IN the study of nuclear physics, physicists need to understand not only the area around the nucleus but most importantly the forces at work keeping it together.
Once they understand that, they often try to create new types of fusion and fission reactions. The former is the process to make a larger and more stable nucleus, the latter to break it down into smaller objects.
Perhaps, it was with that background knowledge that Dr Hasnita Hashim, who has a PhD in Nuclear Physics from Oxford University and 26 years of experience in global financial management, approached the “nucleus” when she was appointed chairman of Majlis Amanah Rakyat (Mara) on Oct 2, 2018.
Established on March 1, 1966, Mara is an agency under the purview of the Ministry of Rural Development. The council is responsible for developing, encouraging, facilitating and fostering the economic and social development particularly in rural areas.
For Hasnita, it was her interest in applied mathematics that led her to pursue nuclear physics. At the end of her PhD, many investment banks were hiring quants and nuclear and quantum physicists to develop quantitative techniques for investment.
Knowing that she needed a background in finance and economics to join the investment banking world, she worked at Coopers and Lybrand Deloitte as an actuary in the actuarial department. While working, she sat the actuarial exams.
“The biggest role of Mara is to be the change agent in terms of developing quality human capital with a focus on the lower income group, whether the rural or urban poor.
“Upon given the task to helm a huge establishment, one has to first gather and analyse all information in order to understand the organisation,” Hasnita said when asked about her initial approach to carrying out government’s “amanah” or trust in respect of Mara.
Along with her appointment, the new members of the Mara Council comprised Professor Tan Sri Dzulkifli Abdul Razak, Dr Nungsari Ahmad Radhi, Datuk Wira Dr Ameer Ali Mydin, Datuk Syed Tamim Ansari Syed Mohamed, Tengku Tan Sri Mahaleel Tengku Ariff and Zakri Khir.
“Since we were all new, our first task was to find out about Mara’s financial health.
“The council focused on governance and internal controls. Financial management was also under scrutiny because Mara has many centres and subsidiaries.”
Hasnita admitted that prior to her appointment she did not realise that education is the central and most important part for Mara which is also the nucleus forming the basis of its activity and growth.
“Accommodating around 110,000 students a year at Mara’s education institutions and sponsorships may only look like a fraction of the national school figures. However, Mara plays an important role in giving high potential students opportunities to go much further than they can otherwise.
“We start when 12-year-old students enrol in Mara Junior Science Colleges (MRSM), advancing to tertiary education and PhD studies, so we have to look at the whole ecosystem of Mara education.
“We have MRSM followed by A levels and IGCSE at Kolej Mara. We also have Technical and Vocational Education and Training for tertiary education where you can get a diploma. For higher education, there are Kuala Lumpur University (UniKL) and Kolej University Poly-tech Mara (KUPTM), among others. And then we also offer scholarships to study overseas,” added Hasnita.
The council members needed to tackle each segment of education in the ecosystem and see how they could improve, streamline, rationalise and get the outcome that they wanted.
“Although education was never under the council as a committee, we had to look into it. We set up an education committee which included external advisers.”
Mara receives RM1.3 billion for education institutions and a further RM2 billion loans for 50,000 students under Budget 2020.
“Every year, the government has entrusted us with huge grants, so we really need to make that money work. It is our responsibility to help students fulfil their highest potential.”
A year into her appointment, Hasnita shared the future “fusion and fission” of Mara’s education initiatives.
LOOKING AT THE FUTURE
To transform Mara into a centre of excellence for education, the council first looked into what laid ahead of it, said Hasnita.
“We have to understand how the world is today in order to ready ourselves for what’s coming next. Students need to be fully prepared to compete globally amidst the uncertainty.”
Hasnita pointed out that the future is basically characterised by new developments, innovations, technology and the fundamentals of STEM.
“Students must be equipped with relevant skills to secure the jobs of the future — jobs that we never heard of. These skills include data analytics, robotics and artificial intelligence.
“Some traditional jobs will be made obsolete by advanced technologies and machines.
“So, we did scenario planning and brainstormed with educators of Mara from MRSM, TVET and higher education institutions. Then, we finally identified nine job sectors that Mara should focus on.”
The nine sectors are Engineering and Environment, Marketing, Business and Management, IT and Computer Design, IT and Computer Science, Build Professionals, Accounting and Finance, Medical Science, Food Security and Transport Engineering.
“These nine sectors will drive all our educational initiatives. The identified areas will help Mara shape its curriculum and safeguard its competitiveness.”
MRSM AS FIRST CHOICE
According to Hasnita, focusing on the nine sectors will start concurrently at all levels of Mara’s education system.
Mara needs to first focus on making MRSM the top choice for students who excelled in Ujian Pencapaian Sekolah Rendah and Pentaksiran Tingkatan 3.
“Unfortunately, the performance of MRSMs is not much better than the residential schools. We are not doing well in Science and Mathematics, yet we are called a science college.
“Students are bogged down with so many things. With a heavy curriculum and other activities taking place, they are getting only five to six hours of sleep.”
Changes are in the pipeline to beef up performance and prepare students to be relevant for the future.
“We are reviewing the subjects taught in the MRSM while adding new modules. We need to focus on STEM subjects, so we are putting in extra hours for Science and Mathematics.
“On top of that, new modules such as design and coding are introduced as early exposure to face the Fourth Industrial Revolution, as students who enrol in MRSM must have strong inclination for Science and Mathematics,” she added.
Teacher training will be stressed to improve MRSM’s performance.
“To ensure MRSM is producing high performing students, Mara has provided continuous training for teachers. Training needs to be strengthened and teachers have to be outcome-driven which in turn will help improve students’ achievements.”
Hasnita highlighted the importance of English as the main medium of communication.
“Teachers should be upskilled to communicate in English outside the classroom and students are encouraged to master the language.
“The ability to speak good English opens up students’ opportunity to advance in the professional world. This is not that the Malay language is not important, but if you want to be globally competitive, English is the way to go.
“MRSM students are given the opportunity to learn a third language such as German, Mandarin and Japanese as an elective subject. These languages were selected as Mara has identified for students to pursue tertiary education in Germany or Japan.”
Mara is also looking at digital technology and learning to aid teaching. However in order to do this, the infrastructure needs to be upgraded.
“We are actively raising funds to provide students with essential facilities. When it comes to funding, the organisation must think of innovative ways such as private-public partnerships.
“For example, there are over 200,000 members under the MRSM alumni association (Ansara) who can help to raise funds to support the schools.
“We are also approaching corporate organisations which want to sponsor bright students who later may be their future employees. These are some of the means that we should be looking at instead of relying on the government for more funds.”
STAYING IN THE ECOSYSTEM
Despite having a proper route from secondary to tertiary education, Mara has neither tracked nor encouraged students to stay within the ecosystem.
“Although RM500 million is spent on MRSM every year, only 17 per cent out of 8,000 MRSM students who completed Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia and International IGCSE get into the Mara ecosystem for tertiary education.
“We want to guide MRSM students and show them the different pathways in the ecosystem after SPM and IGCSE.”
In approaching the issue, communication is vital, said Hasnita.
“We have to go to every MRSM and talk to the students about the potential pathways that we offer. We are not forcing them to follow the pathways but we want to provide them with choices and alternatives.
“They are among the top students in the country, why not invest further in them? It is Mara’s hope to capture at least 40 per cent in the ecosystem instead of just 17 per cent.
“We want to sponsor students with excellent results. For those who do not meet the grade, Mara will assist them to get into other pathways.”
The Mara ecosystem for tertiary institutions is divided into two — higher education and TVET.
Hasnita explained that higher education institutions like KUPTM and Kolej Profesional Mara offer professional courses like accounting and business.
“For TVET, there are Kolej Kemahiran Tinggi Mara, Giatmara and Institusi Kemahiran Mara, among others. Meanwhile, Universiti Kuala Lumpur (UniKL) is considered a higher TVET institution.”
Mara has also reviewed the courses offered by these institutions and found 30 overlapping courses.
“UniKL programmes, for example, have to be revamped to see how they can be streamlined based on the nine areas identified.”
UniKL Business School has recently set up the Philip Kotler Centre of Marketing Excellence.
“Kotler is known as the father of modern marketing. We are also going to support the publication of his new marketing textbook; UniKL Business School will contribute case studies from Malaysia.
“UniKL is also in ventures with leading industry players like Huawei. We are committed to making UniKL the top 100 universities in Asia, with a focus on industry training, emulating the German method.”
Hasnita said that there is a stigma against TVET among Malaysians. However, there is a demand for both skills and paper qualifications in the job market.
“We are facing a high unemployment rate among graduates in our country. I believe one of the main reasons is our graduates don’t possess the skills required by the industry. They lack industry experience.
“Upon graduation, students may be 30 per cent ready for desired jobs but the industry prefers graduates to be 70 per cent ready as it doesn’t have to invest much in employee training.”
In regards to this, Mara has announced linkages with industry players which offer equipment, facilities, teacher’s training, internship placement and job guarantee for graduates.
“We are revamping our TVET programme. The blueprint is based on what is needed by the industry which is within the nine sectors. Mara will refer to the industry in outlining what is necessary so that the modules meet industry standards.
“Moreover, the institutions will get certification from the industry which later may add value and boost students’ credibility when they enter the workforce. With the dual certification from Mara and the industry, there will be confidence in hiring our graduates.
“Some of our Giatmara students have secured high paying jobs that pay RM5,000 to RM6,000 three months after graduation.”
Four IKMs have introduced the Diploma in Computer Technology. Mara will be announcing a few tie-ups with banks where they will provide scholarships and job guarantee for the students.
Mara has always been committed to providing financial assistance to students from underprivileged families, said Hasnita.
“We are expanding the Education Financial Assistance (BUDI) programme as students may opt out of MRSM due to financial constraints. The programme receives support from private corporations to sponsor school fees, uniforms, school supplies and other essentials.
“In addition, students from less well-to-do households are exempted from paying school fees and receive an allowance from Mara.
“Meanwhile for International General Certificate of Secondary Education (IGCSE) students, Mara will pay the examination fees for eligible students.”
For the MRSM intake, Mara has strengthened the policy of 60 per cent of students who are from the B40 groups and 10 per cent allocations for the non-Bumiputera. It has also allocated a 20 per cent and 10 per cent quota for the M20 and T20 groups respectively.
Another significant education initiative of Mara is sponsorship. Students who are eligible for the sponsorship may further their studies locally or outside the country.
“Again, we want to encourage students to pursue the nine areas because we want to prepare them to be the future workforce for the country. However, this does not mean Mara won’t fund other programmes.
“Among the sponsorships offered by Mara are the Young Talent Programme and Graduate Excellence Programme.
“Last year, we introduced the World’s Top Universities (WTU) programme to provide study loans to excellent students who were offered a place to pursue their first degree at the said universities.
“Previously, WTU was only for degree level but we are looking into expanding it for master’s and PhD students. We are not only looking at the ranking of the university but will also base it on the top universities offering programmes related to the nine sectors.
“We want to make sure that our students end up with high paying jobs. So, we give them guidance on the areas and the industry.
“After graduation, we help them get jobs. Although unnecessary for us to do so, it completes the cycle.”
HELP FOR ALL
While 60 per cent of MRSM students will come from the B40 group, Hasnita believes that it is healthy to have a mix of races and social classes in educational establishments.
Students will learn to be competitive and not to just stay within their comfort zone, she said.
“The M40 also needs help because these are the urban poor. Thus, we also have allocation for students from this group. We also have 10 per cent allocated for the non-Bumiputeras which are usually not fully taken up.
“We hope that more non-Bumiputeras will enter MRSM.
“As for WTU, we have outlined a range of household salaries as one of the requirements, where it can include the higher M40.
“For example, a household earning RM20,000 cannot afford a child to study at Oxford University. This is why we should not leave out the M40 groups.
“We need to help these talented students. If your child is bright, why not?”