Recently, there has been some hullabaloo about education in the country.

About two weeks ago, former youth and sports minister Syed Saddiq Abdul Rahman said that Malaysia’s education syllabus is trailing behind Singapore by three years.

Education Minister Fadhlina Sidek, a few days later, responded by saying that Malaysia’s education syllabus is on par with that of countries like Singapore and Japan (and let’s just say that not everybody agreed wholeheartedly with her).

This comes on the heels of non-stop commentary about the disruptive effects of ChatGPT on exams, assignments, etc.

I wish to add to this stormy conversation the reminder that given how rigid the education sector is, it is more likely than not to be overhauled overnight by forces beyond its control i.e. the less adaptive a person or institution is, the higher the impact of an eventual knock.

One element which could create such change is what I call the Spotify factor.

Education Minister Fadhlina Sidek said that Malaysia’s education syllabus is on par with that of countries like Singapore and Japan. — Bernama pic© Provided by Malay Mail
Buy a degree or learn via subscription?

Payment via subscription is hardly a new thing. The idea of paying a fixed fee per period for a continuous flow of services or products has been around since the first newspapers and magazines.

Maybe that’s why not many pay it quite the attention that it deserves, because if the idea or concept is reinvented and catches on, it could mean huge changes in major sectors.

As I work in education, my observation is that the subscription business model — popularly embodied in apps like Spotify and Netflix — could completely overhaul the industry to an unrecognisable point.

The potentially mega question is: What if parents and students no longer want to purchase education by the certificate but prefer to learn by subscription?

Simply imagine private colleges offering learning “packages” whereby students pay, say, RM200 a month during which they can study as many courses as they want.

If they accumulate enough courses after one or two years, they could then be provided the option to — voilà! — ”bundle” those courses into a Bachelor’s degree.

The variations are endless, of course. “Premium” subscriptions may involve one-on-one discussions with selected professors, free seminar attendance vouchers, e-library database privileges, prom night tickets (?!), etc.

If such an education arrangement starts to resemble a Spotify playlist, that’s hardly surprising. In fact, organisations like Coursera, Future Learn and Udemy are already leading the way.

However, these online education portals do not as yet pose a threat to brick-and-mortar universities and colleges because society (especially Asian society) still finds it hard to divorce “authentic” education from “big name” education players.

All this could change if world-renowned universities quit selling on-campus learning and opt (or are forced to) to put their “souls” — i.e. their courses — into online platforms instead.

Also, many of these Web-learning platforms cater to the executive education market instead of the undergraduate sector. The former remains more selective, short-term and piece-meal (which is why traditional universities generally struggle to make post-graduate courses sustainable) whereas the latter’s long-term lock-in and grade-obsessed nature helps maintain the dominant position of many education big-players.

However, just like how Spotify has overwhelmed the music market, how Grab and Uber has dominated the ride-booking market and how AirBnB remains a huge threat to big hotels, it may not be long before a major platform which offers educational courses with reputations on par with traditional academia begins to overhaul the way higher education is done (see note 1).

We only need to have one big player come along, offer online courses taught by reputable lecturers and certificates recognised by enough industry-players and that’s it.

The old game played by academia will be basically over.

Even the revered Malaysian Qualifications Agency (MQA) wouldn’t be able to do much because who cares if Certificate X or Bachelor Degree Y is not accredited by MQA if, say, Google or Microsoft or Toyota value it?

This would be, in fact, one of the major side-effects of such a scheme i.e. the decoupling (or rescue?) of education from some national oversight slash statutory body.

Ultimately, the main thing about any course wouldn’t be what this government organisation says about it but what key industry players say.

True to the Spotify-like theme, imagine if this new platform allows students to mix and match courses to their heart’s content.

Instead of a section in their CVs showing their Bachelor’s or Masters’ degrees, their education will show a list of courses passed or completed with outstanding marks.

Not only would this allow employers to immediately see what their potential hires have studied specifically (as opposed to just a “Bachelor’s Degree in Economics”), employers can even discuss the possibility of their employees pursuing additional courses over the next few years, with hopefully further relevance and use to the job.

Therefore, the students’ education would not “end” with their Bachelor’s degree.

How far can subscriptions go?

The education sector isn’t the only one ripe for disruption.

We can easily imagine a day when people no longer buy cars; instead they “subscribe” to Socar or Grab to get transportation services (or maybe be given a car) for an X amount of time for a selected number of routes weekly.

Obviously, organisations like Air Asia and many hotels are doing something like subscription when they offer one lump sum price for an X number of flights or nights’ stay.

Or a law or architectural firm which “subscribes” for lawyers or architects’ services for a duration of time; think about the HR costs this would save.

Needless to say, a certain lawyer (or teacher or engineer or mechanic) would be able to sell his/her services to whichever company wants to subscribe to her work.

This would extend the concept of the “retainer” in which a company basically subscribes to a law firm for their services.

Multi-level marketing companies already engage in a form of subscription when they lock-in their members’ payment for a set of goods or services every month.

At the heart of the subscription phenomenon is how “flow” is replacing “fixity” as the key unit in modern life.

In the past, scrolls and books were dominant; today streams and “scrolling” (!) are the way most people experience text.

Likewise, Netflix (which allows you to watch a dozen movies within an hour if you choose) continues to be a huge challenge to sitting in a cinema for two hours straight.

Today’s society no longer wants static “things” so much as we desire never-ending experiences and options (see note 2).

Perhaps this is why companies like O2Work and Worq will grow as a challenge to traditional ideas of office space. Why rent only one location when you can work in multiple locations by paying a monthly rate?

* Note 1: In this article I’m only referring to pre-U and undergrad education. Obviously, it will be somewhat harder to “Spotifise” primary and secondary education given how entrenched institutional schooling is.

Having said that, it’s certainly not impossible that one day a million parents will say, hey, my son can study for his SPM via an online portal and later take the exam. When that day comes, MOE will have its work absolutely cut out for it.

* Note 2: For a great introduction to this, see chapter 3 of the book by former Wired magazine editor Kelly, K. — “The inevitable: Understanding the 12 technological forces that will shape our future.”  ** This is the personal opinion of the columnist.