Sunday, October 30, 2005

UM's Fall: Denial, Ignorance and Incredulity

The fall in rankings of University Malaya in the world university rankings table has been given a fair bit of prominence by the local print media. The disappointment of our Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Abdullah Badawi was given prominent coverage in the New Straits Times (NST) with the headline "Abdullah ‘very sad’ over UM’s slide in rankings".

The Star has a shorter article entitled "Pak Lah wants UM to find out why ranking dropped". However, the Star must be given credit for being able to provide extensive coverage of the rankings table in the "Star Education" pull-out segment, within such a short period of time.

The responses from various parties from the government and education sector, as well as politicians and concerned parties have come in a fast and furious pace. This blogger actually feels particular "slow" in providing the necessary response! :) Sdr Lim Kit Siang himself have issued 3 statements already on the subject.

Hence over the next couple of days, you can expect Kian Ming and myself to provide additional analysis and commentary on the issue and its wider implications. While the focus of the issue is on UM itself, we believe that the problems faced by UM are really fairly uniform across Malaysia's public universities. Therefore, this issue deserves serious attention by concerned and interested parties like ourselves and others.

But first of all, I'd just like to coagulate the responses that has been provided so far by the parties related to UM and other public universities. Unfortunately, with the exception of Pak Lah, the responses has displayed apathy, the standard denial syndrome and total incredulity to the "drastic" fall in the rankings of the universities.

Our Deputy Higher Education Minister Fu Ah Kiow said the magnitude of UM’s fall in the ranking was "inconceivable".
"There is obviously some inconsistency in the ranking criteria," he said, adding that the ministry understood that some of the criteria were not relevant to local universities. For example, he said, one criterion was the number of international students and lecturers in the universities.
Oh my goodness! First of all, just because UM suffered a large fall doesn't make it "inconceivable". Would someone like to volunteer forwarding our take on the previous year's rankings analysis to our dear inconceivably ignorant ministers?

Secondly, our deputy higher education minister blamed the international students and faculty criteria for the drop in rankings, and that the criteria wasn't relevant for Malaysian universities. Does he know that the only reason why UM was ranked in the top 100 for the previous year is solely because it received (mistakenly) an extremely favourable rating in the same criteria? Does he know that the reason why UM and USM received such favourable ratings is because ethnic Chinese and Indian Malaysians were likely to have been treated as "foreign students" previously?

While, NST was unable to make contact with the vice-chancellor of Universiti Malaya, Prof Datuk Dr Hashim Yaakob, the Star was able to extract a few invaluable quotes from him.
UM vice-chancellor Prof Datuk Dr Hashim Yaacob said that the marks the university obtained is more significant than its ranking. UM scored 0/100 in the employer survey and highest (33/100) for peer review. The university also scored low in citations (1/100) and international students (7/100).

“I am not worried because we are still within the top 200 and for the first time a Malaysian university has broken into the top 50 in the arts and humanities and the top 100 in the social sciences.”
"I am not worried" - if this doesn't make him "worried", then I really wonder what will. This statement only serves to show the type of apathy engulfing the administrators of our academic institutions. I'd hazard a cynical guess that his recent suggestion at increasing foreign student intake is to "easily" climb the rankings table. Not surprising, Sdr Lim Kit Siang has called for the vice-chancellor to be sacked.
Prof Datuk Dr. Hashim Yaacob should resign as University of Malaya Vice Chancellor not only for the shocking 80-place plunge of the nation’s premier university from 89th to 169th position in the Times Higher Education Supplement (THES) World University Ranking for Top 200 Universities 2005, but for his disgusting complacency when he could say that he was “not worried”.

From Hashim’s reaction, it would appear that there was nothing wrong whatsoever with the University of Malaya – and that the Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi was completely misguided and misinformed to be “very sad” at University of Malaya’s slide in the rankings.

It is most shocking and completely unacceptable that the Vice Chancellor of University of Malaya is the very picture of smug complacency when he should be the most distressed and ashamed person in the country over the university’s drastic drop of 80 places in the 2005 Ranking.
Just a little more than a month ago, UM has arrogantly placed a full page advertisement in NST proclaiming it's excellence - and with a cocksure stance, declared that:
In 2004, UM was placed 89th in the 'University World Ranking' by The TIMES of LONDON. YAB Deputy Prime Minister earlier this year has challenged UM to be among the 50 best universities by 2020. To achieve this target, UM has to improve its position by 2.6 places each year. What is UM's position for 2005? Wait and see in November this year!!!
Yes, now we have seen - so what say you, Prof Datuk Dr Hashim Yaakob?

Of course, have you seen the large billboard outside UM proclaiming its world class status, are they going to take down the billboard now? Maybe, instead of "UM Sudah Bertaraf Dunia", they should just do the errata: "UM Pernah Bertaraf Dunia". It'll be cheaper than taking down the billboard.

USM Vice-Chancellor, Prof Datuk Dr Dzulkifli Abdul Razak was also interviewed by the Star, for the drop from 111th to "unranked". He hypothesized that "the addition of new criteria such as the employer survey could have contributed to the sharp drop in the university’s position."
“Our poor standing could also be attributed to the fact that we are a relatively young university compared to UM which is 100 years old. They have built up a stable reputation in that time.”

Prof Dzulkifli also cited the poor staff-student ratio in Malaysian universities. “Over the past years we have doubled our intake. USM now has 35,000 students including 28,000 undergraduates but the number of lecturers, about 1,800 has not increased in tandem.”
Being academics, I find their responses extremely discouraging and shows their complete ignorance of data and facts, not to mention, the lack of any credible analytical skills. Prof Dzulkifli's theory that UM did better relative to USM because UM have acquired a more "stable" reputation hence achieving better scores in the employer survey is completely off the mark. The fact is, despite a more "stable reputation", UM scored an absolute "0" for the recruiter review.

The blame on the "poor staff-student ratio" while appearing reasonable, was also not the significant issue in this case. USM scored only 15/400 in the 2004 survey (yes, that's 3.75%), hence it could not have been much worse at all in the current year survey. The fact of the matter is simple. The 2004 survey ranked USM as the 4th most international university in the world i.e., with the 4th highest international student population - probably due to the high Chinese Malaysian population in Penang, and that has wrongly resulted in the 111th ranking. This year, the mistake has been rectified and USM rightly, disappeared from the list.

We expect our university academics to be more analytically sound. Instead we find them searching for irrelevant excuses, and go as far as attempting to discredit the rankings table, when it is not in their favour. Our analysis here is made purely from widely available and published data which the same university academics have access to. Their inability to comprehend and interpret simple statistical data, or worse, their possible blatant attempt at ignoring them, makes them unbefitting leaders of our premier institutions of higher learning.

7 comments:

xpyre said...

Perhaps the most important rating listed is that of the employer's criteria. While in some instances the results may be skewed based on employer perception rather than solid facts, it still says alot about what employers think of students coming out of UM: absolutely nothing.

Not only are the reactions from such "eminent" academics delusional, for them to be dismissive only promises a further downward trend in rankings; who among us will be surprised if UM emerges unranked next year now?

rakyat said...

The VCs of UM and USM can afford to be complacent. It is "inconceiveable" that they will be sacked for such an inconceiveable fall in ranking.

Their boss had already said, "The criteria used to rank the universities in the survey may differ from local needs.

Sometimes, the criteria may differ from what we have set for our own institutions of higher learning.

We have our own criteria, which is mainly focused on (human resource) development".

http://www.nst.com.my/Current_News/NST/Sunday/National/20051030090835/Article/indexb_html

clk said...

First you choose to accept the ranking when you're in top 100. When you slip you claim the rankings are flawed...

Either you accept it and play by their rules or you refuse to accept it and hence need not follow it.

Many non-traditional schools are not ranked for various reasons and hence don't make a fuss out of it. You can't find schools like Insead or Cranfield because they probably don't fit into their criteria. The Open U in the UK for example is another school which cannot be ranked similarly probably because the majority of their students are not your conventional type of undergraduates you find elsewhere. They would also probably score nothing when it comes to student:faculty ratio for example.

Again, this ranking is merely a symptom of what actually plagues our local schools. The root cause is probably well know out here.

man_interrupted said...

Clk's observation is spot on. New criteria or no, it is at the very least disingenuous for them to use rankings as a selling point* and then discredit them when they become a liability.

The question is: can the responses be taken at face value?

1. If they are, then this is indeed very worrying. If the VC genuinely is "not worried" and the status quo will continue then we are looking at a prolonged higher education crisis, which is just bad for students, employers and the economy.

2. If they are not, then what can they possibly mean?

a. It is to save face.

The publicity from openly admitting there have been failures and lack of results will further discredit the university and the administration.

b. We are not "worried", just "concerned"

A politician's answer, (and I suppose, how they would initiate a U-turn, which is inevitable unless someone gets sacked) there is no need to get into a panic.

Possible future politician's gobbledygook:

"Instead, the university will constructively engage in boosting its performance to serve its most immediate needs in the short term and then seek to further its international standing in the long-term."

Bearing in mind the political nature of how universities appear to be run in this country I think that the responses to the fall in rankings (save Pak Lah) should probably fall closer towards 2. than 1. It's not that they have no idea what's going on and don't want to admit it, but rather they do but just don't want to look bad.

To me it seems inconceivable (there's that word!) that the university administrators or whoever it is that is in charge do not get the idea that they are not getting the job done well enough and can continue to do things the way they are doing now.

But perhaps that is too optimistic. Tony - if you are correct and they cannot fathom the shallow waters of simple statistical analysis, or worse, choose to ignore it, then this is nothing short of catastrophic. Then the question will be: how badly will BN be punished for this at the next general election? But that is a different matter...


* Not that 89th is even a great position to shout about to begin with.

Anonymous said...

They have no time running to improve the Uni's performance. Right now they are like a chicken with its head cut off running around doing damage control by continously

a) living in denial
b) discredit and criticise the ranking
c) continue to delude the staff and students in UM
d) UM boleh

Which one is your favorite pick?

PS: Told ya it wont make it into the next 100th ranking after their glorious flawed 89th.

Anonymous said...

I personally do not see what the surprise is about. Many in education have been in denial of its failings and, like many of those before me have aptly put, have chose to find sollace only in either finding fault with others, or discrediting them with the simple line "They simply do not understand".

However, just because I am not surprised, does not mean I am not concerned. Politics be damned, it is a sad day when those who are entrusted to teach cannot fall in grace when simply confronted with the truths of their disability.

It is ironic (and hipocritic) that these are the very same traits they will eventually come to fault youngesters for. Hopefully, a day will come when those who matter realise the severity of their doings and education in this country may finally see the glory it once held. (I don't even want to talk about getting it back, as of yet)

Anonymous said...

I don't pretend to know what constitutes a good science or a good arts education but I am familiar with UM's engineering education. UM achieved a good theoretical engineering curriculum in the 70's seviced by academic staff that never ventured into the industry. The mathematics taught then was of high standards. Then came the Semester System - the standards dropped. Then came staff promotions on the based on research and publications - the standards dropped further. Perhaps this commensurate with jobs available in the market for UM's graduate.