.
Other projects include the introduction of English as the medium of instruction for content subjects, commonly known as Content and Language Integrated Learning in the European context.
Taylor’s University Centre for Languages and Cultural Studies head Chandra Sakaran Khalid said: “Today’s workforce is a global one and graduates need to converse ably in English and work well with counterparts from across the world.
“The assessment of performance under MEA, reported in the form of profiles, will provide indicators of students’ abilities and offer feedback on how to better empower students.
“The performance assessments will help teachers decide what to focus on and how to effectively guide students,” added Chandra, a member of a committee set up by the ministry to implement the English Ecosystem at public universities.
“Dr Thilagavathi Shanmuganathan from UM and I proposed that the English Ecosystem, specifically the Global Engagement aspect which we worked on, be implemented as a learning tool at public universities.
“Students from public universities will spend time overseas with partner institutions as a result of the introduction of summer programmes under the Global Engagement platform via MEA 2.
“This global exposure allows undergraduates to form connections with fellow students, both at their home university and partner institution, which will enable them to be more socially and culturally aware,” said Chandra.
Thilagavathi and Chandra came up with this learning tool after using Taylor’s University mobility programmes as a case study.
Taylor’s University students, who have taken up the mobility opportunity, have greatly benefited from the cross-cultural exposure as it enhanced their skills in communication, teamwork, human relations and problem-solving.
Meanwhile, UKM, through courses and assessments by Pusat Citra, has taken steps to design English learning and assessment experiences that foster collaboration in teaching and learning English among its faculties.
One such course is Bravehearts, a creative programme that sees undergraduates swapping the classroom for hands-on experience and tasks as an initiative to improve their English.
NEXT STEP FORWARD
At the launch of MEA, UKM vice-chancellor Tan Sri Professor Dr Noor Azlan Ghazali said that it is timely that the university prepares a holistic and integrated environment where students can learn and practise the English language.
He said in ensuring that learning has taken place, its assessment plays a vital role.
“The challenge is to design assessments that are able to capture students’ abilities to execute tasks that are relevant, engaging and meaningful.
“It is important for tertiary institutions to prepare students to function as global players in this borderless world,” added Noor Azlan.
“MEA also ensures that the assessment for informal learning is done through activities outside the class where students are required to interact in English.
“This promotes an all-inclusive setting to gauge mastery of the language.”
Zuwati added that teaching, learning and assessment are closely connected in the field of education.
“MEA is a positive move in shifting the form of assessment and bridging it with teaching and learning.
“Assessment is important, not only to measure ability and evaluate performance, but also to inform practice, for example, the extent teaching and learning have successfully taken place and what needs to be done to improve the processes.
“Most importantly the assessment should serve its purpose and align with the teaching and learning objectives.”
Zuwati is co-editing the book, English Medium Instruction Programmes: Perspectives from Southeast Asian Universities.