Wednesday, November 30, 2005

This Man Should Have Been Malaysia's Own

Kian Ming's recent post "Racial Policies Keeping Malaysian Academics Out", highlighted a Professor Lee Eng Hin, who, due to discriminatory policies migrated to Singapore to pursue his career. His case was highlighted in the Chronicle of Higher Education this month.

I'd just like to add here, exactly who Professor Lee Eng Hin is, and what a brilliant man the country has lost. And our loss, is of course, another country's gain.

You can review a more detailed resume of Professor Lee in the NUS Medical School here. In summary, this man joined the NUS in 1993 as a senior lecturer and was appointed a Professor in Orthopaedic Surgery in 1997. He became the Head of the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery in 1998, and later became the Director of Graduate Medical School as well as the Dean of the School of Medicine in the year 2000.

At the same time, he is also the Head in the Division of Paediatric Orthopaedics in the National University Hospital as well as a Senior Consultant for the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery at KK Women's and Children's Hospital.

Not only is Professor Lee appointed to top leadership positions in one of the world's top ranking universities for the field of medicine, he is also an award-winning one. Professor Lee received the Gallie-Bateman Prize for Research in Basic Science, University of Toronto (1979) as well as the Most Outstanding Basic Science Research Paper, Paediatric Society of North America (1993 and 1996) for his various pieces of seminal work.

Professor Lee is also one of the leading personalities at the forefront of stem cell research in Singapore.
His main research areas are in Musculoskeletal Tissue Engineering and Paediatric Orthopaedics and Rehabilitation. Combining his interest in Paediatric Orthopaedics and Tissue Engineering, he was one of the first to study the use of mesenchymal stem cells in the repair of physeal defects in long bones of children.

This work is now at the stage of clinical application. He has won international research awards twice in the area of tissue engineering and was recently invited to write an editorial on Stem Cells for the Journal of Paediatric Orthopaedics, the premier journal for paediatric orthopaedic surgeons. He was the Presidential Guest Speaker for the British Orthopaedic Association Meeting in September 2004, speaking on "Stem Cells in Orthopaedic Research". He is currently the Program Leader of the NUS Tissue Engineering Program (NUSTEP).
Not only did this man excel academically and professionally, he is also a socially responsible citizen. Professor Lee was Singapore's President's Social Service Award winner for 2004. He was a "volunteer who stands out above the rest".
In his work with various voluntary welfare organisations over the past 20 years, Prof Lee has helped to shape the national special education scene as well as improved the quality of life for disabled children.
...His contributions date back to 1984, when he initiated Seating for Severely Disabled Children, a project sponsored by World Orthopaedic Concern to help children who otherwise were unable to sit.

... He also helped set up Rainbow Centre, the umbrella body that coordinates the activities of MDSS [Early Intervention Programme, Programme for the Multiply Handicapped and a Programme for Children with Autism] and Balestier Special School in 1992, becoming the Centre's Vice President, then President in 1998.

... For his selfless giving of time and expertise for the good of children with disabilities, Prof Lee has also been presented with two National Day Awards, one in 1998 and another in 2003.
This man should have been one of our very own for the nation to be absolutely proud of. But instead of welcoming him with open arms, we helped nudge him to join our neighbour down South. To quote Professor Lee:
It was obvious you wouldn't get very far if you weren't the right race... Having come here I think I made the right choice... [In Malaysia,] I probably would not have become a head of department and dean of the Faculty of Medicine.
I'm a supporter of affirmative action, even possibly a race-based one. However, when affirmative actions mutate into a conspicuous policy of racial discrimination, the negative impact will not only be felt by the discriminated, but also by the ethnic group which the affirmative action is intended to help.

Today, Malaysian students, academics and citizens of all races will not have the benefit of experiencing the academic and research leadership, first class professional expertise and the dedicated humanity of Professor Lee Eng Hin.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Defending Malaysia's Twinning Programmes

One of the earliest articles which I have blogged about (and I must say, one of the reasons why I wanted to start this blog) have received the most pageviews here. My post on "World Class Universities(?)" posted on May, 2nd have also recently received some attention from the Sun, who highlighted the article in its dialogue on education with Tan Sri Yahaya Ibrahim, the pro-chancellor of Universiti Pendidikan Sultan Idris. He was also the founding president of the National Association of Private and Independent Educational Institutions Malaysia, and a past president of the Malaysian Association of Private Colleges and Universities. Thanks to "Ann Teoh" for pointing out the article to me.

Just a quick recap of my earlier post and what it's about:
One of the major peeves I have is when I see many private colleges advertising their twinning programmes as "world-class" and are partnered with the "top" universities in the various countries overseas, particularly in the United Kingdom (UK), the United States and Australia.

I get further upset when students with great potential i.e., some of the top students in SPM and STPM are "seduced" to enrol in some of the above courses which results a poorer education, making them less qualified for the employment market as they do not fulfil their best possible potential. These students who have paid so much more taking these twinning courses would have learnt more, and be better qualified for the job market if they had enrolled in some of the better local universities in Malaysia.
The very long post went on to review some of the top private institutions offering these twinning programmes in Malaysia, and their corresponding "twinned" university.

In the Sun dialogue, L. E. Teoh asked Tan Sri Yahaya to comment specifically to my blog post which "said most foreign universities we twin with are mediocre ones but are 'sold' to our Malaysian students as 'world class'."

The basic arguments used Tan Sri Yahaya in defending Malaysia's twinning programmes are:
  • that rankings are subjective
    There are two types of ranking, professional and institutionally. Professionally in certain areas, Oxford and Cambridge are the top, but certainly not in engineering. You don't go to Cambridge for engineering. I am more concerned about the professional one, focused on the judging the particular subject.
  • that these ranking studies do not refer to government publications
    The research seems rather unbalanced as it's based on a commercial publication without referring to the definitive Government source for UK Higher Education Quality - the UK Quality Assurance Agency

  • that ministry-approval and LAN-accredition better gauge of quality
    As long as the twinning degree is ministry-approved and LAN-accredited, the quality of the qualifications should be sound.
I'm not sure about you, but I find these arguments weak and often irrelevant.

Yes, there are indeed "professional" as opposed to "institutional" rankings. But I found his comment that "you don't go to Cambridge for 'Engineering'" amusing. While 'Engineering' isn't typically what Cambridge is famed for, it is still one of the top engineering schools in UK. Only Imperial College would probably have a stronger reputation for Engineering in the UK.

But even if Tan Sri Yahaya is correct that rankings also depends on the relevant "profession", I've taken the liberty to provide subject rankings of the twinned universities for the most popular courses such as computer science and business administration in my previous post, and they still do not reflect well on the universities (none falling within the top 40.

[A quick note to all critics of any rankings - I do believe that there's no such thing as a perfect rankings system. However, it's fair to say that the tables to differentiate between a university, say in the top 10, from one ranked 50th, and correspondingly, between 50th and those in the bottom 10th percentile.]

Tan Sri Yahaya argued that we should instead rely on the findings of both the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education in the UK, as well as the Lembaga Akreditasi Nasional (National Accredition Agency) (LAN) to determine if a course or university is of quality. Perhaps Tan Sri is trying to defend these twinning institutions too hard, as a former president of Malaysian Association of Private Colleges and Universities, for we all know that neither of the above agencies tell you which one is the top institutions - Cambridge will be rated similarly to Robert Gordon University. That way, practically all universities will be rated a "world-class university".

Tan Sri Yahaya also argued that the "traditional" top universities usually do not have "strategies involving twinning and other arrangements overseas". But that's exactly the point. These universities, due to their quality standards and enrolment requirements, would not find it profitable to venture overseas, as there may not be sufficient qualified students. Qualified students will find their way to the main campus anyway. Hence, by definition, it's the poorer ranked, and I dare say poorer quality universities will be the ones "expanding" overseas via twinning programmes.

Tan Sri Yahaya did add correctly that
[the] to students is to evaluate institutions on their own merits - examine their resources, ask questions about track records in employability and above all, ask about how the institution will prepare you for long term careers.

The final evaluators of the institution products are the employers in the industry. The institutions will thrive depending on how marketable their qualified students are.

I fully agree with the above. It is not the point of my argument to say that all students should not study at the local twinning programmes. My believe is institutions of different standards and quality is catered towards different groups of students. The top students should be aiming to enrol in the top 20-30 schools in the world, while the "average" students needs will be met by the "average" universities. What I'm unhappy about is due to unscrupulous marketing, mediocre programmes from average universities are marketed as "world-class" programmes, "seducing" top students who will consequently not achieve their full potential.

It is also absolutely true that the final evaluators of the institution products are the employers in the industry - and as an employer, I find most of the graduates from twinning programmes mediocre. In addition, I find that there are many high potential students from SPM who become "less attractive" because they enrolled into the wrong tertiary programmes with the wrong institutions. There are of course, exceptions to the rule (I've hired some of these exceptions as well), but I'd like to believe that these exceptions would have done well anywhere, and possibly even better at better colleges.

Just this week, I've received a letter seeking advice from a reader who has just graduated (or is graduating) from Coventry University with one of the local colleges, with a degree in Computer Science. He was definitely an above average student with 6As for his SPM. I feel extremely aggrieved that a student with great potential spent 3 years in tertiary education without achieving his full potential (or anywhere near it). And in all probabilities, many other top students are similarly led astray by the "world-class" advertising.

Another quick note, for those top students who, for one reason or another could not go pursue their education at a top university overseas and do not want to pursue the local university route, you might want to consider the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus.

[The dialogue with Tan Sri Yahaya covered other issues such as the 3+0 programmes. I will address some of these other issues in a separate post]

Racial Policies keeping Malaysian academics out

I have to thank Charis from Stanford for posting this article on a mailing list which I'm part of. It's taken from the Chronicle of Higher Education, one of the more respected journals / magazines which discusses issues to do with higher education in the US. This article focuses specifically on Malaysia. Let me first post the beginning of this article:

After graduating from medical school in Canada in the 1970s, Eng Hin Lee was eager to return home. The young Malaysian doctor wanted to be closer to his family, and he was tired of the harsh Canadian winters that never seemed to end. He also missed the simple pleasures of home, such as eating Chinese dim sum, which means "to touch the heart."

Dr. Lee knew that Malaysia, a young country hobbled by poverty, could not match the opportunities and salaries paid abroad. But he felt strongly that there was a place for him there. So the young doctor packed his bags and moved home.

"I wanted to go back to help," says Dr. Lee. Yet when he returned it became obvious it would be difficult to pursue his research goals. Biomedical science in Malaysia was in its nascent stage. Labs were pitifully equipped. There was no significant scientific environment in which to grow or contribute.

After two frustrating years, he packed his bags again. But it wasn't because of the money. It wasn't because of the labs. Dr. Lee, who is ethnically Chinese, did not feel welcome in his own country. Racial policies that had been put in place while he was away made it clear to him that he would never advance.

Notice that the article highlighted the fact that it was racial policies rather than the lack of funding that was the determining factor in pushing Dr. Lee out of Malaysia and into the welcoming arms of NUS. I thought that this article is extremely relevant given our recent discussion on the state of higher education in Malaysia.

I recently sent out a straw poll to this same mailing list asking if people who are currently pursuing their PhDs would consider going back to join the academia in a local university setting. To my surprise, the few people that did respond said that they would consider going back home and working in a local university. I would have thought that the prospect of low pay would dissuade many Malaysians who are pursuing their PhDs here in the US from returning home. (There was one response from an economist friend of mine who's earning big bucks in a private bank who cited low pay as one of the main reasons why he wouldn't go back home but even then, he also cited possible discrimination as another reason)

My sense is that people like Dr. Lee in the 1970s and those in the Malaysian Forum mailing list are not the exceptions. There are many qualified Malaysians, non-Malays included, who would seriously consider returning to 'serve' in the academia in one of our local universities. But I also think that the experience that Dr. Lee faced in the 1970s is likely to be repeated in contemporary times. The system would be equally unwelcoming (if not more so) to non-Malays.

It pains me to see a Malaysian feeling unwelcomed in his or her own country while the government goes out of its way to recruit non-Malaysians to teach in our local varsities. I've tried to stayed away from the issue of race in my postings because I sincerely feel that it's a structural problem that we face in higher education, not necessarily a racial one. For example, if we have the same incentive and disincentive structures (you don't have to publish or do research to get promoted, you are not sacked if you don't) without racial discrimination, I think our local universities would still be in deep trouble. But when structural problems are compounded by racial policies, this needs to be pointed out.

Racial policies which promote academics based on race and not on performance is a key reason why people like Dr. Lee pack their bags and leave our local universities despite their best intentions on wanting to 'serve' our country. Another quote from Dr. Lee:

"It was obvious you wouldn't get very far if you weren't the right race," says Dr. Lee.
Today he works at the National University of Singapore, where he is in charge of a huge lab that is conducting cutting-edge research in stem-cell biology. Dr. Lee, an orthopedic surgeon, leads a team of top scientists culled from all over the world.

"Having come here I think I made the right choice," says Dr. Lee, referring to Singapore's premier teaching hospital. In Malaysia, "I probably would not have become a head of department and dean of the Faculty of Medicine."

I think many Malaysians with foreign PhDs who come back to Malaysia to work in our local varsities can live with the relatively low pay (by international and regional standards). What I think they (and I'm referring to the non-Malays here) cannot take is to see colleagues being promoted to professors and heads of departments based on racial considerations rather than on merit.

There is a strong emphasis within the US academia to recruit minorities (though this policy differs from school to school). There is a perception that the minorities (ethnic and gender) that are hired may not have fulfilled the same kind of rigorous academic standards that a non-minority would have had to go through. I think most US universities would be appalled by the situation in Malaysia where the better qualified minorities are forced out of the system to benefit the less qualified majority.

I'm not saying that all non-Malays are better qualified than the Malays in our local varsities. But what I am saying is that if we had a system that promoted based stricted on merit, cases such as Dr. Lee's would be a rarity. And we would definitely have more heads of departments who are non-Malay. There's also another relatively easy way to test this. We can look at non-Malay scholars who have left the local varsities and chart their achievements in the places they've gone to. It is hard to imagine that someone like Prof Wang Gangwu would have been given the same kind of recognition and opportunities as he did in Hong Kong and Singapore had he stayed within the local varsities.

Our dear friend, the UM VC, can put up all the posters that he wants. But one article like this in a widely read magazine like the Chronicle of Higher Education is enough to convince most US academics that our local universities are of poor quality. And our loss is our neighbor's gain. At the same time as our local universities are shown in a poor light, NUS wins praise (as well as our best brains).

If one were to do a study of the extent of the brain drain from Malaysia to Singapore (forget about the US, UK and Australia for now), it wouldn't be surprising to find that flow has been enormous, however one chooses to quantify it. I personally know two Malaysian PhD students currently in Duke who graduated from NUS and will probably end up going back to NUS after they finish their PhDs. They are not the first nor will they be the last.

Dr. Shafie, you don't have to look far to recruit more lecturers with PhDs. Just take a drive over the Causeway. Finding them is easy. Whether you can be succesful in recruiting these highly qualified Malaysians to come back home to teach is another question.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus

One of the most common questions I get over the email from students and readers of this blog is whether they should pursue their further education with the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus. I have not had any experience with graduates from University of Nottingham, whether from the Nottingham campus or the Malaysian one, hence I will not be able to give accurate judgements on their quality. However, I'll gather here, some available information, as well as some further pointers to help students make (hopefully) more informed decisions.

About University of Nottingham

Nottingham is ranked very credibly by both The Times Good University Guide 2006 (12th) and the Guardian University Guide (15th) for universities in the United Kingdom (UK). Hence, it is probably the best university from UK to set up either a franchise programme or a local campus in Malaysia. In accordance to my analysis of local twinning programmes with UK universities, the next best institutions are Northumbria and Oxford Brookes, ranked 48th and 53rd respectively by the Times Guide.

Nottingham describes itself as a "research-led", with work carried out at the university winning two Nobel Prizes in 2003. The university received a record GBP82 million in research contracts in 2003-4, placing it among the top four universities in terms of private funding.

In terms of the assessment of teaching quality, it is ranked best in classics and ancient history, economics, manufacturing engineering, politics and psychology. In terms courses which are popular with many Malaysian students, it is ranked:
  • 7th for Accounting & Finance
  • 4th for Architecture
  • 16th for Biological Sciences
  • 6th for Business Studies
  • 12th for Chemical Engineering
  • 4th for Civil Engineering
  • 19th for Computer Science
  • 6th for Economics
  • 19th for Electrical & Electronic Engineering
  • 7th for Law
  • 7th for Mechanical Engineering
Its chancellor is physicist, Yang Fujia from China. In addition to the Malaysian campus, it has also opened a new campus in Ningbo, China. Only 4 universities in the UK has significantly higher entry requirements than Nottingham - Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial College and London School of Economics.

The Local Campus

The University of Nottingham is no doubt a quality institution and the only question is whether the local campus is reflective of such qualities. According to the Malaysian campus website:
The Malaysia Campus is a full and integral part of The University of Nottingham, UK and offers students the Nottingham experience in a Asean setting. It is a global institution serving an international community of students and yet is firmly rooted in all that is distinctive about UK education - innovative teaching and assessment methods, which encourage independent, creative thinking. Quality standards are also among the best in the world.
In previous replies to the emails from students and readers, I've asked them to perform further checks on the local campus, particularly on the following information to help them make their decision. I have since obtained further information on some of these questions, and I've highlighted them accordingly below.
  1. Obtain confirmation that the degree certification is from University of Nottingham itself, and not from the "Malaysia Campus".

    This, apparently is the case for certain Australian universities with a presence in Malaysia. In a written reply from the university, I've received confirmation that
    that the University of Nottingham degree certificates do not classify the student as originating from the Malaysia Campus and is exactly the same as received by students in Nottingham. However, should there be any requests for references etc, if the degree was done in Malaysia, then all references would come from the Malaysia Campus.
  2. Obtain confirmation that the entry standards to the local campus is exactly the same as that of the UK campus.

    Entry standards is typically a very accurate measure of the type of environment the university is seeking to promote. If the entry standards for the local campus is lower, you can safely deduce that the university is probably more interested in commercial returns than protecting it's quality. The degradation of entry standards have negatively affected many of the graduates from what I would regard as formerly reputable Australian universities.

    In an interview with the Sun, Professor Brian Atkins, the vice-president of the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus has confirmed and emphasised that
    [t]he main challenge is we have to develop the campus here without any negative impact on the reputation internationally. This means we can't and are not, substantially changing our courses to suit the local market. The entrance standards are the same, the level of English required to get on the course is identical. Academically, we want to maintain exactly the same standards.
  3. Find out from the University, the number of lecturers appointed from the UK campus versus locally appointed lecturers.

    With all due respect to local lecturers, a healthy ratio of UK campus lecturers will demonstrate the university's willingness to defend the quality of its teaching and courses. There are colleges which claims and advertises to have lecturers from the main campus, but these lecturers are flown in to give only 2-3 lectures a year.

    The Malaysia campus website has emphasised that "the majority of the senior academic staff are appointed from The University of Nottingham, UK. High calibre academic staff are also recruited from Malaysia and internationally."

    Professor Brian Atkins also added that:
    We have senior positions from the university here, me, and in all the schools, is a senior person from the university. This is to ensure what we do here is the same as what we do in Nottingham, UK. I've worked for Nottingham University for 30 over years. A colleague who's dean of engineering has been in Nottingham for over 20 years. Now we're down here. The venture here is thought to be so important that we are sending staff out from Nottingham, UK, to head the various units here.
  4. Obtain confirmation that the examinations and the award of degrees are standardised to ensure that there are no future discrimination in terms of the campus which a student graduates from.

    In the same letter of reply from the Malaysia Campus, it was highlighted that
    The students do not sit for the same exams, however all exam papers, both form the Malaysia Campus and the UK Campuses go to the same exam council to ensure equality of standards. Further, answer scripts are also sent to the UK.
    This is fair enough, as sitting for the same examination will involve major logistical complications. However, having the examination papers marked by the same exam council will give greater confidence to the quality standards.

  5. Check the state of facilities in the local campus, to ensure that they are of sufficient standards and qualities. Compare these facilities with other colleges. The campus is located in Semeyih. I've not seen it myself, but please visit the campus yourself to get a better feel of things.

    Once again quoting Professor Atkins:
    We've just invested RM110 million in this campus. It's designed to mirror the attributes of the main campus in Nottingham which is it's got space, not a city centre office block, except that it's warmer!
    The facilities we can now offer are at least as good as those in the UK because virtually all the facilities are new. And we've got accommodation for 636 students on campus, and a kilometre down the road, for another 150.
In addition, Professor Atkins have added an attractive mobility scheme for the Malaysian campus students:
...students can go for either one or two semesters in the UK. You can't be there during the first year, and you can't be there for the graduating year. So, if you're in a three-year course, it's the second year, or if it's a four-year course, it's the second or third year. They would pay Malaysian fees.

Purely from the information that has been made available, and assuming their accuracy, the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus doesn't look like a bad choice. Nevertheless, there's never harm for the student to perform additional double-checking. My recommendation is, if you are a student looking to pursue further tertiary education at private colleges without going overseas, University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus will be the best bet (over say, the twinning programmes highlighted here).

However, if you are top student i.e., aggregates of less than 10 in SPM and at least 2-3As for your STPM or 'A' Levels, there's never harm doing yourself a favour by applying to the top 5 universities in the UK or the top 10 in the United States. Read blog post here on applications to Oxbridge in the UK. The worst case scenario is you get rejected and you can then evaluate the best options locally.

For more information about the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus, browse their website, review their prospectus and read the full interview with Professor Brian Atkins. Also, check out this page for more information on available scholarships

Friday, November 25, 2005

Trade Fairs Glory for Universiti Sains Malaysia?

It appears that there is now an extremely worrying trend that the local academics, instead of focusing on reputable international journal publications and academic events, are now obsessing over international trade fairs to win "acclaim".

The New Straits Times reported today, that "scientists from Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) here have won three gold medals" at an international trade fair "Ideas, Inventions, New Products" (IENA) held at the Nuremberg Exhibition Centre from Nov 3-6. Three other submissions were awarded silver medals. This "achievement" is also proudly displayed on the USM website.

The focus of my post here is not so much about the actual quality of the products and innovations of the local academics (I'm not the right judge for that). My concern is that there appears to be a very unhealthy trend to seek trade fairs glory amongst Malaysian universities and academics. Earlier this year, Universiti Malaya (UM) proudly announced it's "fantastic" achievements at the 33rd International Exhibition of Inventions, New Techniques & Products in Geneva, securing 33 medals comprising of 19 Golds, 11 Silvers and 3 Bronzes.

My question is, are trade fairs the best places to "judge" the quality of a university or an academic's research, publication or inventions? With all due respect to "trade fairs", the objectives of such fairs are typically not to judge the quality of one's works but to actually create a "meeting place" between the "inventors" and the potential buyers or investors.

What about the medals, shouldn't they be "worth" something? Yes, but probably not much. Typically, the works of academics - their invention, research or publications - are judged by peers i.e., other academics in the same field who understands the subject and are able to best judge whether the "output" meets the necessary criteria to be regarded as a "quality" piece of work.

Trade fairs on the other hand, typically comprises of a hodge podge of products and innovations from a diverse set of fields. The judges, again with all due respect, are definitely not the best party to judge if a certain Probiotic Dentifrice for oral health or a biodegradable and environmental-friendly polymer for residue oil flocsorb is an innovative invention or just a waste of time. These judges are also not expected to have conducted trials on these products to determine their effectiveness and efficacies. (I'll put good money on this!)

In all likelihood, judges at trade fairs probably make the necessary awards based purely on the write up provided by the "inventor". While I've not been to an "inventor's" trade fair, I've participated in sufficient trade fairs to know that the manner in which judging is conducted is almost always based on the information contained on 1-2 sheets of paper.

What's more, and I can testify to this for IT trade fairs, the organisers of these trade fairs have an incentive to award all sorts of prizes and medals to the participants and exhibitors. Firstly, this will hopefully enable the exhibitors to attract potential buyers or investors with the "awards", to ensure that the fair will be considered a "success". And secondly, these awards, should serve as a consolation prize, should the exhibitors be unsuccessful in securing good prospects or contracts.

While students from our neighbours at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) participate in the proper university challenges like the Young Inventors Awards (YIA) which recognises research and innovation among tertiary students in the Asia Pacific, our senior academics are paying good money to take part in trade fairs to collect medals of dubious significance. Awards such as YIA are sponsored by corporations such as Hewlett Packard and Far Eastern Economic Review. On the other hand, trade fairs are organised by commercial organisations seeking to make a profit from the exhibitors.

Before I end this post, let me just add that it may be relevant for universities to take part in trade fairs. However, the objectives and measures of success must be commercial in nature, i.e., the ability to secure investors, buyers or project contracts. The best method to judge the worth of these "gold medals" is how much tangible returns have been achieved from spending such a huge amount of money participating in the commercial trade fairs. If there are no conclusive commercial contracts arising from the trade shows (which I suspect is the case), then the medals are academically and commercially worthless.

I'm not finished with this topic. I'm doing some additional research into these trade fairs, the amount of money actually expensed for these fairs and the estimated returns. If any of you readers out there have access to some of these information - particularly with regards to UM's participation at the trade show in Geneva, I'll be extremely grateful (and I'm sure the Malaysian public will be too). Please email me here. Hopefully, I'd have gathered sufficient juicy details to be blogged by the end of next week.

Universiti Malaya: Old Issues Revisited

I was trawling through a fair bit of archived articles (actually researching for another post), when I found an article I filed which I thought should be revisited.

During the Dr Terence Gomez saga, when the University Malaya (UM) vice-chancellor "forced" the resignation of Dr Gomez by refusing to grant Dr Gomez unpaid leave to pursue a short-term assignment with the United Nations, there were many parties who spoke in support of Dr Gomez.

Surprisingly, one of the most vocal parties was the Universiti Malaya academic staff union (PKAUM). The following are excerpts from a news article in Malaysiakini, entitled "Academic staff speak out on issues ailing UM".
Speaking on behalf of the [PKAUM]... Rosli Mahat mentioned three specific issues which ail the nation's oldest university, namely inconsistencies in the promotion of academic personnel, tampering of students' grades and alleged misappropriation of funds in its residential housing development programme.
Promotion Irregularities
"In the instance of promotion exercise, through our own investigations we have discovered irregularities at many levels of the process. As employees of the university and members of the academia, we are extremely disappointed in this situation and wish to see it remedied immediately, not least to change the demoralising atmosphere felt (at work) at the moment."
This allegation is not new, nor is it unique. There have been many cases of such accusations for the past year. The Deputy Dean of the Law Faculty of Universiti Malaya, Assoc Prof Azmi Shahrom has, in a published article called for greater openness in the academics promotion process. What lends credibility to the allegations is that there is clearly no transparency in the promotion exercises at this point of time as the resumes of the relevant academics are not openly published.

Grades Tampering
"As academics, it is solely within our purview to decide the grades which students deserve. However, there have been instances in the UM where the final grades have been altered, without the knowledge of the lecturer concerned. Some of these
grades have even been 'boosted' by 15%. This is a serious problem in the institution at the moment."
Once again, this very serious allegation appears to have been public knowledge and there hasn't been any concrete denials of such practices by the authorities (not that I've heard of anyway). Dr Terence Gomez himself highlighted this issue in a separate interview with Malaysiakini, and I've blogged on it in my post "How to Lower Standards at Our Universities".

Misappropriation of Funds - Corruption?
"The budget for residential housing development is separate from that of the university, and is therefore not subject to audit and scrutiny. Therein lies the problem; we have valid concerns and evidence of discrepancies in the budget allocation process in this area, which can go undetected due to this difference in the administrative structure."
Despite having submitted letters of complaints highlighting the above grouses to the Minister of Higher Education, the vice-chancellor himself and even to the Anti-Corruption Agency, there has been no response from the relevant authorities throughout the past few years. Apparently, even a request to meet the honourable Kapten Datuk Professor Dr Hashim has not been entertained. If the UM staff academic union is unable to set an appointment to see their own vice-chancellor, I really wonder, who is able to.

Given the current controversy around the academic standards of University Malaya, I thought it will be useful to raise these issues again, as I've not seen any progressive or positive developments on the above. Instead, all that have happened to date is that Professor Rosli Mahat has been issued with a "show-cause" letter from the vice-chancellor for his support to Dr Terence Gomez during the Gomez controversy.

These are accusations not made by some poorly-informed disenchanted students, but from many respected academic staff of the university itself. I expect these accusations to warrant at the very least, an open investigation to determine their validity.

The Minister of Higher Education, Datuk Dr Shafie Salleh has openly requestedin parliament to "bagi saya chance" last month. I am certain, we would all like to know exactly what positive steps or measures he has taken to address the above allegations which were raised some 6 months ago. Only then, should we decide whether to "bagi [Datuk Dr Shafie] chance".

Thursday, November 24, 2005

The English Policy Disjoint

Much has been discussed about the policy of teaching Mathematics and Science in English in our primary and secondary schools. The latest post on this issue has also raised a fair bit of healthy debate in the comments section of this blog.

As declared, I'm a proponent of the teaching of mathematics and science in the English language in the schools. What I'm upset about is with the (almost) typical ineffectiveness and incompetency demonstrated with the implementation of the policy. One of the aspects of this ineffectiveness and incompetency is in the English policy disjoint between the primary and secondary schools, versus that of the public institutions of higher learning in Malaysia.

Thanks to a blog post by Cik Amoi, I was alerted to a Sunday Star education story which was entitled "Still struggling with English" on October 23rd.

The story highlighted the fact that students in public varsities are in a dilemma as science-based courses are still being taught in Bahasa Malaysia (BM) and some academics are also finding it difficult to switch to English.
With science-based courses still being taught in Bahasa Malaysia (BM) first year public varsity students find themselves in a quandary. Some lecturers switch mediums of instruction at their whims and fancy, and students feel that more needs to be done to ensure uniform implementation of the Government’s policy of teaching mathematics and science-based subjects in English.

Lecturers seem to be having more trouble coping with the switch in medium of instruction, compared to the students who studied the subjects in English.

...a first-year manufacturing engineering student from Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) admits that she was not surprised when she was asked to submit her assignments in BM.
These criticism are not just coming from the students and the media. They are actually coming from some ministry officials as well. I couldn't agree more when one official was quoted saying that “[i]t is a disappointing scenario. So much money has been spent on introducing technology and training teachers in schools but so little has been done to improve the quality of lecturers."

And this is despite a stern warning issued by the Minister of Higher Education, Datuk Dr Shafie Mohd Salleh "that the teaching of mathematics and science-based subjects should be conducted in English from September."

A former lecturer disclosed that many lecturers possesses not the right attitudes to be an academic, but that of the lazy civil servant:
“Some lecturers just have closed minds and are not keen to learn anything new. They are so set in their ways that they do not know how, and do not wish to find out how, they can do things otherwise.”
Malaysia Academic Movement president Assoc Prof Dr Wan Abdul Manan Wan Muda rationalised that it is "near impossible task" to expect universities to make an overnight switch from BM to English because the lecturers’ different levels of proficiency in English. I find that a poor excuse, although he did add that "there is no excuse for any lecturer not to know and be able to use English."

Apparently, another interesting excuse for the use of BM, particularly in the submission of lab reports was to "prevent plagiarism". After all, there aren't going to be many BM websites with lab reports to copy from. Hmmm....

Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM) has even invested over RM1mil to train lecturers to teach in English as long as 3 years ago.

While it's great that the universities are taking some form of action to improve the language skills of these lecturers (some of which are more effective than others), I seriously wonder what type of science and mathematics lecturers do we have teaching our undergraduates at the public universities? How is it that these lecturers who probably have at least a Masters degree and pursuing their doctorates, are not at least minimally "competent" in the English language?

Many of the "lecturers" obtained their science and mathematics degrees from foreign universities in the United Kingdom and the United States, and in all likelihood, uses English textbooks - why is it that they are not able to convey their knowledge and teachings in English? The fact that we have to spend extra funds to "train" these "lecturers" to speak competent English demonstrates the poverty of our academics in the country.

If the government is serious with regards to objectives of the English language policy - in particular, to improve students ability to research scientific materials in English, then it is important that the ability to teach and converse proficiently in English is set as a determining criteria in the recruitment and promotion of lecturers.

Practically all scientific and mathematical textbooks used in the universities are published in the English language. If these lecturers are not competent in the language, I cannot imagine what is it that they have been teaching our students. It is hence unsurprising that given such poor command of the language of science and mathematics, the ability of these academics to conduct in depth research is seriously hampered, justifying the poor rankings achieved at the world university ranking tables.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Foreign Student Scholarships

Further to the earlier announcement by our Minister of Higher Education, Datuk Shafie Salleh, it was reported a day later at another press conference that "Malaysia will offer tertiary scholarships to 15 to students from foreign countries each year as part of the effort to position the country as a regional centre of excellence for higher education." The piece of news is carried in Bernama, the Star and the New Straits Times.
"We want the cream of the cream, meaning we want to select the best to come here and that is why 15 students will be given the scholarship annually. They will come here and study in some of the best private institutions we have to offer."
This measure of attracting top students to universities in Malaysia, and providing scholarships to 15 of them is a good move, and I fully support it. This way, we can ensure that whoever joins us at our campus will be able to contribute academically in conjunction with the local graduates.

The 15 scholarships is clearly a far cry from the announcement a day earlier, whereby 5% of seats in the local public universities will be allocated to foreign students. The two moves should however not be confused (as I was initially) as these scholarships, if I read correctly, is meant for studies at Malaysian private institutions and not at the local public universities.

The earlier announcement of 5% international students works out to as many as 3,000-4,000 international students per annum, and possibly as many as 12,000 foreign students in our undergraduate programmes at any point of time.

Hence not only is the 5% allocation to international students not favourable for Malaysians, it's also probably not practical as well. Where are we going to find 15,000 foreign students, when at this point of time, Malaysia is home to only some 40,000 foreign students (mainly in the private colleges)?

Once again, Datuk, fikir betul-betul.

UM - Worthy of Our Pride (?)

I am running out of polite adjectives to describe the vice-chancellor of Universiti Malaya (UM). I could think of a few more for this post, but I think that's about it. That's the limits of my vocabulary. I'd need some serious assistance from a thesaurus to learn of a few more new words (No wonder Oon Yeoh asks his English language students to learn to blog).

Despite the massive public outcry and the near daily protests in our local print media, Kapten Datuk Professor Dr Hashim Yaacob remains steadfastly stoic and belligerent. The fall in UM's rankings in the world university rankings table compiled by The Times Higher Education Supplement (THES) has demonstrated the UM vice-chancellor to be a recalcitrant. On Sunday, the vice-chancellor put up two simultaneous full-page advertorials in both the Sunday Star as well as the New Sunday Times (NST) to defend Universiti Malaya in the face of heavy criticism, without any hint of admission of weakness or wrong.

In a black and white advertorial which was entitled "UM - Worthy of Our Pride", with the picture of Dewan Tunku Canselor Hall of Fame taking up some 30% of the ad, the vice-chancellor wrote a lengthy "treatise" in small fonts to argue why UM doesn't at all deserve the criticism levelled at her, but should instead be 'praised' to high heavens. Here are the gist of his arguments (many of which were rehashed from earlier statements). Judge for yourselves if they deserve your high praise, and whether it was worth spending some RM30,000 of the university funds to publish them.

1. There are over 30,000 institutions of higher learning in the world. The VC argues that the fact that THES judged UM to be ranked 169th is an achievement in itself. He continues to harp on the fact that UM did commendably well in the 3 faculties of Arts and Humanities, Biomedicine and Social Sciences.

What the VC fails to tell you is that THES only evaluated some 500 universities to compile this rankings table, not 30,000. The Shanghai Jiaotong University (SJTU) world rankings table instead looked at more than 2,000 universities and UM is no where found in the Top 500 rankings list.

The only little credit I would give the vice-chancellor is the rankings achieved by the respective faculties appearing in the Top 100 list. But this "achievement" should not blind the university to all the other major failings and criticisms highlighted by the public, media and academics alike.

2. He pursued his argument that UM 'improved' technically, having increased her point collection from 16.6 to 23.5, despite the drop in rankings. He even has the cheek to state that:
Throughout 2004, I have stressed on the importance of marks rather than position as a measure of prestige. I have often emphasized on the importance of increasing our marks every year because this is something we can work on unlike the position which depends on the abilities of other universities that are assessed and the greater human and financial resources available in the more developed countries.
The VC repeated the same argument during his opening speech during the "talk" by QS QuacquarelliSymonds at UM on Monday, which was labelled as a "let-down" by the Sun. Nuncio Quacquarelli, the guest speaker must have been amused by the VC's argument but was just too polite to refute the VC's statements.

The VC is wrong on so many counts here. As elaborated in my earlier post, the marks comparison between last year and this year is like comparing oranges to tangerines (not totally different, but significantly so). The manner in which the marks were compiled, normalised and measured is sufficiently different to make the comparison of absolute scores meaningless.

Secondly, throughout the past year, I have never once seen or read a speech, statement or publication by Universiti Malaya claiming that they were more concerned with the points achieved and not the rankings. When the VC nodded his head to Deputy Prime Minister's challenge to improve UM's rankings to Top 50 in the world by 2010, he has implicitly acknowledged the "importance" of the rankings. When he put up the various billboards and banners around the campus, it was always about the Top 100 rankings achievement. And when UM placed the centennial celebrations advertisement in the NST as late as September this year, it teased the public to look out for the latest rankings to be published soon. Never in any of his speeches or press interviews I have read (and I have unfortunately read quite a few), has the VC placed any emphasis or even a casual mention on marks instead of position.

And thirdly, by arguing that we should not be comparing ourselves to other institutions of developed countries is like saying that we should always be comparing ourselves with universities from some of the poorer countries in Africa. Is that the visionary mentality of a vice-chancellor of Malaysia's most prestigious university? How about the fact that Chulalongkorn University of Thailand outperformed UM this year?

3. The VC spent approximately half his "treatise" exploring the methodology used by THES (I wonder why he didn't do this last year) to justify that despite the skewed methodology that favours Western countries, "UM, to its credit has still managed to be still in the list of the world's best 200 universities."

Let me concede that certain aspects of the methodology, such as the Recruiter Review which constitutes 10% of overall scores are poorly conducted, and it may just be detrimental to UM rankings. However, flaws in methodologies can work both ways - and the UM VC has not been intellectually honest or competent enough to recognise that.

While the THES world universities rankings table has been the focus of the debate on the state of the affairs in the local institutions of higher learning, the objective of the focus is to bring the underlying problems at our varsities to the forefront. I am certain that Kian Ming (who has hinted similarly in his previous posts) and myself will be more than able to statistically demonstrate that the methodology used by THES to derive the Peer Review score (which makes up 40% of total score) is very much skewed towards encompassing more universities from different parts of the world into the list, than these universities possibly deserves.

Purely from an empirical perspective, this is one major reason why there are significantly more universities from the Latin America, Asia and Australia appearing (and are placed higher) in the Top 200 of the THES rankings list as opposed to the SJTU list. We strongly believe that adjusting the peer review score to cater for the inherent statistical bias towards universities in less developed regions, will actually produce an even lower ranking for UM, very likely out of the Top 200 altogether.

4. In the last part of his "treatise", the VC sought to demonstrate the fall in the rankings as nothing serious, and a 169th position as very credible but making references to many other universities (it's an amazing list) which also fell in the rankings table as well as other universities which didn't get ranked.

I shall not dwell on the details of the list. But once again, the VC has made it his mantra to always console himself by comparing his own achievements against those who have fallen, and those who are worse than him. The VC doesn't have the visionary capacity to compare himself to other universities which has improved significantly or remained top performers. The way the VC reacts, even if UM were to fall out of the Top 200 universities next year, he will compare UM's fate with all the other universities which also did not make it to the list, and argue that UM's still in great company.

The VC concluded his "treatise" with the following:
With its position as one of the Top 200 universities in the world, one of the top 100 universities in the Arts and Humanities, Social Sciences and Biomedicine categories as well as the improvement in marks achieved in 2005 compared to 2004, we can be confident that UM has indeed fared better in the last one year. UM is worthy of our pride!
And my skin is crawling. Vice Chancellor Kapten Datuk Professor Dr Hashim Yaakob is proving to be a reactionary worthy of a seat in the Politburo of Leonid Brezhnev of the old Soviet Union. What a disappointing man.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Student Exchange Curbs Polarisation?

In an earlier post entitled "The Separation of Races", I have argued that "political universities" such as Universiti Tunku Abdul Rahman (UTAR) are contributing to accentuate and cement racial polarisation between the various ethnic communities in Malaysia.

The President of Malaysian Chinese Association, Dato Seri Ong Ka Ting may envision that UTAR will become "The People's University", but in reality, isn't it more a university for Malaysian Chinese? After all, 98% of students in UTAR belongs to the Chinese ethnic group. On the other hand, the bumiputeras will have their matriculation colleges, Universiti Teknologi Mara and possibly an UMNO University.

It is extremely disappointing to see that while many of our leaders preach national unity and integration, the policies which they advocate are instead entrenching the racial separation and segregation in the country.

So when UTAR council chairman Tun Dr Ling Liong Sik proposed a student exchange programme with other universities to "ensure that students of all races are not segregated in their pursuit for higher education", I had to laugh.

Tun Dr Ling said the programme would help create a multi-cultural environment in Utar.
We would like these students to work together or become business partners after they graduate which is in line with the national objective of multi-racialism.

Since the time I was an active politician, we have been pushing for this national objective to foster greater racial integration where students can study together under the same roof and later work together or become business partners."
Another programme, "Titian Integrasi", as reported in the New Straits Times, the brainchild of the State National Unity and Integration Department, aimed to enable students, "particularly those from Sabah and Sarawak, to get acquainted with the culture of the people in Peninsular Malaysia."

The programme involves 25 students staying for 4-5 days with their foster parents in another state. Nineteen-year-old Goh Bee Eng from Sibu, a first-year student from Kolej Tunku Abdul Rahman (TARC) will stay with a Malay family in Bukit Mertajam.

The question I have is, how will these very micro-measures affecting a handful of students going to contribute significantly to breaking down the walls created through years of racial polarisation in the Malaysian education system?

Will a student exchange programme, often taking place over a period of 1 month to a maximum period of one term create everlasting friendship and understanding, to become future "business partners"? Isn't having student exchange programmes just to create an apparent "multi-cultural environment" absolutely superficial?

There is a fundamental flaw with our education system from primary schools to universities, involving both national and vernacular schools which is resulting in a highly polarised community, which can only worsen in the future. These cracks must be tackled at their source, and not be papered over with "noble" student exchange or foster care programmes. Should these cracks be properly sealed, these superficial programmes would not have been necessary in the first place.

Politicians or former ones should not harp on their honourable intents when their actions to date are to very much to the contrary. It's hypocritical and it peeves me mightily.

Dentist Also Debate

I paid my dentist (she's a chatty one :-)) a visit today. Interestingly enough, the first topic of conversation while I was having my tooth examined was on Universiti Malaya (UM) and the controversy surrounding its world university rankings. And she doesn't know that I'm a blog on these issues (at least, I don't think she knows anyway :-))

She was examining an old filling I had which seemed to be a tad sensitive recently and she discovered that some of the old decay was not properly "cleaned", hence my 10-year old filling had to be re-done. She was then commenting that some of the proper techniques are not properly taught at UM, while it was, at her alma mater, National University of Singapore (NUS).

As if highlighting the standards differential, she commented that the "last boy" of her Form 6 class at Victoria Institution, is now a professor in the universiti's Faculty of Dentistry. She noted that UM's degree in dentistry was not recognised out of Malaysia at one stage, but because the new vice-chancellor who was a dentist himself, then "did some stuff" to have it recognised by extending the course by an additional year. There was also another case whereby due to no proper recruitment process or succession management, a 35-year old was promoted to become a Head of Department.

She argued that there's no real need for so much debate on the university rankings. All that's needed is to take the necessary steps to improve two simple things - lift the minimum entry requirements and attract the right calibre academics. All the rest will pretty much take care of itself. I'm pretty much in general agreemnt with her.

It's great that the general debate and media publicity is able to reach out to the man in the street. No wonder the UM vice-chancellor has been particularly defensive, to the extent of spending previous university funds to put up an advertorial in the Sunday Star and New Straits Times entitled "UM - Worthy of Our Pride". But more on this advertorial later...

Less than 30% of public university lecturers have PhDs

In a report last Saturday in the Star, our Minister of Higher Education Shafie Salleh, announced that 5% of the places in our local public universities will be opened to foreign students. At the end of that article, I noticed Shafie giving an interesting statistic - that only 29.7% of lecturers have PhDs, against the target of 70% which the government has set. I assume that Shafie is referring to lecturers in public universities although that wasn't explicitly stated.

This statistic surprised me greatly. My sense has always been that the % of lecturers in the local universities with PhDs is closer to 50% than 30%. Perhaps my impressions have been based on my interactions with faculty in UM, USM and UKM. It might still be true that the % of lecturers in UM, USM and UKM is substantially higher than 30%. But irregardless, this statistic is shocking. How can we expect to have world class universities if only 30% of our lecturers have PhDs? It would be impossible for someone to lecture at a half-decent university in the US or the UK without a PhD qualification. But this seems to be the norm rather than the exception in Malaysia.

Granted, Malaysia has a unique system whereby lecturers without PhDs are required to teach in local universities before being sent abroad to get their PhDs. But still, wouldn't one expect this policy, after time, to increase the % of our lecturers with PhDs? My impression is that a university like NUS is drastically ramping up the % of its faculty with PhDs. I won't be surprised if it reaches 100% by 2010. In contrast, our Minister of Higher Education, in the same Star report mentioned above, that we'd have difficulty even reaching the 70% target. Perhaps, our UM VC and our Minister can ask Prof Shih, the president of NUS, for advice on how to achieve this 70% target.

But in the meantime, I'd like to offer up my 2 cents worth of advice based partly on my own experience and what I've heard from my friends in Malaysian academia. Firstly, encourage those lecturers without PhDs to apply for private sources of funding to do their PhDs. One of the major impediments to those lecturers who want to go abroad to do their PhDs is the lack of government funding. This is not surprising given that the government pays for both the school fees as well as the living expenses of lecturers who go abroad to do their PhDs. In a good school in the US, this would probably cost 45,000 US$ per year ($30,000 for school fees and $15,000 for living expenses). Hence, there are only a limited number of places available in a year, which explains why some lecturers have to wait 10 years or more before being sent to do their PhDs abroad (if at all).

The system does not give incentives for aspiring PhD candidates to seek external private funding. The length of the bond is the same regardless of the amount of the government scholarship. And if one wants to apply for external scholarships such as the Fulbright (US) and the Chevening (UK), one has to go through a government body such as the JPA to apply rather than apply directly. Furthermore, most local universities only provide funding for 3 years which encourages potential candidates to apply to universities in Australia and the UK rather than the US, where private funding is more readily available. In my case, I obtained a school fee waiver ($30,000 per year) plus a yearly stipend from my university (guaranteed for 5 years), Duke, as well as summer funding from a Fulbright scholarship. It is common practice that if you are accepted into a good PhD program in the US, your school fees will be waived and you are likely to receive some form of yearly stipend. You'd be lucky to get your school fees waived in a UK university. Living costs support is almost unheard of.

Wouldn't it be easier for our local universities to create a system which encourages aspiring candidates to seek private funding as a way to overcome the local shortage of funds? Doesn't it make sense to create a system which decreases the length of the bond for candidates who manage to find outside funding?

The current system in Malaysia ends up having the following consequences:

1) Lecturers end up going to get their PhDs when they are relatively advanced in age (more than 30, sometimes close to 40) which limits their productive years in academia
2) Lecturers end up going to schools which are relatively easy to get into and who accept these lecturers because of the ability to collect school fees from them rather than on the basis of talent. Usually, this means that lecturers end up forming little Malaysian enclaves in places like the University of Liverpool or the University of Manchester (no offense to the alums of these schools) rather than places like Stanford or Harvard.
3) Some lecturers end up not doing their PhDs at all and teach all their lives with only a Masters degree

The other way of increasing the % of lecturers with Phds in the local universities is to ... hire more lecturers with PhDs! Not exactly rocket science. Shafie mentioned in the Star report that, 'As a short-term measure, the Government would be beefing up the number of academics by hiring more foreign lecturers with PhDs'. If Shafie were to put his thinking cap on, he would realize that there is already a pool of Malaysians with PhDs which he can tap into - Malysians with PhDs who are lecturing abroad! In Duke, I know a full professor in the Medical school who's a Malaysian and another full professor in the Literature department who's a UK citizen but who was born in Malaysia. I know of another professor who's a Malaysian in UNC Charlotte and I was referred to a certain Prof Ho Eng Seng who's teaching social anthropology in Harvard by a friend from USM. Professor Danny Quah, a renowned professor of economics, teaches at one of my alma maters, LSE. The Star featured Dr. Tan Mah Wah in its Global Malaysian series and Dr. Tan is currently teaching in Stanford. Indeed, Dr. Tan's story emphasizes my earlier point - he applied for a British Council scholarship to do his Masters in Cambridge and then applied and got a full scholarship to do his PhD in Harvard!

There is a large number of highly qualified Malaysian PhDs teaching in renowned institutions all over the world. I'm not sure what the exact number is but a conservative guess would probably number well into the hundreds (if not thousands). Even if Malaysia could get half of these scholars to come back to teach in Malaysian universities, we'd be well on our way to acheving the 70% mark set by the government. And if the government thinks that these scholars are too difficult to entice back to Malaysia, why not try with younger Malaysians who are currently doing their PhDs on their own in prestigious universities? I'm part of a Malaysian forum mailing list which mainly comprises of Malaysians who are doing their PhDs here in the US. I'm guessing that there are at least 30 people on the list who are in various stages of their PhDs. Why not tap this market?

Shafie has to ask himself this simple question - if he or the Malaysian government cannot entice Malaysians who have gotten their PhDs from world class institutions to return to UM to teach, what makes him think that he can entice non-Malaysians of comparable standing to come to Malaysia to do the same? Whatever answer he gives will not be satisfactory.

If he says that these foreigners will come because of better career prospects or better pay, is he saying that non-Malaysians will be given a better treatment than Malaysians of equal quality and experience?

If he says that these foreigners will only be in Malaysia for a short-term contract, is he saying that faculty on short term contracts would improve the university's standing, provide better teaching and better research than Malaysians of a comparable standard who have an interest in helping to create world class Malaysian universities?

The honest truth is that the foreigners with PhDs that local universities manage to employ largely comprise of two categories:

(i) Academics (read: White) from the US, UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealandwho want to take a break to teach in the relatively undemanding setting of our local universities for a couple of years before returning home (and get paid an expat package for their services)

(ii) Academics from developing countries who cannot get a job in the developed world and are attracted to the relatively higher financial rewards from teaching in a Malaysian university. I'm not saying that there are no good academics in developing countries but if they are really of a world class standard (A) they would have gone to teach in a university in a developed country (B) they would have stayed back to teach in their home country because of nationalistic or personal reasons. (There are exceptions to this but very few. Prof Hashim Kamali of the IIU is one whom I can think of)

As a final note, let me share something more personal. After completing my PhD, I'll probably return to Malaysia but I won't teach or lecture in a public university. There are many reasons for this but the main one is that I don't see a compelling vision from the leadership of our public universities on how to build a genuinely world class university. If the VC can sell me (and others) a convincing vision of how he or she wants to build UM, let's say, into a world class university (maybe start with being a regional powerhouse first), I'm sure that I (and others) would be excited to take part in this project (even at the cost of making financial sacrifices in the short term). Just don't sell me your vision of erecting billboards and decorating lamposts with shameful banners.

It is sad to see that even as the Minister identifies a glaring problem - the low number of lecturers with PhDs in local universities - he cannot come up with a comprehensive plan for addressing this problem but instead has to resort to short term 'gimmicks' like scholarships for foreigners and visa extensions for foreign lecturers.

Monday, November 21, 2005

More Lively Discussions on Higher Education

Not a day goes by without University Malaya (UM) and the state of Malaysian higher education system hitting the headlines in the local print media in the recent weeks. While it's all mainly "talk" at the moment, I'm hoping that the intense scrutiny UM and the system is being subjected to at the moment, it'll actually bring about some positive changes to the benefit of Malaysians in time to come.

The Sunday Star published a letter from Wong Keat Wai, an alumni of Universiti Malaya, who has spent the past eight years in Singapore working in the research and devleopment sector. His experience, having "received further training from my superiors who graduated from the National University of Singapore (NUS)" helped him arrive at the conclusion that"the quality of Malaysian technical education is very low."

In Keat Wai's letter, he argued that the Malaysian universities are not allocated with sufficient funds to perform high calibre research and a lecturer's pay is too low to attract sufficient qualified candidates to the universities. But more importantly, he argued that:
Local universities are also not recruiting enough high-calibre PhD holders who are active in research. NUS only recruits PhD holders who are active in publishing research articles in prestigious international journals.

UM is no longer a government department but an independent corporate body. Such bodies are supposed to be very performance-oriented. Mindsets must change!

International university rankings are important because they reflect the general health of the education system, the competitiveness of the graduates it produces from a global perspective, the ability of the universities and the country to attract top talents from all over the world, the amount of national intellectual or science output and thus the competitiveness of the nation.
At the same time, Abdul Razak Ahmad of the New Straits Times wrote an extensive column on Sunday which was entitled "Wake-up call for the universities".

Abdul Razak cited the example of UM alumus, Ahmad Shabery Cheek, the UMNO member of parliament for Kemaman who "badly wants his daughter to take up a degree in law at his alma mater". Ahmad Shabery Cheek has a tough time convincing her.
"I am very fond of UM. But when my daughter asked me why she should study there when the ranking is poor, I found it difficult to reply...

Some administrators responded to the rankings by arguing that their universities are doing fine, it’s just that others are better. They seem to be in a state of denial."
He was not alone amongst the those interviewed. Tan Sri Murad Mohamad Noor, a former director-general of education who was in-charge of an yet unpublished report on the reforms required of our education system stated clearly that:
"We should be concerned, because universities abroad may judge our standards from this ranking. We should treat this as a wake-up call. The best answer to our critics is to improve ourselves, and to get back the confidence of the public, if indeed we have lost it."
It was also clear that not all academics share the UM vice-chancellors' obstinate myopic attempts to view the entire controversy as the "glass is half-full" i.e., let's ignore the negatives and just look at the bright side. As Professor Datuk Shamsul Amri Baharuddin of Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) rightly pointed out:
"If we use this logic, then if we drop to 250 next year, we can just say we’re still all right because we’re in the top 300."
Professor Shamsul further argued for greater accountability in academic expenditure of the universities as well as more openess to the public.
"A proper evaluation also means that when we ask for money from the Government to produce 10 PhD holders in a department, it is done with the understanding that we have to later explain to the Government whether we managed to do it. And of the 10 PhDs a department produces, the evaluation should be on whether they perform. Are they publishing? If so, where? Just locally, or in international journals?

The public should be given the opportunity to know the state of our public evaluation. It’s not difficult to do this, but it’s just not being done."
The responses from these parties who are either part of the government machinery, civil service and academia are encouraging. We would definitely need more to raise their voices so that the Prime Minister's administration takes note and plan the necessary actions to restore the state of our higher education system.

Interestingly enough, there is not another letter from an UM academic, Associate Professor Teoh Heng Teong who wrote in a letter to the Star Education segment defending the beleagured vice-chancellor.
...I was appalled when a learned member of parliament censured UM’s vice-chancellor for commenting, with reasons, that he was not worried about UM’s drop in ranking.

Have we not heard of “qualitative analysis”? The mere improvement in points is not sufficient proof of quality. After all, UM won 33 gold medals in the latest international exhibition for innovation and invention in Geneva.
Err... why should anyone with the right mind with the welfare of the Malaysian university students in the heart, not be "appalled" by the fact that the vice-chancellor was "not worried" about UM's dramatic drop in rankings?

"Qualitative analysis?" I've hesitated to make the comments on the "gold medals" won earlier despite it being prominently boasted in one of the UM's web pages as I was still in the process of gathering the necessary evidence. The vice-chancellor has often boasted that "UM won an unprecedented 33 medals of awards: 19 gold, 11 silver and 3 bronze" at the 33rd International Exhibition of Inventions, New Techniques & Products in Geneva in April this year. (Yes, for accuracy's sake, it's 33 medals in total, not 33 gold medals, but that's besides the point).

I'll post more on this item later. But suffice it for me to say that the above event is a "trade show" i.e., you pay money to set up a booth to promote your products to visitors. It is not in any way, an academic event. It is a commercial event which understandably seeks promote the products or "inventions" of the exhibitors. As part of the process, the organisers will award the bulk of the exhibitors various titles and medals to improve the "feel good" factor. In last year's contingent at the exhibition during the prize giving ceremony, the Malaysian "academics" occupied a third of the hall, Iranians occupied another third, and the balance were occupied my a hodgepodge of individual amateur inventors and private companies.

This is not something for Malaysians to be proud of. It's something for us to be very embarrassed about. To put it very bluntly, UM who paid to take part in the exhibition, essentially paid for the "gold medals". Someone should ask the vice-chancellor how much UM paid for taking part in the event? And besides bring home the "medals", did the UM team manage to conclude any commercial sales at the exhibition, which is a better measure of success than the quantity of "feel good" medals received.

Associate Professor Teoh Heng Teong, who is also the Director of the Sport Centre at the university, then argued that critics like ourselves here at this blog are not compassionate. We are not "understanding, tolerant and caring".
We pride ourselves on being understanding, tolerant and caring. If we were to read the comments published in some vernacular papers, we will know that we are far from achieving this.
Yes, we should be more understanding, tolerant and caring, particularly to inept and thick-skinned academics and university administrators.

He argued that we should be more concerned about our "unemployed graduates". Yes, indeed we should. But isn't the symtom of the malaise of our higher education system which has resulted in some many "unemployed graduates", represented by the unflattering rankings achieved by Universiti Malaya?

I am truly "appalled" at the demonstration of logic and critical thinking skills by some of the senior academics in our local universities. I am however, quite impressed with the art of flattery.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Cultivate Thinkers, Not Mechanical Robots

In a topic that I've been meaning to blog for a very long time (yes, there appears to be many of these topics! :-)), I wanted to look at and review the state of student activisim, intellectual and creative expression at our institutions of higher learning (or rather, the lack of it). Readers will have to wait just a little longer for me to compose my thoughts on the oft lamented issue. But I'd like to quickly point readers to a petition being conducted by SUARAM.

One of SUARAM's current campaigns is to "Restore Campus Democracy & Student Rights" in Malaysia. They have set up an online petition to request the Ministry of Higher Education to review the deplorable state of campus democracy and student rights at our local varsities.

You may add you name to the peititioners online here.

For those unfamiliar with SUARAM, it's a non-governmental organisation (NGO) with a vision to "work for a society that is peaceful, free, equal, just and sustainable by a process of empowering people and building a mass movement to uphold human rights."

The petition, addressed to the Minister of Higher Education states that the petitioners are:
...deeply concerned of numerous reports of misconducts by the authorities of the 17 local public universities in the recently-concluded campus election. We are also disappointed with the subsequent persecution against students who have been struggling for campus democracy and calling for free and fair campus elections.
And it calls upon the Malaysian education authorities to:
  • To investigate allegations on the flawed campus elections and malpractices by the university authorities

  • To immediately withdraw charges/disciplinary actions against pro-democracy students
I've signed the petition. It's your turn. :-) For fellow bloggers, add the link to your blog too!

Thanks to reader Chew for the heads up. I'll have more comments on this issue later.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Higher Education Ministry: Shooting from the Hip?

Kian Ming has written twice (Part I & II) on the issue of admitting foreign students into our local public universities. They were in response to earlier comments by the vice-chancellor of Universiti Malaya (UM) as well as the Minister of Higher Education on separate occasions.

The UM Vice-Chancellor, Datuk Professor Dr Hashim Yaakob was mulling the idea of opening up to 5% of first degree program i.e. undergraduate spaces to foreigners. On the other hand, the Minister of Higher Education, Datuk Shafie Salleh suggested at recruitment of more foreigners at the post-graduate level to "give 'greater focus' to the 'internationalisation' of UM as a strategy to promote its international reputation".

Well, it has been confirmed now by the Minister himself, as reported in the Star today, that Malaysian public universities will be opened to foreigners, with 5% of undergraduate places in critical courses being allocated to them.

Kian Ming gave his opinions on why this move is not favourable in Part I of his post. I am in total agreement with his opinions. I would like to add that the actions by the Ministry of Higher Education and the universities smacks of a poorly thought knee-jerk reaction to the dramatic decline in UM and Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) in the THES world university rankings. Furthermore, the reasons or rather, excuses provided by Datuk Shafie Salleh are just unconvincingly mind-boggling.
Higher Education Minister Datuk Seri Dr Shafie Mohd Salleh described the move as a social obligation to nations with which Malaysia had exploration rights, especially for petroleum.
Huh? How the hell did we, the tax payers, end up with a "social obligation" to nations with which Petronas had exploration rights? Since it's Petronas, a private company, has the rights, Petronas should be footing the bill for the "social obligations". Petronas could very well sponsor these countries' students to study in Universiti Teknologi Petronas (UTP) or one of the other local private universities e.g., Multimedia University (MMU), University Tun Abdul Razak (UNITAR), Universiti Tenaga Nasional (UNITEN) etc.

The Minister was rightly questioned by the Star journalist if the "move would be welcomed", given the fact that public universities could not accomodate all the top students for popular courses. His answer raised more questions - "That's why we are expanding". Huh?!
The Government has allocated RM131mil to ensure adequate places are available to the foreigners and to accommodate an increased intake of Malaysian students into these critical courses at local universities.
What makes me seriously believe that the main motives behind the above move is to "improve" the local universities' placement in the THES world rankings table, is when the Minister also added that "as a short-term measure, the Government would be beefing up the number of academics by hiring more foreign lecturers with PhDs." This is apparently becuase of the need to raise the number of lecturers in the local universities to 70% from the current 29.7% by 2010, which he described as a "tall order".

Hence by increasing the foreign students and faculty intake, the Ministry is hoping that the corresponding ranking points which constitutes 10% of the overall scores, will be increased accordingly. It appears that our Ministry and university officials are now blinded by accute myopia in the need to feel better through a better ranking, however artificial it may be.

While it was reported that the Cabinet "has approved" the above, I hope it's one of those all-to-frequent supposed "misquotes", I'd like to highlight the following to the Ministry of Higher Education.
  1. By setting a target of 5% international students in the local public universities (for critical courses) will not significantly change the rankings of say, Universiti Malaya. As a comparison based on the current year table, Dartmouth College which has a international student population of 5.9% achieved 16/100 score, University of California, Berkeley with an estimated 5.2% achieved 13/100 and Georgetown University with under 5% achieved 9/100.

    Assuming Universiti Malaya manages to achieve a score of 12 which is 5 more than the current score of 7, the overall score for UM will only be increased by 0.5, and the rankings moved from 169th to 165th! It will be further unlikely that any increase in the international faculty will raise UM's position above 150th!

    Hence by making up poorly thought through measures such as increasing foreign student intake will not only have certain negative implications to the local universities, it will also not achieve the objectives of improving the local university rankings significantly!

  2. I will repeat here once again, a quote cum warning from Associate Professor Azmi Shahrom, who is the Deputy Dean of the Law Faculty at UM highlighted in an earlier post.

    Artificially enticing foreign students and lecturers will simply not work and in the long run will be disastrous for the institution. Artificial means would include lowering the standards so as to take in any Tom, Dick and Harry to study or work here; begging foreign universities to have student exchange programmes with us; or by paying huge amounts of money just to have foreign professors lend their name to our staff lists with little or no actual responsibility.

  3. If we are ever going to increase our intake of foreign students for our local undergraduate degree programmes, we should open it to all foreign candidates and select only the top students for the courses. This may have a beneficial effect on our local students being exposed to potentially more competitive and advanced students.

    However, if we are opening up our local public universities due to "social obligations", it will typically mean that we are depriving precious local resources to local students to invite, in all likelihood (with all due respect), students from Sudan, who may not meet even the basic entry requirements for our courses!

    Instead of attracting foreign talent as the universities in Singapore are so adept in doing, we are giving handouts (which we can barely afford) to individuals who will not be able to contribute to Malaysia and Malaysians.

  4. If we are really that short of Ph.D candidates for the positions of lecturers in our local universities, then why are we "retiring" internationally recognised academics such as Professor P. Ramasamy at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM)? Why scour the world for academics when there are those in the country willing to serve but not given the opportunity to do so?
Besides the above points, many other considerations have been highlighted by Kian Ming in his two posts, and many more practical aspects of implementation need to be thoroughly thought through before such a policy can be executed. For a simple example, if these foreign students are accepted based on say, 'A' Level qualifications, shouldn't then Malaysians who sit for the 'A' Level examinations be granted the same right of entry as well? Currently, only the International Islamic University (IIU) accepts 'A' Level candidates.

Why is the Ministry of Higher Education suddenly so hasty in its attempt to internationalise the local public universities? Is it so that UM will be able to print new banners and buntings to proclaim an improvement of 10 spots to 159th in the world rankings table next year? Fikirlah sikit, Datuk. Don't just shoot from the hip.