Soft skills using in public universities in Malaysia

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Malaysians, especially the institutes of higher learning, begin to realize the importance of soft skills after the Higher Education Ministry introduced the Soft Skills Module to all public universities in August 2006. With the emphasis on soft skills, it has then become a necessity to integrate soft skills into the undergraduate programmes. Such remedial action is taken due to the increased of graduates' unemployment rate in Malaysia, as well as the rapid expand of job market through the globalization.

The graduates in education play a great role in the human capital development - one of the utmost crucial aspects in developing our country. The power of our human capital is highly connected with the graduates' mentality and intellectual capacity. Producing graduates in education with the essential elements of soft skills would heighten the country's capability to compete with the rest of the world. This is a must if Malaysia aims to realize the vision of the New Economic Model, the Government Transformation Programme, and the 10th Malaysia Plan (2011 - 2015).

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Indeed, institutes of higher learning around the world indisputably are working their best to mould graduates with skills that are highly regarded by employers and able to contribute to the country's prosperity and social capital. Even more important is, the society would generally expected that besides the solid theoretical knowledge (hard skills), a quality education graduate should acquire additional soft skills. This balance is what gives one graduate competitive edge over another.

The term "soft skills", which can also be referred as process skills, generic attributes or transferable skills, has no single definition on a particular set of skills. The general common descriptions of these skills include communication skills, life-long learning, team work, leadership, creative and critical thinking skills. All these qualities can be obtained beyond the classroom and of course, the textbooks. Thus, "book" education alone will no longer suffice in building successful educators. Besides equipping themselves with knowledge, it is also important that the graduates must acquire practical skills and good values.

According to Chapman (2006), Bloom's Taxonomy of Educational Objectives comes with three learning domains: Cognitive, Affective and Psychomotor Domains. The Cognitive Domain involves intellectual capability such as knowledge, whilst the Affective Domain involves feelings, emotions and behaviour just like attitude, and Psychomotor Domain involves manual and physical skills. Hence, the measurement of TESL undergraduates' knowledge, skills, and attitude require appropriate tools, which are certainly more than just the traditional pen and paper.

In Malaysian context, institutes of higher education are perceived as having a very important role in instilling soft skills to students. No doubt, it would be challenging in the attempts to offer an optimum learning environment. Still, it is crucial to get our students ready to compete with the rest in today's rapidly changing world. Students should be well-rounded academically and personally. In other words, besides knowing-what, students must know-how.

Statement of the Problem

The system and focus of education in Malaysia has witnessed immense changes over the past two decades. The nature of universities is changing in seeking to meet the new demands and needs of the industry from time to time. Furthermore, through the reinterpretation of the university's purpose and role in the face of society's changing aspirations, universities have attempted to clarify the nature of the education which they offer to their students.

This is crucial in order to extend their graduates' potential of contribution to the society (Barnett 1990). The most evident attempt in which universities have sought to articulate their role and purpose is through the description of their graduates' qualities, in another word, soft skills. The acquirement of soft skills is pivotal in terms of improving the nation's development and curbing the latest issues in society, such as the increased rate of unemployment and complaints about graduates' performances which are way below expectations.

In 2005, the Malaysian government declared that there were 67,000 unemployed graduates, where most of them had graduated between 2000 and 2004. About 92.6% of these unemployed graduates were from public universities; in contrary, only 5.3% from private institutions. Even before the nation received this alarming news, the Malaysian Institute of Economic Research (MIER 2004) had announced the results of a survey on the employability and marketability of university graduates, showing that 46.2% of public university graduates were unemployed in 2003.

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The reasons cited for the low unemployment prospects of public university graduates are that they are inadequately prepared for the job market, lack linguistic (English proficiency, both oral and written) (Lim and Normizan 2004; Chiam 2005; Norizan et al. 2006; EPU 2007; Marina 2007) and technical skills, plus cognitive abilities (analytical thinking, problem-solving, reasoning). Many other countries have also recognized that higher education has not met the expectations of employers (Leckey and McGuigan 1997; Bennett et al. 1999; Kember et al. 2006).

The issue of graduate employability seems to be associated with the quality and relevance of programmes offered by public universities (World Bank 2007). Apparently, the formal syllabus structure of public universities has inadequate focus on the integration of soft skills in the curriculum (see also Quek 2005; Quah et al. 2009). Not only that, the teaching approaches has also been mainly didactic, where the students are so used to receive inputs rather than discovering themselves.

Studies, researches and employers have suggested it is important for the public universities to incorporate additional soft skills into their curriculum (communication, critical thinking, and problem-solving). By bridging the gaps between universities and the demands of current industry, it creates opportunity for students to be exposed with workplace experience in different sectors (World Bank 2007).

Purpose of the Study

The main objective of this research is to examine the perspective of TESL undergraduates on the most important soft skills for professional development. Secondly, the study also aimed to investigate the TESL undergraduates' perception on the soft skills developed by University of Malaya. The last purpose is to identify if difference exists in the level of importance and competency in soft skills.

Significance of the Study

It is crucial for the government and public universities to improve the quality and employability of graduates. This study reviews the infusion-acquisition of the soft skills in the curriculum of TESL the undergraduates' perspective. Hence, it provides the society a clearer picture on the current achievement of the university in bridging the gaps between soft skills and the formal curriculum. The study would show whether the graduates that the university produced possess a right balance of diverse abilities.

Besides that, this study helps to gain wider attention on the importance of soft skills among the undergraduates. They would obtain greater realization that students are now both inputs and outputs (see also Newman et al. 2004), under the broad dimension of quality in higher education. Furthermore, it also increases recognition where student learning must be enhanced beyond the mastery of content. This is important as it ensures the graduates to succeed in the local labour market.

Therefore, this paper aims to shed light on the importance of soft skills as perceived by TESL undergraduates on the role and values of these skills in educating the future educators, in an attempt to understand what value they attribute to this set of skills.

Research Questions

The research questions for this study are as follows:

1. What are the most important soft skills as perceived by TESL undergraduates?

2. How do TESL undergraduates perceive the soft skills development by University of Malaya?

3. What is the relationship between the importance of soft skills and the levels of soft skills developed?

Background

Literature Review

What are soft skills?

There are no specific skills that are listed as soft skills; it is being defined differently around the world. In the context of Malaysia, the Malaysian Institute of Higher Learning interprets soft skills as incorporating aspects of generic skills. It includes non-academic skills such as leadership, teamwork, communication, and lifelong learning. The seven traits of soft skills that are introduced for the institutes of higher learning in Malaysia are communication skills, critical thinking, problem-solving, lifelong learning and information management skills, leadership, entrepreneurship skill, team work, ethnics and morals.

First, from the aspect of communication, students are required to achieve fluency while conversing in Bahasa Malaysia and English language. As graduates, they should be able to express their ideas with clarity and confidence both in written and oral forms. Aside from that, they are expected to be active listeners where while providing the necessary response. Graduates should also be capable of using technology during presentations confidently (Ministry of Higher Education Malaysia 2006).

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The following trait, critical thinking and problem solving skills, allows graduates to reflect in a critical, creative, innovative, and analytical way. Not only that we want the graduates to obtain higher level of knowledge, we also want them to be capable in applying the knowledge. Elements that graduates must possess under this aspect are the ability to identify and analyze complex situation as well as making evaluations that are reasonable. In addition, they should have the ability to expand and improve thinking skills, to provide ideas, and alternative solutions (Ministry of Higher Education Malaysia 2006).

Apart from that, the skills of team work are also being integrated to the curriculum. Such skills involve the ability to work and cooperate with people from various social and cultural backgrounds in order to accomplish a shared goal. Forming a good working relationship with the peers is essential. Graduates are inculcated with sense of respect towards others' attitude, behaviour, and belief. From time to time, graduates are also expected to undertake the role of a leader and a group member interchangeably (Ministry of Higher Education Malaysia 2006).

In addition to that, from the aspect of lifelong learning and information management, graduates are nurtured to acquire skills and knowledge in practicing self-directed learning independently. They should have the skills to look for relevant information from diverse sources and able to organize them efficiently. Moreover, they should be responsive to new ideas and able to develop an inquiry mind (Ministry of Higher Education Malaysia 2006).

Entrepreneurship skill, also one the traits of soft skills, involves the ability to venture into business and work-related opportunities while creating risk awareness. This skill includes the ability to identify business opportunities and be able to prepare, build, and explore business plans which eventually leads to self-employment (Ministry of Higher Education Malaysia 2006).

Aside from that, ethics and professional moral is significant in moulding quality graduates as well. With the above skill, graduates are able to practice high moral standards in their respective professional fields. Graduates should own the capability to understand the effects of economy, environment, and socio-cultural factors of their professional practice. In relation to ethical issues, graduates should have the capacity to analyze and make decisions in matters concerning ethics. Beyond the working environment, graduates should be able to practice good ethics while being responsible towards the society (Ministry of Higher Education Malaysia 2006).

Last but not least, the Malaysian Institute of Higher Learning also seeks to develop leadership skill Leadership skill entails the ability to lead in various activities. Graduates should have the knowledge on basic leadership theories which will enable the graduates to lead a project. It is also essential that graduates are able to understand the role of a leader and a group member and be able to carry out those roles interchangeably (Ministry of Higher Education Malaysia 2006).

The Pre-Employment Programme of the University Malaya

Soon after the Malaysian Institute of Higher Learning has launched the Soft Skills Module for Malaysian Public Universities, in 2007, University of Malaya has introduced Pre-Employment Programme for graduates who scored below CGPA 3.0. The objective of this programme is to encourage the use of English in and beyond the classrooms setting. It is also strive to develop communication skills in English but also to motivate cooperative learning.

The aims of the curriculum and activities designed for this programme are to assist students to write effective letters of application, to conduct themselves favourably at interviews, and to improve their fluency and accuracy in English. Furthermore, it aims to prepare the students to be more confident and train them as active communicators at the workplace.

In the pre-employment programme, communication skills are being improved by the reading of advertisements as well as to learn and using social greetings. The graduates would practice telephone conversations, role playing, make speeches, and express their opinions and suggestions. Plus, they would learn the use of discourse markers and persuasive skills in interpersonal communication, grammar and vocabulary as well as writing cover letters and resumes. The graduates would also have to participate in public speaking and stage presentation.

Apart from that, this programme promotes cooperative learning among the graduates. They are divided into small groups with different gender, ethnics and backgrounds. Being in smaller groups enables the graduates realize that each group member's efforts are required and indispensable for group success; they should know everyone has a unique contribution to make.

Critical thinking and problem solving skills are also learnt through the group activities. Friendly competitions are created between groups to identify the group with the best solution. Groups with the best solution and with the most critical ideas would be announced as winners. Such competition between the groups helped to develop not only the communication and negotiation skills in English, but also the inter-personal and small group skills, where social skills such as leadership skills, decision making, trust building, communication, and conflict management skills are learnt and developed as well.

Teaching Practicum

Teacher training or teaching practicum can assist in bridging the gap that exists between education and employment. It has become a recognized method for developing the carrier potential of students and making education more relevant (Hymon-Parker & Smith, 1998). Teaching practicum presents the student with an opportunity to gain invaluable experience. Classroom learning alone is no longer sufficient to adequately prepare students for the demands of our education field. The right training can be the key to a great job success because it gives the student a change to take on real responsibilities while working side-by-side with professionals.

According to Dennis (1996, as cited in Verney, Holoviak, & Winter, 2009), "internships can help expand upon immediate skills that can improve course performance, such as better time management and communication skills, better self-discipline, heightened initiative and an overall better self-concept". These skills cannot be properly developed if it is just from classroom learning. In University of Malaya, TESL undergraduates will have the opportunity to personally experience the real working culture during the final year for 12 weeks.

Mihail (2006) asserted that job training can instill the real work values, gain direct access to job sources, impress potential employers and assist in making wise career choices, all of which can help to improve future job opportunities. Hence, in order to compete and survive in the challenging and competitive working environment, students must develop their work skills, both hard and soft through real work experience.

This real work experience has been employed by the education system in developing soft skills in students. The real job setting is expected to enhance student's soft skills effectively. Research also suggested that the development of any skill is best facilitated by giving students practice and not by simply talking about it or demonstrating how to do it (D.R. Woods, et al., 1997 as cited in Kamsah, 2006). A study by Cook, Parker and Pettijohn (2004) has shown that job training has improved the general ability to get along with people in work situations, increased confidence level and influenced the future career of the graduates.

Furthermore, collective feedback obtained from the evaluations can also be used to revise the curriculum in order to improve student performance and meet employers' needs and expectations in the future. Issues such as the lack of practical application as commented by the employers can be minimized and the students can develop various applied workplace skills for transition from the classroom to the world of work. Therefore, with the teaching practicum, development of soft skills among TESL graduates is projected to be more effective.

Perception of graduates towards soft skills

According to the study of Devadason, Subramaniam, and Daniel (2010), the general perspectives of final undergraduates in University of Malaya shows that the skills embedded in both coursework and training has not met the needs of the students, with the exception for a few skills. This implies that these skills are not adequately infused or acquired either by coursework or training. Plus, their perception also shows that there is insufficient of infusion and acquisition on lifelong learning and information management skills.

This reveals a lack of dynamism in the existing programmes of public universities. Courses should be structured to cultivate lifelong learning through active reading and research beyond textbook learning. The result also shows that there is insufficient of integration of leadership skills in the formal curriculum. In fact, this skill is perceived as a critical weakness of local graduates (Quah et al. 2009).

In total, the perceived low and selective appreciation of skills by students implies that graduates are still ill-equipped with the necessary competencies. It reflects that there is indeed a need to readdress the existing strategies within the teaching-learning process to ensure a better integration of soft skills. The findings of selective acquisition of certain soft skills in Malaysian universities correspond to the study by Aida et al. (2006).

The current situation that happens to Malaysia is many students are equipped with the latest technical certifications and solid work experience; yet lacking the non-technical skills (Kamsah, 2006). While graduating, students may enhance their employability by obtaining an extra degree or certificates, they may not realize on the payoff in acquiring soft skills until after graduating (Brown, Hesketh, & Williams, 2003).

Another research by Kamsah (2007) indicates that the graduates of University Technology Malaysia believe that each of the soft skills is developed moderately. Therefore, more effort should be put in to empower soft skills among the students through co curricular activities or even during the teaching and learning processes. The university graduates happen to realize that critical thinking and problem solving skills as well as the team working skills are essential to survive the working field. Both domains are viewed as equally important for professional development.

Aside from that, from a graduate perspective, soft skills are seen as being deficient in graduates relative to hard skills (Arnold & Davey, 1994; Mullen, 1997) although Strebler (1997) notes that technical or hard skill are perceived by graduates as being relatively more critical for getting a job. Similarly, soft skills are generally viewed as less important by academics in comparison with workplace professionals (Page, Wilson, & Kolb, 1993). Whereas, Arnold and Davey (1994) note that as graduates spend longer in industry, they rate themselves as more competent in their hard skills but not soft skills.

Methodology

The main objective of this research is to examine the perspective of TESL undergraduates on the most important soft skills for professional development. Secondly, the study also aimed to investigate the TESL undergraduates' perception on the soft skills developed by University of Malaya. The last purpose is to identify if difference exists in the level of importance and competency in soft skills. These objectives led to the following research questions:

1. What are the most important soft skills as perceived by TESL undergraduates?

2. How do TESL undergraduates perceive the soft skills development by University of Malaya?

3. What is the relationship between the importance of soft skills and the levels of soft skills developed?

Population and Sampling

The population for this research is defined as the TESL undergraduates in University of Malaya. The undergraduates' participation in the study would be of voluntary. Selecting TESL undergraduates as the participants creates rich authenticity data for this research. The future teachers of English play significant role in nation building; therefore, their perspectives on soft skills are very much appreciated and valuable.

The selected site for this research is University of Malaya. Choosing the oldest and one of the most established universities in Malaysia enhances the research data by reflecting the perspectives of the undergraduates from the university. At the same time, the suitable location and comfortable setting of University of Malaya greatly allows the research to progress smoothly.