Each day, Nurul Aifaa Shahbudin starts the morning by attending a two-hour online class on coding for beginners.
This has been her routine for a year now, since completing her Form Five studies in 2020.
She scored 6As for her Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia or SPM examination, but was determined to explore her options outside of attaining a conventional university education.
Apart from coding, she also attends online Mandarin classes and can speak enough of the language to converse with her friends.
Aifaa decided to take up coding to learn how to build data systems for clients with a variety of businesses and requests.
“My first job was for a kindergarten operator, developing a system for student registration and data for parents and teachers,” she said.
“After that, I began building up my client base among entrepreneurs who want their own system to collect and store customer data.”
In Negeri Sembilan, meanwhile, Mohd Fitri spends his time learning foreign languages, also through online classes.
At 18, his goal is to make a career from these languages. He has been fluent in Japanese since his days in school, and is now working to master Korean with a South Korean teacher.
He already has a steady stream of customers who require his services as a translator during meetings.
He has also been asked to translate subtitles for Korean dramas for local television stations and even Netflix.
Like Aifaa, he did well in his SPM exam, scoring As in nine of the 10 subjects he took.
They are among a number of young people looking to break with the “old script” of heading to university after finishing secondary school.
Data from the statistics department showed that in 2019, some 390,000 or 72.1% of SPM graduates were not inclined to continue their studies. These numbers were in line with the trend in other countries including the UK where, in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, only two-thirds of school-leaving students said it was important to attend university.
Both Aifaa and Fitri are sceptical about the direction of university classes which they describe as “old school” and not in line with developments in the digital era.
Then there is the matter of cost, which can run into tens of thousands of ringgit.
In comparison, Fitri and Aifaa pay less than RM6,000 a year in class fees.
For Aifaa, there are other considerations at play as well.
She had dreamt of graduating from university since she was a child, but coming from a low-income family with many brothers and sisters, she eventually decided to put aside her dreams and do what she could without furthering her education.
“I might not have any qualifications but my experience and record in building database systems for clients will be my benchmark for my career,” she said.
Fitri meanwhile does not want to be stuck paying off a student loan.
He also believes that in order to realise the goal of Malaysians for progress and development, he must dare to break free from the prevailing narrative of education.
“People might think that I’m just learning new languages, but they don’t know how many companies I have helped that were previously bullied because of language barriers,” he said.
“A lot of them didn’t get fair deals because of communication issues during negotiations.”
Like Aifaa, he has nothing against the concept of a university education. He only believes that classes should be improved to ensure they remain relevant.
He also urged parents and teachers not to take a negative view of the statistics on students who are uninterested in furthering their studies.
He said these students might already have alternative plans in place for their career paths and lives.
“Internet users shouldn’t look down on them, either,” he added.
“Even if they don’t go to university, they can still contribute to society in many ways.”