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Studying Pathways
FAISAL SHAH | 10 Mar 2017 00:30
Thursday, March 16 is likely to be just another working week day for the majority of Malaysians. But for the 434,535 students who registered to take the Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM) examinations in 2016 it will be a day of reckoning. That’s when their results will be announced. Most would have a rough idea of how they performed because you know how much or how little effort you put into preparing for the examinations but there is always an element of surprise involved and the grading curve could move depending on how all the students performed as a whole.

Still, regardless of what their SPM results may be, most have spent the last five months pondering what study course to undertake after SPM. Even the most lackadaisical student would have scoured the internet for some information while those who really have no idea would have at least consulted with their friends on what to study and where to go. At the very least, they’ll want to be in the same higher education institution as their school friends because of the familiarity it brings but is that the wisest choice?

So, assuming you have a child who is chewing his nails while waiting for the results announcement, here is a guide to a few pre-university courses and how they compare with each other.


A-Levels
The A-levels probably set the standard by which other pre-university qualifications are judged. Its near global acceptance as a form of assessment means students can virtually gain entry into any university. if they do well at A-Levels. It also means students have a wide range of study options to pursue after their A-levels though obviously specialised courses like engineering, medicine and accounting would require the study of prerequisite subjects.

Due to its popularity, a number of colleges offer the course in Malaysia so options in terms of where to study are plentiful. Course fees vary depending on where you send your child but expect to pay a minimum of about RM20,000 to about RM50,000 for fees throughout the 15-18 month duration of the course. The minimum number of required subjects is very low at just three with a maximum of five, which will be a welcome relief for students who found it hard to juggle the sheer number of exams they had to take in SPM.

Because they are taking so few subjects, students taking A-levels are expected to get a deep understanding of what they study, so analytical skills and having an inquisitive mind as well as excellent research and study skills are vital to obtaining good results. There are lots of resources available to them from past year exam papers to even tuition classes so excelling is a case of putting in the required hours.

The course isn’t for everyone though. Because assessment is based on 100% external examinations students who dislike the pressure of sitting for exams but prefer classroom interaction and coursework and have poor research and analytical abilities will struggle to perform well. Because students are required to take so few subjects, strong grades in one won’t be able to boost the overall result either so this also makes subject selection critical. Parents should therefore work together with their child to ensure they choose A-level subjects that best play to their strengths and interests.

As one of the more challenging pre-university courses around, entry requirements are generally higher. Most colleges expect a minimum of five SPM credits but many more established institutions where demand for places is high require obtaining an A in subjects like Mathematics, English and the science subjects if a student intends to study them for A-levels. Still, as a means to get into university, A-levels are probably the most widely recognised of any post SPM course and due to our affinity for universities in the United Kingdom, it’s likely to remain that way for some time to come.

Pros: 
Wide acceptance, benchmark for scholarship awards, in-depth knowledge of subjects

Cons: 
100% exam based, offers theoretical as opposed to practical knowledge, tough to excel


International Baccalaureate (IB)
The International Baccalaureate (IB) is a pre-university programme from Geneva, Switzerland open to students who have sat for their SPM or O-Level exams. The course duration runs for approximately 24 months and is widely seen as being academically challenging and demanding, requiring students to take a wide range of subjects across various disciplines.

Basically, students need to choose six subjects to study spread out over six different groups that range from language and literature, language acquisition, mathematics and the arts. Then it gets more complicated.

Of the six subjects taken, three have to be taken at Higher Level (HL) that requires 240 hours of studying time while the other three can be taken at Standard Level (SL) with 150 hours of course time. Additionally, students also have to complete three core component IB courses called Theory of Knowledge (TOK), Extended Essay and Creativity, Action, Service (CAS) which add points to their final grade.

Unlike the A-levels a mixture of internal and external assessment is used to award students their final grade with a maximum of seven points awarded per subject. Therefore IB students who score the maximum points would be awarded 45 points. Because it’s geared up to promote critical and independent thinking, many view IB students as being more well-rounded than those who do A-Levels and as it’s an accepted qualification for university entry in over 100 countries, they’re virtually on par in terms of prestige.

Be prepared to pay though your nose if your child wants to take IB. The number of colleges offering the course is small and due to the long two-year study period, fees alone average over RM100,000. It’s also classified as a challenging course so students without the prerequisite SPM grades will probably need to sit for an entrance exam.

Pros: 
Wide acceptance, coursework and exam assessment, promotes critical thinking

Cons: 
Pricey fees, takes two years to complete, students have to take many subjects


Australian Matriculation
Australian matriculation courses are gaining popularity amongst Malaysian students and parents because most offer a shorter route to getting into university. Those with excellent SPM trial results can even start their course in January before the final results are out and assuming they do well, these students could already be in university pursuing their degree studies just 15 months after they sat for SPM. That’s an amazing savings in time and because the course duration is short, fees tend to be lower too. Expect to pay between RM15,000 to RM30,000 with a bit of variation between science and humanities subjects.

Australian matriculation is a blanket term as there are actually several different pre-university courses from the country. The most popular is South Australian Matriculation (SAM) but there is also Australian Matriculation (AUSMAT), New South Wales High School Certificate and soon, the Victoria Certificate of Education (VCE). All courses can be taken after SPM and offer entry into university upon their completion with students taking five subjects but assessment methods vary. SAM for instance uses 70% course work and just 30% exam based grading while AUSMAT is closer to a 50:50 split.

Because the time frame is short and a lot of the final grade is coursework dependent, students will have to work consistently throughout the duration of the course as quizzes, essays, assignments, lab reports (for science subjects) and tests will be conducted frequently. So those who prefer to slack off during the year and cram for final exams will be in big trouble. On top of that, the final matriculation score, called the Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) is a compilation of the four best subjects plus 50% of the weakest subject, so it’s important that students maintain high scores throughout the duration of the course.

Most universities overseas and in Malaysia accept Australian matriculation as a form of university entry but it’s also true that they tend to give higher weightage to those who achieve similarly excellent results in the A-levels. Of course obtaining a high ATAR score will negate any such issues but students with borderline results could find themselves squeezed out of their university or degree course of choice. Still, due to the affordable fee structure and shorter study time, this course of study is and will remain popular with Malaysian looking to take the shortest possible route to a university degree.

Pros: 
Shorter course period, affordable course fees, accepted in Malaysia and overseas

Cons: 
Requires consistent work, short preparation time, tougher to enter highly competitive universities


Sijil Tinggi Persekolahan Malaysia (STPM)
That old notion about STPM being the toughest pre-university course to excel in doesn’t really apply anymore. It used to be your final grade was dependent on how you performed in one big final exam but since 2012, the Ministry of Education (MOE) has introduced a modular system where the course is divided into three terms spread out over 18 months.

Each term will have a final exam with marks scored counted towards a cumulative final grade. Just like in American education systems, the highest subject grade point (SGP) a student can receive is 4.0 with the average taking into account all the subjects. Centralised exams at the end of each term account for only 60%-80% of the final grade as the STPM now includes 20%-40% of course work assessment in the form if projects, field studies and practical work.

Because it’s a government school based course, there are no fees for the courses. One only needs to pay the exam fees and about RM90 for each subject taken. Of course if your child requires tuition in any subjects that adds on to the cost but in the overall scheme of things, this is the cheapest pre-university qualification a Malaysian can obtain. Many may also find it surprising that STPM is also widely accepted in most countries as students need to sit for a Malaysian University English Test (MUET) to show they have acceptable proficiency in the language.

Of course if the intention is to attend Malaysian public universities to obtain a degree, then a good STPM SGP score will also gain your child entry into the course of his choice but for high demand courses like medicine and dentistry he will have to compete against Matrikulasi and Asasi students. Getting a place in a Malaysian secondary school to take STPM is also tough as spaces are very limited and competition is keen. Getting a credit for Bahasa Malaysia is compulsory and the nominal criteria for science subjects are a maximum of 18 points so good SPM results are a pre requisite.

Do however note that because STPM only starts in May after the SPM results have been announced and the academic year in Malaysian public universities usually start in September, it takes nearly three years for a student to enter university after they have sat for their SPM exams. Most will use this time to gain some valuable working experience but if you’re in a rush to get your child a degree, this isn’t the best option to take.

Pros: 
Very cheap, can be used for university entry in Malaysia or overseas

Cons: 
Long lead time before university entry, requires Bahasa proficiency, limited availability


The vocational route
Most parents won’t even consider vocational courses due to their own preconceived notions about it being for students who failed in school but the fact remains that there are a vast number of students who just don’t excel in a traditional classroom environment. So instead of forcing them to sign up for expensive pre-university courses and then ending up with poor results, it may be prudent to see if vocational training is the way to go.

There are literally hundreds of different vocational courses available and all of them will ensure students are given the knowledge they require to become skilled workers upon graduation. Even better, a number of industries have such a shortage of workers that companies offer internships with the promise of a guaranteed job upon graduation to the best students, which is certainly more reassurance than most university graduates have.

Just because it isn’t a traditional study route though, it doesn’t mean that vocational students don’t need to study. If anything, a lot of self-discipline and motivation is required to ensure that they take their training seriously and have the correct attitude that will gain them employment. Some private vocational schools are also pricey these days due to the high cost of parts and materials required during the course but the advantage is that students should be able to join the job market just two or three years after taking their SPM exams. And yes, these students can also study for a degree upon graduation with many courses offering exemptions from certain modules in a related field. 

Pros: 
Quickest route to the job market, cheaper and easier than most pre-university courses

Cons: 
Parents need to be convinced, social stigma, less likely to be promoted to managerial posts

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