Friday, December 30, 2005

Universiti Putra Vice Chancellor Selected

In an update to yesterday's post on the Universiti Putra Malaysia shortlist, the New Straits Times have today confirmed the selection of the vacant vice-chancellor's post as Prof Dr Nik Mustapha Raja Abdullah who is currently the Universiti Putra Malaysia deputy vice-chancellor (Research and Innovation).
Before being promoted to deputy vice-chancellor, he was dean of the university’s Economy and Management Faculty.

Taking over Nik Mustapha’s post is Prof Dr Abu Bakar Salleh, the Biotechnology and Science Bio-molecules Faculty head.
A quick check on the UPM website for information on the new vice-chancellor reveals the following:
Nik Mustapha Raja Abdullah is a Professor in the Department of Natural Resource Economics, Faculty of Economics and Management, Universiti Putra Malaysia. He joined UPM in 1981 as a lecturer and in 1993, he was promoted to the rank of an Associate Professor in the same department. In 1997, he was again promoted to a Professor in the faculty. After serving as Head of Department, Department of Natural Resource Economics from 1989-1997, he was appointed to his current position as the Deputy Dean in charge of research and graduate studies in August 1997.

Currently he is teaching microeconomics and managerial economics courses at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. He has been very active in research and consultancy activities especially in the area of fisheries economics. He has published articles on fisheries related issues in journals such as Marine Policy, Marine Resource Economics, International Journal of Food Marketing and Agribusiness, Asian Fisheries Sciences, Malaysian Journal of Agricultural Economics, Malaysian Journal of Economic Studies, Malaysian Economics Journal and Pertanika Journal of Social Sciences and Humanities.

He also writes popular articles some of which appeared in the ICLARM Newsletter, INFOFISH Marketing Digest for international audience and also in local newspapers. He also sits on the editorial board of Marine Resource Economics Journal, a council member of the Agricultural Economics Society of Southeast Asia (AESSEA), vice-president of the Malaysian Agricultural Economics Association and a former team leader of the Asian Fisheries Social Sciences Research Network (AFSSRN). He was also a board member of the Group of Experts on the Scientific Aspects of the Marine Environmental Protection (GESAMP) of the United Nations, during 1995-1997. To date he has supervised 7 Ph.D, 9 M.S. and more than 80 undergraduate students in thesis and project papers.
Well, we'll see if this "search committee" cited by the Minister of Higher Education will surface from behind the scenes to elaborate on the appointment as discussed in my earlier post. As far as I can see, there wasn't much extensive searching conducted, which was disappointing.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Universiti Putra Vice Chancellor Shortlist

Following the controversial resignation of Datuk Dr Mohd Zohadie Bardaie from the position as the vice-chancellor of Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM) a month or so ago, apparently the Ministry of Higher Education (MOHE) shortlist for the position is out. The 6 shortlisted candidates according to the New Straits Times are:
  • Professor Datuk Hassan Said (MOHE Director-General)
  • Professor Dr Nik Mustapha Raja Abdullah (UPM)
  • Prof Dr Radin Umar Radin Sohadi (UPM Deputy Vice-Chancellor)
  • Associate Professor Dr Azali Mohamed (UPM)
  • Prof Dr Mahani Zainal Abidin (MOHE Deputy Director-General (Management Sector))
  • Datuk Dr Sharifah Hapsah Shahabudin (MOHE) Quality Assurance Division director)
It was also mentioned that the first two names are the "front-runners" for the job. I don't know about you, but it definitely doesn't (on first impression) look like a pretty shortlist.

As blogged here back in November 15th, MOHE was under some amount of public pressure to reform the higher education system in Malaysia after the public uproar over the Universiti Malaya rankings debacle.

In a move that was applauded, it was then announced by the Minister of Higher Eudcation, Datuk Dr Shafie Salleh that he was setting up a "search committee" to select future vice-chancellors of Malaysian universities. There were even calls for foreign vice-chancellors to be appointed.

It was at the same time that the Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) Vice Chancellor Prof Datuk Dr. Mohd Salleh Mohd Yasin raised that "overseas, the appointment of vice chancellors are largely based on their leadership qualities as well as academic prowess. Now that we are practicing meritocracy, we should select the best candidate for the job."

However, based on an initial read of the shortlist, it doesn't appear to be the work of a credible search committee. It does appear however, one would have the best chance to become the vice-chancellor of a university not through academic leadership and "prowess", but by becoming one of the director-generals in the Ministry. That way, the Minister gets to see you everyday, hence increasing the chances of being appointed!

Alternatively, to become a vice-chancellor, you may be appointed from within the university, although other criteria remains unclear. How is it that an Associate Professor got himself into the shortlist would be beyond many of us.

The MOHE needs to do three very important things at this stage.

Firstly, it needs to disclose who are the parties in this "search committee" which has come up with a shortlist with many shortcomings? Does it comprise of the Minster himself and his men in MOHE?

And secondly, MOHE needs to disclose the criteria used to shortlist this candidates - I'm surprised that of all the qualified candidates throughout Malaysia, 3 of the supposed "most qualified" appears to be working as senior civil servants in MOHE. It looks very much like an incestuous shortlist.

Finally, MOHE needs to publish the qualities and achievements of these candidates for the purview of the public, particularly the academics to ensure that whoever appointed will have the necessary credibility to exercise their duties. There is no better time for the Ministry to begin practicing the necessary and much overdue transparency in the promotion exercises in the academia.

These "demands" are not new, nor are they unique to this blogger. Parties within the academia have been calling for the above changes to be made. Read this post for the comments by the Deputy Dean of Law Faculty at University Malaya, Associate Professor, Azmi Shahrom.

The Minister of Higher Education has requested recently to be given a "chance" to make the necessary changes to the higher education system for he has only had two years on the job. The search for a new vice-chancellor for a local public university is a low-hanging fruit to for Datuk Dr Shafie Salleh to demonstrate his will and intent in reforming the system. If he is not able to even make these simple changes to the system, then the question will be why should he be given the "chance"?

How To Carry A BackPack

Yup. This is actually a fairly serious issue amongs Malaysian primary and secondary school students. Thanks to the Sun, here's a checklist for backpack safety as well as some tips on "How to Carry a Backpack".
The Sun also interviewed a chiropractor, Dr Christopher Ries on the impact of improperly carried bags.
"The body is a bio-mechanical machine designed to withstand physical stress, so backpacks must be worn securely to become part of the body," he said.

"It must be worn tight and high and the load should be on both shoulders as it can affect the muscles that support the shoulders and mid-back of the spine, especially if the backpack is slung on one side. A lot of the muscles in the area are not designed for heavy load, especially if the bags are hanging loosely with heavy contents."

"There is no ideal weight as it would depend on the child's size, age and other factors including the activity level, nutrition and how long the weight is borne for... If you carry a load which results in aches and pains, the load is too much so you make necessary adjustments like reducing the load or the time you carry it.

"It must be remembered that when the muscles fatigue, the joint takes over and it is not designed to handle too much stress."
I wonder if the day will come whereby our kids will only be carrying and reading e-books...

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Sex Education on the Cards

Yes, the big taboo subject is finally going to be "taught" in Malaysian schools. About time too. Kids are learning more and faster from the Internet than ever before and it's better to provide them with the right "out-of-bounds" (OB) markers early in dealing with these issues.

This news was reported in the Star as well as the New Straits Times (NST) on the 21st December.
By bringing these topics [sexual fantasies, abstaining from pre-marital sex, paedophilia and the sanctity of marriage] into the classroom and lifting the veil on these taboo subjects, the Government hopes Malaysians will become more respectful of gender and sexuality. In the long term, it hopes to drive down the number of sex crimes.

"We are faced with various forms of sexual crimes: Internet pornography, incest, pre-marital sex, sexual abuse and harassment, and paedophilia. The guidelines address all these... All must take sex as a serious issue." [Minister of Education, Dato Seri Hishammuddin Hussein]
Yes, indeed! If I was just more aware of some of the above issues earlier, I would have known what I needed to do when I was molested by a adult senior "respected" chess player in Singapore when I was 13. He has even won the Johore Open before. Instead, I quit competitive chess and thankfully, avoided ever seeing him again. If I had known better, I would have reported him to the police and maybe it'll be his chess career which have ended prematurely and not mine! :-)

The guidelines are jointly developed by the Education and Women, Family and Community Development ministries:
  • Human reproduction, covering puberty, sexual identity and orientation, self-image and emotions;

  • Communication and relationships, covering friendship, love, non-acceptable sexual behaviour, and gender roles;

  • Marriage and family, which will explain marriage and parenthood as a life-long commitment;

  • Personal development, covering values, rights and responsibilities, and anger management;

  • Health and sexual behaviour, covering sexuality throughout life, abstinence, masturbation, fantasies, pregnancy, contraceptives, sexually-transmitted diseases, HIV and AIDS; and,

  • Culture and society, covering sexuality and the law, sex and the media, sex and society, and religious views on sex.
The above will not be immediately be taught as a single subject, but be incorporated into some of the existing subjects taught to the students such as Moral studies, Islamic studies, Health studies, Science and Biology.

However, while the intent of the programme is good, the execution of it will be critical. As rightly pointed out by the Women, Family and Community Development Minister Datuk Seri Shahrizat Abdul Jalil:
"We also need to know the right methodology to train the trainers, the people who will be implementing these guidelines."

She said it was not easy to talk straightforwardly about sex as there were many aspects.

"Take for example abstinence. You can’t just tell youths that abstinence is good for them. You have to say it’s ‘cool’. And then you have to explain why. It’s not enough to tell them to say no to pre-marital sex. You have to address the peer pressure factor."
This issue is rightly picked up by NST in a follow up story which highlighted the critical aspect of ensuring not only do we have the right syllabus content, but also the right teachers to impart them to our young.

Students graduating from Malaysian primary and secondary schools would definitely have been exposed to male teachers, who probably would have been less than exemplary role models to the students - using foul language, doing bad "signs" as well as telling tasteless dirty jokes. It is hence important to ensure that a subject with the right intent is not instead abused as an opportunity to impart the "wrong" knowledge to the students.
Teaching students about sexuality may be a good idea, but are teachers properly trained to handle such a sensitive subject?

The National Union of the Teaching Profession, teachers and parents interviewed stressed the need for a careful selection of the teachers who will be tasked with this. Teachers, they said, should not colour their teaching with their own prejudices.
Quoting a 28 year old secondary school teacher, Muhammad Munis Musa, 28:
"Implementation is not going to be easy. The teachers need to be trained in their method of delivery. It requires sensitivity and tact from them and parents of students."
Let us hope then that this new subject and topics will be implemented properly and taught professionally. Read also an editorial on the same topic in the NST.

Side Note: The Star reporter (and obviously the relevant editor) obviously are not diligent in their work for they quoted Datuk Seri Shahrizat Abdul Jalil as the National Unity and Social Development Minister. For a moment while reading the article, I thought I was the one in the wrong.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

American Degree Programme @ Private Colleges

For students who have completed their SPM, there are obviously many (and often confusing) options available to the students. Most of the time, I would encourage students with good results to pursue their 'A' Levels, STPM or other equivalent courses and examinations before enrolling into universities. I have often voiced out against the fast-track commercial ploys of private colleges offering 3+0 or even the 3+1 degree programmes.

However, there is "another" route to further education which I have not dealt with, largely due to prior unfamiliarity with the "mechanics", that is pursuing the American Degree Programme through the local colleges. Thanks to a enlightening post on TinKosong by Chuah Shu Guan, readers (myself included) have now got a better idea of what it offers. Briefly:
The American Degree Program (ADP) is NOT a one-year pre-university course even though you can use your SPM cert to enroll in the program. Once you enter the program, you are already pursuing your degree, as the name of the program implies. An American degree takes approximately 4 years of full study to complete. I say approximately because the duration of which you will take to finish your undergraduate studies depends on how many subjects you plan to take in one academic year. If you take more subjects than the norm throughout the academic year, you would probably complete your degree faster, and vice versa.
Read the full article for a better idea of what ADP offers for students in Malaysia. Readers may also want to download a well-written ADP prospectus offered by Taylor's College on the programme to have a better understanding of the local programmes.

However, before readers decide that the above is a credible programme to be enrolling into after the SPM, I'll like to offer some words of caution with regards to the ADP. It is extremely important for prospective students (not just of the ADP programme, but any programme) to be aware of all the pros and cons with regards to the route to tertiary education which they choose to undertake. That way, any choice made will at least be done with eyes wide open.

But before I proceed to elaborate on the cons of the ADP, let me first put forward my basic assumptions in any of my "critiques". There is a common perception amongst Malaysians that everything "overseas" is better than "local". That means that any overseas degree is better than the ones obtained locally, whether with our public or private universities. What's more, many regard studying in the United States is the very best option, irrespective of the universities attended.

I would like to just categorically state that the above assumptions are absolute nonsense. The above only holds true at the perception level of employers who do not know any better, and these are typically not the large quality organisations or multinational corporations whom prospective graduates are often attracted to. I have conducted my fair share of interviews and received many many resumes, many of which are "graduates" from foreign universities. Most of the time, I'm absolutely unimpressed with the quality of the output from these foreign institutions, including those from the United States.

The reason is very simple. While the United States (US) hosts some of the top universities in the world, dominating some 30-40% of the top 200 universities by any rankings table, it also probably host some of the weakest and dodgiest institutions. Many of these colleges with nice sounding names are not any better (to be polite) than our own local universities.

This brings me back to my point with regards to the ADP offered by the local colleges in Malaysia. If one is to conduct a cursory overview of the US colleges which are "partners" of the ADP programme, many are not listed anywhere near the top 120 universities in the United States. Hence, while students might find that the list of universities accepting ADP students "extensive", the number of universities worthwhile gaining entry may be extremely limited.

As an example, lets review the list of 266 partner universities of Inti College which is largely similar to the other colleges offering the ADP - Taylor's College, Nilai College and Help University College.

Out of the 266 institutions listed, only 3 (1.1%) are in the Top 30 and another 7 (2.6%) in the Top 50. 23 (8.6%) institutions are ranked between 51st and 100th, while 11 (4.1%) ranked between 101 and 124. 5 (1.9%) are ranked Liberal Arts Colleges. A whopping 217 (81.6%) colleges are unranked and are mostly regarded as Tier 3 and Tier 4 schools. I have used the commonly cited U.S. News 2006 report on America's Best Colleges.

I've taken the liberty to provide the listing of colleges which are ranked in the Top 120 in the United States below.
  • Cornell University (13)
  • University of Virginia (23)
  • University of Michigan (Ann Arbor) (25)

  • LeHigh University (32)
  • University of Wisconsin-Madison (34)
  • University of Illinois (Urbana Champaign) (42)
  • Tulane University (43)
  • University of Washington (45)
  • Pennsylvania State University (University Park) (48)
  • Syracuse University (50)

  • George Washington University (53)
  • University of Miami (55)
  • University of Georgia (58)
  • University of Pittsburgh (58)
  • University of Iowa (60)
  • Purdue University (60)
  • Rutgers, New Jersey (60)
  • Ohio State University (Columbus) (60)
  • Texas A&M University (60)
  • Stevens Institute of Technology (70)
  • Indiana University (Bloomington) (74)
  • University of Minnesota-Twin Cities (74)
  • Michigan State University (74)
  • Marquette University (85)
  • Iowa State University (85)
  • University of Missouri-Columbia (85)
  • University of Tennessee (85)
  • University of Tulsa (93)
  • Augustana College (94)
  • University of Nebraska-Lincoln (97)
  • University of Kansas (97)
  • Illinois Institute of Technology (97)
  • Texas Christian University (97)

  • University of Massachusetts (Amherst) (104)
  • University of Dayton (104)
  • Drexel University (109)
  • University of South Carolina, Columbia (109)
  • University of Oklahoma (109)
  • University of Missouri-Rolla (109)
  • Northeastern University (115)
  • University of Oregon (115)
  • Washington State University (120)
  • University of Utah (120)
  • University of Kentucky (120)
Liberal Arts Colleges
  • Mount Hoyloke College (23)
  • St Olaf College (55)
  • Beloit College (60)
  • Knox College (73)
  • Gustavus Adolphus College (73)
Hence based on the above listing, in theory, if you were to perform well for your 2 years of ADP, one should be able to qualify for Cornell, Virginia or Michigan. However, it is likely to be useful for students to request for statistics of students qualifying for the Top 50 schools in the above list to obtain a better perspective on the success rates of the private colleges. For instance, students hoping to enter the top 20 universities in the US will not be helped by a college which was only able to send 1 student to Cornell in say, 3 years.

Furthermore, I'm always suspicious of a college which tries to cater towards students with such diverse abilities from Top 30 potential to Tier 3/4-type universities. If the bulk of the students were only able to qualify for a say, Tier 3 university, then it's unlikely that a top student will receive the extra attention and quality teaching necessary to take him to the next level and qualify for the top institutions.

In addition, if you are a top student and have high ambitions to enter the top universities of the world, the above ADP will not help you secure your places in the Ivy Leagues or other top institutions.

Even if you are not a top performing student, do take meticulous care to ensure that you do not choose a college or university which isn't any better than some of the local universities, for example those in Tier 3 or 4 in the US - unless of course, you are specifically interested in that institution.

Hence, on paper and prospectuses, the ADP sounds like a good programme and takes only 4 years to obtain your degree after your SPM. However, the truth is, much like the twinning programmes which I have provided my opinions earlier, students interested in the programme needs to be extremely selective. And once again, if you are a top performing student, you should be setting your ambitions higher and seek the route to qualify for the top universities in the United Kingdom and United States, instead of taking the easy route and settling for less.

Note: Once again, I'm expecting criticism that I'm too obsessed with rankings. So I'll reiterate here again, that it is my firm belief that while rankings are never going to be biblical truths, they do provide an essential guide to students to roughly gauge the quality of an institution. It is difficult for anyone to argue that a Tier 4 institution for example, is better than one ranked in the 50s.

4 Billion Tuition Fees!

Yes, that's if the survey conducted by the New Straits Times is accurate.
According to a survey on education and tuition, parents paid RM80 on average a month for each child. Determined to give their children every advantage, roughly two in three Malaysians with schoolgoing children pay for extra coaching...

Some 1,029 people were polled in the survey commissioned by the New Straits Times. Half had schoolgoing children. And two-thirds with schoolgoing children paid RM80 on average a month. When the finding is extrapolated on a national level, it indicates that as much as RM360 million is spent a month on tuition, or RM4.3 billion a year.

I have my personal doubts on the extrapolated figure purely because the survey sample is so small - only some 500 parents with school children. But that's another matter altogether. We all know that the number of students attending tuition classes in the country is enormous.

The Secretary-General of National Union of the Teaching Profession, Loke Yim Pheng was apparently not surprised. She claimed that "most parents find it tough to deal with subjects now taught in a language different from what they learnt in school." I would think that it is a little over the top to blame the size of the tuition economy on the teaching of Science and Mathematics in English.

Anecdotal evidence tells me that tuition today is an essential element of going to school simply because the teachers in school are doubling up as tuition teachers in their homes. This is a widespread practise, despite it being a breach of regulations (if I'm not wrong).

The result of such blatant tuition practises by school teachers is a major conflict of interest by the teachers themselves.
  • I have heard many stories of teachers witholding information in school classes and "teaching" them only during their tuition classes.

  • Even during my time in primary school, I have seen wholesale test papers circulated in a tuiton class prior to the actual test in school.

  • As a result, students and parents who are interested in doing well have "no choice" but to attend the after school tuition classes conducted by their teachers.

  • Even if the teachers practises "strict" and ethical separation between conducting classes in school versus their own tuition classes, there will be a tendency for parents and students to take up the extra classes "in case" certain additional tips or leaks are provided.
Enforcement against these practices are obviously weak. In addition, teachers have every motivation to conduct commercial tuition classes after school because the teachers' pay starting from RM1,200 per month for degree holders is clearly insufficient to lead a 'more' comfortable lifestyle.

If the extrapolation of the statistics proved to be true, the clearly there is a large proportion of teachers who are involved in these activities. How else would the entire "underground" tuition economy be otherwise supported? There just cannot that many non-school teacher tuition teachers who can support the teaching two-thirds of students in Malaysia!

For those interested, degree-holders teachers in Singapore start their working career with a basic pay of S$2,200 (or RM4,800), 4 times more than Malaysians. Not only will there be less incentives to seek extra income, it'll also attract the best candidates to the profession.

The Ministry of Education needs to seriously relook at the entire remuneration and career advancement package of teachers in Malaysia. Read also my post on "Quality Teachers" earlier.

Monday, December 26, 2005

Historical Revisionism in Textbooks?

In another interesting letter from the Education segment of the Sunday Star, writer, Gan Teck Yaw of Melaka was shocked by some serious historical revisionism present in our school textbooks.
Recently, I flipped through the pages of Tamadun Islam by Mahayudin Yahaya (revised edition, published in 2005), which targets STPM students, undergraduates, teachers and lecturers.

To my shock, the book claims that China's Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) was an Islamic dynasty and that its founder Chu Yuan Chang was a Muslim.
I did Modern History of China for my 'A' Levels, and never have I read anywhere to say that the Ming Dynasty was a Islamic dynasty or that its emperors were Muslims!

Ming Shi, which recorded the history of Yuan and Ming dynastis clearly stated that:
Chu Yuan Chang had in fact become a Buddhist monk before he rose against the Yuan Dynasty and became the first Ming emperor. Ming Shi, Ming Shilu and other sources also showed that Ming emperors were either Buddhists or Taoists.
Do a quick search in the various search engines and you will find no corroborating evidence that the Ming Dynasty was a Muslim dynasty or that it's emperor was a Muslim. References regards Islam as tolerated in China with several Islamic officials in its government.

For example at the historical outline of Chinese history at the University of Maryland stated that:
Islam had been introduced into Chinese culture during the Tang dynasty, and had spread rapidly during the Mongol dynasty. The Ming dynasty tolerated Islam and even appointed several Islamic officials in its government. For the most part, however, the Islamic community was separate from the Chinese community. They lived in their own villages or lived in their own sections of the cities.
Or at
The rebellion [against the Mongol Yuan dynasty] took shape first around Guangzhou in 1352. A Buddhist monk and former boy beggar, Zhu Yuanzhang, threw off his vestments, joined the rebellion, and his exceptional intelligence took him to the head of a rebel army. By 1355 the rebellion had spread through much of China, accompanied by anarchy. Zhu Yuanzhang won people to his side by forbidding his soldiers to pillage. In 1356, Zhu Yuanzhang captured Nanjing and made it his capital, and there he won the help of Confucian scholars who issued pronouncements for him and performed rituals in his claim of the Mandate of Heaven.
Who sanctions the writing of these books and what's the process to ensure that our students actually learn the right facts and figures?

"Genuine Academics vs Administrative Academics"

With the lazy Christmas holidays slowly trickling away, I just thought I'd share a letter in the Education segment of the Star from a PhD holder, Arzmi Yaacob (clearly no relation of the vice-chancellor of Universiti Malaya) who was basically arguing that "administrative academics" aren't "genuine academics". :-)

To Arzmi, "administrative academics":
These “administrators in academic cloaks” thrive on university politics, and are good at maintaining good relations with policy makers, which enhances their positions.

These “administrative academics” hardly write and present papers, or do research.

Although these “administrative academics” hardly publish academic materials, they are often the ones who decide whether the work of others who carry out research, and write and present papers, is of the right quality or standard.

Sometimes, they even comment or criticise work done by others.
On the other hand, "genuine academics": fear that their dedication to their profession may not be given the same recognition accorded to those holding administrative posts.

Some suffer in silence for they fear that if they voice their frustration, they may be branded as sour grapes.
And to summarise and conclude:
What is present in universities today is a system whereby academics holding important posts seem to command more respect than those who produce good academic work. It is no wonder that more academics now clamour for administrative positions rather than prove themselves as academics.
Tan Sri Dato' Professor Dr, anyone?

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Christmas and New Year Greetings to One and All!

Tony and I would like to wish all you guys a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. Have fun with friends and family and if you're hitting the drinking circuit, don't forget to designate a driver!

Friday, December 23, 2005

China Students @ Universiti Utara Malaysia

In what I thought was an interesting development, Universiti Utara Malaysia (UUM) welcomed 44 students from China during the first day of a new semester. This is the first time UUM was receiving students from China. They were part of a total of 269 foreigners from Indonesia, Pakistan, the United States and Yemen out of 1,079 new students (that's a fairly high 24.9%).

The Chinese students were interviewed by the Star on Monday.
The students from China found out that there are local students who can speak Mandarin.

"We do not understand English. We are glad there are people here who can understand Mandarin. We feel at home right away. I do not feel like an alien here," said 19-year-old Zhan Chen... It gives us the opportunity to mingle with people from all races. With Mandarin-speaking Malaysians around, it makes things easier for us," she said.
The question I have is, given that they have no understanding of English, and much less, Bahasa Melayu - how are these students going to cope with classes conducted in totally foreign tongues? It will definitely be tougher than watching undubbed Korean movies! How is it practical that they can be accepted into our local universities without the necessary language qualifications?

I have a decent command of spoken Mandarin and a half-decent command of the Chinese written language. But there's no chance in **** I will be able to undertake degree programmes meaningfully in China without first going through some intensive language programme.

In addition, I'm also curious as to how these students are accepted - is there an entrance examination? Or is this a government-to-government "exchange programme"? Or did UUM evaluate based on Chinese examination results? Given the large intake of foreign students, will the standards at the university be maintained, enhanced or further weakened?

How do I get answers to questions like this? Maybe there measures increase will help UUM scrape into the Top 200 rankings for the world universities league table next year.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Compare & Contrast: UM vs NUS/NTU

Coming back to the furore over the Universiti Malaya (UM) rankings debacle, I just thought it might be useful (or at the very least interesting to do a simple "compare and contrast" on the reactions and pronouncements made by the various authorities on both sides of the Causeway in relation to the world universities ranking table.

We all know that in UM's case, the "plunge" in rankings from 89th to 169th in the world universities compilation by The Times Higher Education Supplement (THES) was met with denial, ignorance and incredulity. When the university was mistakenly ranked 89th in 2004, the UM vice-chancellor celebrated unabashedly that UM has achieved world-class status. And despite the steep decline in the overall rankings this year, the UM vice-chancellor continued to insist that UM has improved.

Let's take a look what happens down south at the Nanyang Technological University (NTU), the No. 2 university in Singapore. The university came in 48th in a ranking of universities worldwide (9th in Asia) by THES this year, which is far better than even UM's false achievement of 89th in 2004. And yet, listening to the Singapore leaders speak, you would not have thought that their leaders were particularly impressed with NTU's achievement!

During the 50th Anniversary alumni dinner for NTU on last Saturday, the Star reported that former Prime Minister, and Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong warned Singapore universities to "adapt and perform, or face extinction"!

SM Goh argued that "NTU has to keep moving if it wants to become world-class". From this sentence alone, you can tell the world of a difference in approach in ensuring that our universities excel in their respective fields. While the UM vice-chancellor basked in glory at their "89th" ranking last year, and continued to insist on UM's world-class status this year, our friends down south don't think that being 48th is anywhere near world-class. Are setting too low standards for ourselves?

SM Goh also warned that "Those which cannot move or adapt fast enough will drop off the table of rankings." What he said couldn't be more true, for clearly UM dropped 80 places in the world rankings, while Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) dropped off the map altogether! SM Goh could have been cheeky and added "See what happened to our neighbours!" (Note: He didn't - don't want to cause a diplomatic uproar here! :-))

Similarly, when Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Abdul Razak set a Top 50 benchmark for Universiti Malaya, NUS (ranked 22nd in 2005) was given the ardous task to be "the top 10 in the world" by Deputy Prime Minister of Singapore, Dr Tony Tan.

The President of NUS, Professor Shih Choon Fong concurred with his DPM, and set out to become the first Asian university in the Top 10. “Being in the top 10 in the world is something worthy to strive for. This is not an ego trip. As a Top 10 university, NUS can help propel Singapore’s development as a dynamic global city in a knowledge-based, innovation-driven world economy”.

Unfortunately for Malaysians in this case, we do not have leaders of strength, ambition and vision occupying the top echelons of our academia and leadership who will seek to become truly world-class. Instead we have leaders who are complacent and seek to be regarded as world-class by lowering the standards to "qualify" as being "world-class".

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

University Colleges Offering Own Degrees

The private education scene in Malaysia is set to become more complex with the "entry" of many new university colleges into the local scene. Many members of the public (myself included, initially) are confused as to what a "university college" mean. Is it just an upgraded status to distinguish them from the run-of-the-mill colleges? Or is it something more than that?

Out of more than 500 private colleges in the country, there are currently 10 institutions categorised as "University Colleges" (UC). The first UC was Kolej Universiti Teknologi dan Pengurusan Malaysia in 2001, followed by 4 more in 2003 and the rest in 2004 and 2005. These institutions are:
  • Asia Pacific University College of Technology and Innovation (UCTI)
  • Binary University College of Management & Entrepreneurship (BUCME)
  • International University College of Technology Twintech (IUCTT)
  • University College Antarabangsa Sedaya International (UCSI)
  • HELP University College (HUC)
  • Kuala Lumpur Infrastructure University College (KLIUC)
  • Kolej Universiti Islam Antarabangsa Selangor (KISDAR)
  • Sunway University College (SUC)
  • Kolej Universiti Teknologi dan Pengurusan Malaysia (KUTPM)
  • LimKokWing University College of Creative Technology (LUCCT)
To provide a clearer picture - which I regret to say that the website of Ministry of Higher Education was totally uninformative (I had to dig all over the place) - I'll elaborate a little further on the structure of private higher education in Malaysia. Private Higher Education Institutions (IPTS) can be placed in 2 broad categories.

The first is IPTS (Non-University Status) such as Taylor's, Kolej Damansara Utama (KDU) etc. These outfits are authorised to issue internal certificate and diploma qualifications. They are also authorised to conduct franchised degree programmes (e.g., twinning degrees) as well as other external semi-professional and professional qualification (e.g., ACCA etc.).

The second category is IPTS (University Status). This category can in turn be split as 3-types - Private Universities, University Colleges and Foreign Branch Campuses. Both private universities (e.g., MMU, UTP, UNITAR, UTAR etc.) and UCs are authorised to award their own degrees and other qualifications. Branch campuses (e.g., Nottingham University) on the other hand, will award identical degree programmes as the host university.

Hence the main "change", when say, Limkokwing Institute of Creative Technology gets "upgraded" to UC status is that they no longer need to rely on their foreign franchise partners to award degree certificates. They are now licensed to print their own certificates. :-)

So, the million dollar question is this - are these UC degrees any good? To be very fair, it would be wrong to generalise the quality of these degree certificates. Like universities, there are bound to be the "good" ones as well as the "bad" ones.

But UCs face additional problems and complications from a different dimension which will add "extra" challenges for them to prove their worth and quality.
  • While local public universities have a track record to speak of, which means we can quite safely evaluate them (as I have over the past 7 years, evaluating their graduates), there is no track record of UCs for the purposes of evaluation. Students taking the UCs option, are to a certain extent taking a risk as there are no hard evidence to judge the quality and outcome of the UC degree programme.

  • UCs are profit motivated. Compared to other private universities such as MMU and UTAR, where profit may not be the main motivating factor in the provision of higher education, profit is a major element of consideration at UCs. Many of these UCs are owned by large conglomerates such as Sunway, Selangor Properties, L&G, Sapura etc., who are beholden public shareholders who are only interested in the investment returns. Some of the head of these schools are called CEOs, for goodness sake!

    And as we all know, excessive focus on profitability and a management focused on short term performance will result in substantially poorer quality of education. A college overly focused on lowering cost will end up with weaker lecturers who are paid less, and poorer facilities. Conversely, if they are overly aggressive in increasing revenue, students of all shapes and sizes (figuratively speaking) will be admitted and awarded degrees.
Listen to some of these "CEOs" do market-hype talk, and you can understand what I mean. In the Star on Monday, the CEO of BUCME, "Joseph Adaikalam debunked the belief that these university colleges would find it difficult to market their home-grown programmes compared with the overseas ones."
“Our own programmes are proving to be more popular. This is because we offer very unique qualifications, including a degree in entrepreneurship in which students actually start their own business as part of the course.”
He'll probably not tell you directly that the reason may be due to substantially cheaper costs (since they no longer have to pay franchise and royalty fees to foreign universities) or whether there is a lower or easier entry requirement the UC degree instead of the foreign one or whether the college subsidiese the funding of the students "own business".

Hence, while it is likely that a couple of the 10 UCs (probably more to come in the next few years), are possibly credible, it is difficult at this stage to tell the goods from the lemons. A student will be taking some significant risks in signing up for UC degree programmes. Before, these degrees may still be moderated by the foreign university partners (not that these partners may be that great), UC degrees will not have any such controls at all. Visit some of the UC websites, and you can immediately tell their (lack of) quality.

In addition, if the candidates are seeking to pursue their education overseas after their first degree, their choice of postgraduate universities is likely to be limited as these UCs are unlikely to have their degrees recognised out of Malaysia at this time.

And finally, as highlighted before here and here, if the UCs are offering degree programmes in just 3 years after SPM, give them a serious miss.

More On 3+0 Courses

There was a question raised by a reader for my earlier post on “Speed Up Your Pursuit of Higher Education (II)”, which I thought should be raised here as a new post so that it will not be missed by other readers.

I would like to ask, is STPM, 'A' Levels or equivalent as the foundation for entering universities only? Will it be any problem, if a student can catch up the course without having STPM, 'A' Levels or equivalent level?

In my earlier posts, I’ve argued strongly against taking part in 3+0 courses due to various reasons. Basically the reader asked if it is possible for students to take 3+0 courses after SPM but still graduate strongly as he or she could make up for the shorter time frame through possibly more intensive course structure and teaching as well as additional hardwork by the student to make up for the “shortened” time frame.

Theoretically, of course, it’s possible. There are after all geniuses abound in the country. That’s why sometimes you hear of prodigies qualifying for Ivy League universities at 13 or something like that.

However, in practical terms, it’s not likely for 2 simple reasons:

Firstly, I would like to hazard a guess that 99.9% of the population, myself included, do not fall into the academic prodigy category – i.e. we are not that smart. Smart as we may be, we still need the necessary amount of time to absorb, understand and comprehend in depth the various aspects of the various subjects and topics of our degree programme.

Let me put it another way, despite having gone through 2 full years of ‘A’ Levels at one of the top institutions in Singapore, I still had to work pretty damn hard to do well for my degree in Oxford. If the top universities of the world require that extra 1-2 years, I don’t see how these private colleges could claim to be “world-class”, if they accept students into a degree programme without yet having the right foundations.

The logical (please do not take this in a condescending manner, it’s not meant to be) conclusion to this is, the only reason why a candidate can secure a degree in 3 years immediately after his or her SPM, is that the course is significantly easier and “watered down”. It is a “cheaper” certificate in all sense of the word.

Secondly, I dare say that none of the courses offered by the local colleges as part of the 3+0 schemes are of the necessary high standards and quality to make up for the significantly shortened time frame. For example, students still get the same holidays as the others instead of taking part in more intensive courses to “catch up”.

In fact I dare say, that the rigour of the courses taught for these 3+0 degrees are likely to be less than that of STPM level! What this means is that it’s probably easier to pass the 3+0 programmes, than to do credibly for STPM examinations. This is probably one of the major reasons attributing to the popularity of the 3+0 or even the 3+1 programmes.

After all, since it’s so easy to obtain a “degree”, why should I bother to “struggle” through a difficult STPM and still don’t get my degree qualifications?

What students fail to consider is that while they do “graduate” with a “degree”, it’s one of poorer quality both in the eyes of many employers (like myself) as well as the student’s personal growth in terms of knowledge, skills, critical thinking and analysis faculties. Read the case study of regret from one such student in my earlier post.

Hence to summarise once again – yes, it’s definitely “possible” to cramp all the education of STPM (and equivalent) as well as a good quality degree into a 3+0 programme. However it’s likely to be possible only in theory, as not that many of us are academic prodigies, and the current offerings of 3+0 programmes in the market do not give me any confidence at all. Strong SPM students should definitely give them a miss.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Tertiary Education Shopping: Students Beware

Following on my current theme on things to look out for, for students who have just completed their SPM and STPM examinations - see articles here and here - I'll blog here additional "experiences" related by former students cited in the Star on Sunday.

The quote which caught my eye, something which I've been harping on continuously on this site:

“When we look at their website and brochures, they promised to deliver first-class education and facilities. For the money we paid, all we got was disappointment.”

Here's a list of some of the other typical complaints of the local private colleges:
  • No clear entry requirements resulting in course switching midway
Many students in M Radha’s programme were forced to switch to another course because they couldn’t fulfil the requirements. “The requirements were not made clear to us. They kept saying they hadn’t finalised the details”
  • Differing standards between local university college and foreign partner university
... the students were only told in their second year that the overseas university had different grading standards, which resulted in their marks being adjusted downwards... As a result, Radha and Michael, along with many other coursemates, have switched to a local degree programme with the same university college.
So does the switch imply that the local degree programme is of lower standards than the foreign partner programme?
  • Unexplained fees
S. Reena*, who is in her fourth year of a biomedical programme with a university college in Selangor, is extremely frustrated because the miscellaneous fees she pays do not seem justified. “We pay an annual fee of RM550 which includes library and computer lab fees, activities and insurance. During our registration, we also paid for e-learning facilities and the alumni association. However, I don’t think I am getting my money’s worth.”

Reena says there are not enough computers considering the number of students, while the e-learning promise never materialised. Although they continue to pay the insurance fees, their insurance cards have expired, but the college keeps assuring them that they are still covered.

“As for the activities and alumni fees we pay, we have yet to see anything organised! On top of that, we still pay membership fees when we join any society. So I don’t understand what they’re charging us for,” she says.

During registration, no one pays attention to these details, says Reena. Once they are already in the college, most students prefer not to make a fuss out of concern for their grades. “I would advise others to really find out, and even scout around the college and speak to students before registering,” says Reena.
  • Always verify the advertised facilities
Like most students, Mei Shan and Yi Jian assumed they would get what they paid for. Little did they know that the nightmare had just started. They had to share a computer with four other students during workshops.

Yi Jian says she could barely hear what the lecturers said. “The hall was huge and there were more than a hundred students. Besides, the lecturers merely read from the slides on the projector,” she says.
So once again, please be extremely cautious in your route to tertiary education and your choice of institution. Always remember that providing top quality education isn't always a priority among Malaysian private colleges as commercial considerations and profits do often get into the way.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Speed Up Your Pursuit of Higher Education (II)

Yesterday, I wrote on some simple tips for SPM and STPM graduates to take into consideration before opting for their choice of colleges. This was particularly important due to the clutter of unabashed self-glorifying advertisements private colleges are prone to carry these days often misleading students and parents.

The other aspect of the commercialised private education which I'd like to warn students about is the current prevalence of "3+0" and "3+1" type courses offered.

There was a question raised to Tan Sri Yahaya Ibrahim who is the pro-chancellor of Universiti Pendidikan Sultan Idris, founding president of the National Association of Private and Independent Educational Institutions Malaysia (NAIPEI), and a past president of the Malaysian Association of Private Colleges and Universities (MAPCU) by the Sun as to whether "the move to allow universities and universities colleges without twinning track record to run 3+0 and 4+0 programmes?"

Tan Sri Yahaya defended the move by arguing that:
... this doesn't mean every college will now be immediately granted approval to run 3+0 or 4+0 degrees. They have to meet stringent criteria. It's likely only the established ones with track records in running degrees can meet these requirements. Therefore we shouldn't be alarmed. In fact it shows that the private higher education industry is maturing, and that the Government is confident of its ability to ensure that quality is maintained.
(Read more about my other comments with regards to the article here.)
I seek to disagree. The fact that the government has "liberalised" further the running of these programmes is a matter of commercial pressures from organisations such as NAIPEI and MAPCU, rather than the fact the the "education industry is maturing" in Malaysia. The fact is, that even the current batch of 3+0 programmes are churning out graduates that are finding difficulty securing and maintaining employment.

To me the reasons are two-fold:
  • Firstly, these courses are often poor because, they are neither training graduates who are "skilled" (e.g., like those should be from a typical polytechnic), nor are they providing sufficient academic rigour for them to have strong critical thinking and analytical capabilities required of a typical university graduate.

  • And secondly, barring exceptional exceptions, the "speed" at which the students obtain their degree gives them way insufficient time to acquire the necessary knowlegde and thinking skills to match those who undertake the traditional "2+3" or "1+4" route to securing their degrees.
I've previously written on the same topic once in response to an advertisement by Universiti Tun Abdul Razak (Unitar). However, given that it's tertiary education hunting season, I thought I'd just serve up another reminder to candidates to have their eyes wide open when reviewing courses which attempts to serve up a degree in a silver platter at the fastest possible time.

The most important thing, which I cannot emphasise strong enough, is there is absolutely no necessity to hurry through your tertiary education. Do not be fooled by the various (3+0) programmes offered by many of the local colleges. Yes, you do obtain your degrees faster, by at the most 2 years - but you may end up with poorer qualification as well as weaker recognition from employers. The quality of your education and where you obtain your degree affects your entire life and career, hence the addition year or two to prepare for tertiary education at the better universities is definitely worth the wait.

Let me quote an email which I have received recently from a former student who went through the "3+1" route (trust me, 3+0 is almost generally worse):
I fully agree with you that I was in a hurry to graduate straight after my SPM exams... Being young and naive at 18 years of age, I thought at the time that all degrees were basically of equal standing... Unfortunately, I chose to take the easy way out - a 1 yr pre-foundation leading to admission of the comp science degree at INTI College (Twinning with Coventry). Big mistake. I realised midway through that I simply wasn't getting a good education at INTI, but since I was already halfway through and have already spent the fees and more importantly the time, I just stayed on.
To prove my point, you will not find reputable top universities in the United Kingdom accepting students (under normal procedures) based on SPM, 'O' Levels or equivalent qualitifications. The minimum acceptable levels will be based on STPM, 'A' Levels or equivalent. The reasons are simple, after SPM, students are still not sufficiently prepared for tertiary education.

For the United States, entries to top universities are typically based on SAT examinations. Hence technically, you should be able to gain direct entry even after SPM. However, you'd probably find that if you have completed further secondary education post SPM, the chances are that you would score better for your SAT and hence gain entry into better US universities.

Many of these colleges will advertise the fact that these programmes are recognised by the Government and accredited by the Lembaga Akreditasi Nasional (LAN). You should note that this accredition is not a seal of quality. LAN "was legally established in 1996 to certify minimum standards and accreditation of programmes conducted in private colleges and universities." As quoted and italicised - as long as these programmes meet "minimum" standards, they obtain certification. It is by no means a seal representing the quality of the institution or programme.

Hence, I can only repeat my advice here - if you are considering undergoing any of the 3+0 programmes, think again really really hard. The smarter you are (which to a certain extent is determined by your SPM results), the more likely the shortfalls will be for these "speedy" programmes for you.

I repeat once again, the quality of your education and where you obtain your degree affects your entire life and career, hence the addition year or two to prepare for tertiary education at the better universities is definitely worth the wait.

OK, got to go pack my bags for the short trip to China now. Good luck!

"Do University Degrees Matter?"

In an article written some 2 months back by Farah Fahmy at, she pondered over the oft asked question as to whether "university degrees matter"? I've also written on a related post "What's a Degree Worth Today?" earlier. But while waiting for the football kick-off in the UK, I thought it'll be worth highlighting some of the quotes from Farah's article :-)

Farah wrote of her experience when confronted by many Malaysians as to how her actual degree programme relates back to her actual occupation today - she read "international relations" but she's currently a software engineer(!)
"But Farah... I thought you studied international relations. How come you're not doing something related to that?"

This is a question I frequently face whenever I tell people what I do, and what I studied. But whilst in Britain this question is accompanied by polite interest - it is, after all, normal in Britain for people to study one thing but forge a career in a different field; in my own workplace, there are former physicists and at least one English graduate working as software engineers - in Malaysia this question is usually accompanied by incredulity.
Ewww... and so I did Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE), I must grow up to be a philosopher, politician or an economist! I'm screwed(!) But now instead, I am running an information technology company.

What's the impact of such kinds of "thinking" in our Malaysian or to a certain extent Asian culture today? Farah's take was that it means
...employers will automatically overlook a graduate without a ‘desirable’ degree. If I wanted to do IT in Malaysia when I graduated, nobody, in all likelihood, would have hired me because I had the ‘wrong’ degree for the industry. Yet in Britain you could spend three years studying Chaucer and Shakespeare at university and still work in investment banking, whilst back in Malaysia a degree in Kesusasteraan Melayu, it would seem, puts you at the top of the unemployment heap.
I came back to Malaysia immediately after I graduated, however, I did manage to somehow (albeit somewhat unintentionally) end up in the information technology consulting industry. I was fortunate because my first employer was a local chapter of a US-based consulting firm which was more than happy to accept graduates of "calibre" from any field. The policy was really - "It's the brains that counts, not the knowledge" at fresh graduate levels - you'd pick up the skills and knowledge you need along the way. However, flip through the recuitment pages of the local newspapers and you won't find any local companies seeking candidates to fulfil IT-related positions with non-IT related degrees.

Farah also recounted her experience when choosing the "right" subject to study.
There is also, in Malaysia, a snobbish attitude towards certain degrees. The preferred degrees are medicine, engineering, law and accountancy. Social sciences? They're for those who aren't up to studying for the ‘proper’ subjects. When I was filling out my UPU (Unit Pemprosesan Universiti) forms all those years ago, I was tempted to put down anthropology at UIA (Universiti Islam Antarabangsa) as one of my degree choices. I talked it over with a friend of my brother's who was a UIA student at the time.

"Anthropology? Why would you want to do that? That's what all the matrics students who can't get into law do you know."

Which brings me to my next point. Malaysians seem to think that studying a degree because the subject matter is of interest a complete waste of time. You go to university to get a job that pays well. Why study history? Historians don't make money, and anyway there aren't many jobs for them. Ditto anthropology, archaeology, geography, languages, music, literature, religious studies and many other subjects. As far as (many) Malaysians are concerned, these subjects are a waste of time, and a waste of money.
In my opinion, there are not many professions out there in the market which requires immediate specialisation at degree levels - occupations related to the medicine, pure sciences and engineering, and to a lesser extent software engineering comes to mind as the exceptions.

In Singapore, the government has actually created a humanities stream within the Arts faculty in Junior Colleges to encourage top students to join the Arts stream. These "humanities scholars" will receive the best teachers - many of whom are expatriates in the teaching of English Literature, Economics, History and Geography. With this form of encouragement, Humanities and Social Science subjects are no longer treated with disdain as before, and many top students proceed to pursue degrees such as "PPE" at the top universities overseas.

So, does selecting the "right" type of degree matter? Unfortunately, it probably does to a certain extent if you do intend to work in Malaysia - although it's probably not as bleak as most would like to think. I have for example with me, one of my senior project managers, an honours graduate in English from National University of Singapore. Hence, my take is if you are good enough and you are confident enough, choose the course that will most suit your interest and your strengths, not one which you "think" might just be more "marketable".

And overall, what was the conclusion to the question she posed to herself?
Even though the likes of Bill Gates and Richard Branson have become extremely successful without degrees, a recent survey of job advertisements in Malaysia's five leading daily newspapers in July found that 19.8 percent of adverts offered jobs to those with a bachelor's degree, so it would seem that the answer to this question is yes. But of course, things are not as clear-cut as they may seem. In Malaysia, it is not just having a degree that matters, but also what and where you studied.
She's probably just about right. :-)

Saturday, December 17, 2005

"Unmatched * Unequalled * Unrivalled"

Students beware.

Yes, Tis' the season to be jolly, and it's also time for SPM and STPM graduates to review and ponder their options in their pursuit for further education. It is also the time when you find the various private colleges throughout making grandiloquent claims and advertisements to attract students and of course, their sought after cash.

Among the advertisements by the private colleges, those by Limkokwing University College of Creative Technology (LUCCT) is probably "unequalled" in its unabashed self-glorification. Take for example, a full page advertisement placed in the Sun on December 15th (I'll put up a scan of this once I get my hands on a scanner). See also, another advertisement which I blogged on earlier.

The advertisement loudly proclaimed "Unmatch * Unequalled * Unrivalled" in LUCCT's "Award winning excellence" by "students and graduates of the most inspiring. most innovative, most international university in the region". Really? By the sounds of it, The Times Higher Education Supplement (THES) and QS QuacquarelliSymmonds Limited's mistake isn't only with the rankings of Universiti Malaya, it must have been a terrible tragedy for LUCCT to be unplaced in the top 200 universities of the world.

But lest I be accused of pursuing a personal vendetta against LUCCT (of which I have none against), it's not the only college guilty of such practices. A quick look at the recent supplement by New Straits Times (Dec 9th) on the FACON education fair, you'd find headlines to articles which are often "misleading". For example:
  • "Creativity flows easily at IACT"

  • "You're not just a nuber cruncher with CIMA"

  • "Information is power at Informatics"

  • "Binary students delight employers"

  • "FTMS brings out the best in students"

  • "Revel in stimulation at UCTI"

  • "Systematic way to Prime performance"
I totally do not blame students who have just completed their SPM or STPM to be absolutely confused by the offerings in the market. Are there just so many top quality schools in Malaysia? I can tell you outright that, barring exceptions, most students from the above schools will not get past the "shortlisting" for interview rounds with me, contrary to the impression given in the media articles.

On the contrary, some of the more established private institutes take a more low-key, sensible approach. For example, Monash University Malaysia advertisements focused on their open day, outlining the time-table of academic speakers for the various academic courses throughout the day. Students interested in courses offered are encouraged to listen to and speak with their potential lecturers or tutors before making the final decisions. Similarly, Taylor's advertised their "Campus Preview Day" on the 18th for visits to the respective "campuses" without the distracting marketing hype.

As I've been asked many times, what's my take on the best colleges to go to? There is unfortunately, no standard answer applicable to all students. I have always argued that the top students should attend the top 5-10 schools in the United Kingdom and the top 10-15 in the United States. At the same time, some of the local colleges provide the necessary level education for the relevant segments of the student population.

What I've always been upset with is the fact that many top students are "hoodwinked" by the marketing ploy of some of the local colleges which results in many students joining the wrong schools. This has been discussed in my posts here, and a short follow up here.

Hence given the deluge of unbenchmarked information, what can the student do to tell the lemons from the real thing - afterall, everyone calls themselves "world-class"? There are some simple checks a student can do to decide for himself if he or she is enrolling into a college with sufficient quality and rigour to provide him or her with a challenging and fulfilling tertiary education.

  1. Check for the minimum entry requirement for enrolment into your desired course at the college. This measure provides a fairly accurate measure of the quality of the course and the suitability to a particular candidate. As a yardstick, a students grades and qualifications should not be too far above the minimum entry requirements of the college.

    For example, if you have 2As and a C for your STPM, do not enrol into a college course with minimum (or actual historical) entry requirement of 2Ds. You should probably be looking for a college which has a minimum entry requirement of something like BBB or ABC for the relevant course.

  2. The great thing about the internet today, is that many students have been blogging their experience in the various private colleges in town. Read all of them, but just remember to take all of it with a pinch of salt as their views may not be representative or accurate - but it may just give you a better flavour of what to expect.

    There's a pretty good blog for example, dedicated solely to "Life at Limkokwing's". Make your own judgements as to whether it's "Unmatched * Unequalled * Unrivalled".

  3. If you think that the colourful "brochures" provided by the colleges contains information which sounds a little bit too good to be true - e.g., lecturers flown in all year round from the main campus overseas, ask for more information. "All year round" may just mean 2 lecturers for 4 lectures a year. It's your right to ask for more information, after all, you are paying the fees. Visit the various open houses and determine for yourself if the facilities in reality (e.g., labs equipped with the latest technologies) do indeed match what was advertised.
At the end of the day, do sufficient research to determine if a college is suitable for you - in particular, item (1) above. Don't be fooled by all the creative marketing gimmicks (some of which are not at all "creative"!) dished out by these institutions, who very often are only interested in commercial considerations to make "successful" entrepreneurs of private education.

In addition, do not eliminate the local university route either. While true meritocracy is still found wanting at our local public universities, it will be equally untrue to claim that non-bumiputeras are unable to secure places in courses such as computer science and business administration. The top 4-5 local public and "private" universities (UM, USM, UTM, MMU) often serves up better top students in these fields when compared against many of the overseas twinning universities and colleges.

Finally, in another related topic which I'll blog tomorrow, do not be tempted to "speed up your pursuit" of higher education by signing up for the 3+0 type programmes. I've written about it before here in June, but I'll write to emphasize the message again.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Times have changed ... a little

A friend of mine told me this story recently. She met a fellow Malaysian doing his PhD at Duke University. He got his medical degree from Taiwan, graduating among the top 5 or 10 students in his class at the National Taipei University. He went to a Chinese independent school and probably didn't get into the medicine program at a local U (my friend didn't ask). He's halfway through his 4th year here at Duke and he's ready to defend his PhD thesis. (For those unfamiliar with the US system, getting a PhD in 4 years is a remarkable achievement). But this post is not really about this guy. No, I'm not going into another one of those we've-lost-one-of-our-best-talents post.

Rather, I want to highlight his reaction when my friend, who's a Chinese, told him that she got a JPA scholarship to do her undergraduate degree here in the US. It was literally a jaw-dropping reaction. He couldn't believe that a non-Malay would have gotten a JPA scholarship.

In the midst of our griping, we sometimes forget to pause to notice small but significant changes in policy decisions. When my friend told me of this guy's reaction, I thought that it would be a good time for me to sit down and reflect on the specific issue of scholarships given out by the various arms Malaysian government. Instead of looking at the policies themselves, I thought that I would start by trying to remember all the non-Malays I know who have received government scholarships to study abroad.

When I was at LSE, I knew one MARA scholar who received a JPA scholarship to do actuarial science. He was part of a small group of non-Malays who did their A levels under MARA and later went to the UK for their undergraduate degrees. I met some of his friends, who were mostly non-Malay, who were at Manchester, Herriot-Watt and Imperial College under JPA. I knew of another non-Malay at LSE who was under a Telekom scholarship and another non-Malay in the year below me who was under a Petronas scholarship. One of the MARA scholars at Imperial later went to Oxford to do a PhD under another JPA scholarship.

Apart from the UK, I have a basketball 'kaki' who went to Purdue under a Tenaga scholarship. My cousin-in-law studied in NSW, Australia under a Tenaga scholarship as did another friend who studied in Sydney Uni.

Currently, all the JPA scholars who are in Duke (undergraduate) are non-Malays. I know of at least three of them. The friend of mine whom I mentioned at the top of this post did her undergrad at another US institution under a JPA scholarship (but is now supported by Duke). I know of another younger friend, also non-Malay, who's at Stanford under the JPA.

In fact, the experience of my Stanford friend showed an increasing sophistication in regards to JPA. He was one of the first batches which underwent a program after SPM specifically to prepare them to apply to the top schools in the US. He took preparatory classes in Sunway and was taught how to write essays in the US application process (which is much more strenuous compared to the UK process) and did a variety of courses.

Upon reflection, I have these two thoughts to offer. Firstly, I think there has been a change in JPA policy in regards to sponsoring non-Malays for an undergraduate education overseas. Granted, the bar for non-Malays is probably higher than for Malays, but a policy change is still a policy change. This probably explained the jaw-dropping look that the Taiwanese-trained doctor gave to my friend. Of course, I don't have the statistics to show if the number or % of scholarships given by JPA to non-Malays have increased over the past 10 years or so but my impression is that it has.

What prompted this change? Some people speculated that part of it might have been due to the 1999 elections. If this is true, then we should see the number of JPA scholarships given to non-Malays spike around 1999 and then drop for subsequent years. I don't have the statistics but I happen to think that this has not occured. Could it be that the people administrating JPA saw the inherent unfairness of not giving scholarships to well-deserving non-Malay candidates? Or was it political pressure by the non-Malay component parties within the BN? Or perhaps, the practice of giving out scholarships to non-Malays has always existed? It's hard to say without a more in-depth examination.

Opportunities for seeking scholarships from other government sources have also openend up. Petronas, Telekom and Tenaga are some well-known sources. There might be other sources which I'm not aware of (Bank Negara, the Securities Commission). If we expand the number of scholarships given to include local universities such as the ones linked to Petronas, Telekom and Tenaga, then I'm sure this figure would increase significantly.

Secondly, JPA is becoming more sophisticated in getting their scholars into top programs here in the US. As more and more scholars go through the US system, I expect the JPA staff to have a greater understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of the different schools here in the US thereby allowing them to help their scholars 'target' certain schools rather than others for specific courses.

Times have changed ... a little at least. Maybe 5 years down the road, it won't be so uncommon for someone to hear that JPA offers scholarships to non-Malays.

Perhaps a more important question than who gets what is the question of what JPA and other scholarship offering institutions are doing to retain the talent which they have sent abroad. Our country needs their human capital back home, regardless of race.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Quick Editorial Note

Hey guys,

Just a quick editorial note as well as a reflection of the events of the past 2 months.

The furore over the Universiti Malaya (UM) plunge in the Times Higher Education Supplement rankings this year has created record amounts of traffic to this blog. I'm sure if you trawl through the archives here, you'll find sufficient articles to keep you occupied reading for hours! However, the focus on the rankings issue have probably diverted attention of the writers from other equally important (or possibly more so) education issues such as the students' rights and campus elections, which we have hardly blogged about (it will come!).

Over the last month, the interest in the UM debacle begins to taper off, and the Squatgate crisis stormed over the entire (well, almost) blogosphere. We have taken the liberty to take a breather on the issues around UM, lest it becomes stale, while catching up on other topics of note. Our education system is afterall, not just "UM" :-). However, you can be assured that both Kian Ming and myself have continued to research on the state of UM and other public institutes of higher learning, and will write about these issues when the appropriate time arises. This will ensure that the relevant authorities to continue to remain on their toes, in the task to provide educational excellence in Malaysia.

Partly due to the increased traffic however, this blog has begun to attract certain types of readers to the blog. You would occasionally find comments which have been deleted by the us in our posts, but these were largely hate-posts with undisputed racially "seditious" comments. We have practised a rather liberal policy of permitting heavily biased criticism which sometimes displays on the writers own skewed racial orientation. This is also to prevent accusations of bias and intolerance of opinions (there are quite a few against the authors here :-)) if we were to delete these messages indiscrimately.

However, of late, we find that there were quite a few long-winded racially biased (but not "extreme") rants which were just replicated and posted repeatedly on various entries on this blog, under a few rotated pseudonyms (i.e., 2-3 individuals using some 7-8 "names"). These "comments" were made irrespective of the topic of our entries, and they were just ranting for the sake of ranting. For example, the topic of the rants will always be on "NEP" or "migration", even if I'm talking about "kindergarten classes". They have now become some form of irritant, not just to the authors of this blog, but also to quite a few readers who have kindly written in to express their frustration.

Hence we have made the decision to exercise our editorial rights and powers to delete all posts which have already been posted on this blog in some earlier posts. Therefore, you might just find a few more deleted comment entries on this blog. I hope that the readers of this blog will be happy with this move, and it'll make the site a friendlier place to be. :-)

I've already spent a couple of hours identifying some of these repeat comments in the past, and deleted them off the site. We'll see how this extra moderating hassle works, and hopefully, we'll see less of the silly rants in the future. Thanks for reading and have a good holiday season!

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Mara Junior Science Colleges: A Peek

All of us (at least I am) are probably, at one point or another, a little confused by all the various education streams and routes of the diverse educational institutions in Malaysia. We know that there is the vernacular education system comprising of goverment aided Chinese and Tamil primary schools, community funded Chinese secondary schools, the national primary and secondary schools as well as the lesser understood, and more elusive Matriculation colleges and Mara schools.

Thanks to an email from LYL, I'm now much more enlightened about the structure of Mara Junior Science Colleges (MRSM/MSJCs) in Malaysia.
There are about 33 MJSCs throughout Malaysia... For the upper sec (Form 4 & 5), there are 4 MJSCs classified as PKP, acronym for Program Khas Pendidikan, or Special Education Programmes. They are Jasin, Langkawi, Taiping and Pengkalan Chepa, ranked academically achievement (SPM) wise in that order. While Jasin and Langkawi as well as Kolej Yayasan Saas (KYS) constantly rank in the top 5 ( in recent years top 3) for the SPM results, the other 2 PKP rank around 8 to 15. The other normal ones fare worse, although still being in the top 100. Requirements for these PKP schools included straight As for PMR as well as scoring well in the entrance [examination], and for those who attended MJSCs in their lower form, achieving a CGPA of 3.2 and above.

Although our national sylabus is in the midst of a long decline, I would like to inform you about certain unique programmes offered in these PKPs. As an example, in my school, the smarter people have an option of taking accelerated courses, as well as skipping classes to pursue personal interests. In my school for instance, I am given the choice to skip maths, add maths, physics, english, and est. I have also self studied as well as joined special classes for maths, physics, chemistry, computer science and economics. I as well as a handful of others also have to lecture to the academically challenged people in remedial classes. We also have special programmes like The [Gifted] Group. Basically those in it get access to loads of stuffs as well as a lot of help to pursue personal interest.

Other than that, all the upper form MJSCs run a US formulated programme called Student Enrichment Module (SEM), where we are required to do produce a thesis. This programme runs from the middle of the form 4 year to the start of the form 5 year. Students may do this individually or in a group. This programme gives those who has interest in science to go forth and research for a thesis, although most of them opt to produce less demanding thesises like presentations, reports and stuffs like poems, anthologies etc.
It also appears that these schools "secures" the best teachers in the country. The qualifications required of the teachers appears to be fairly demanding. Interestingly enough, it may put some of universities to shame - the head of departments are all PhD holders and former Professors or Assistant Professors at the universities.
Now to our faculty. To qualify to teach in my school, one has to have a minimum of two of the criteria below:
  1. have years of marking the SPM paper
  2. minimum teaching experience of 25 years
  3. graduated from a foreign uni in the subject you teach/ related
Most of our teachers have all 3 though. Needless to say, they are really really good. To illustriate this point, I shall put it this way - In every 10 teachers, about 5 are Guru Pakar and 2 are Guru Cemerlang. This being said, most schools dont even have one of either. Other than that, our teachers have won numerous teaching awards like Toray, Intel, etc etc. We have 4 head of departments - Science, Humanities, Languages and Maths, who all hold PhDs and were ex professors/assoc profs in universities.
The MJSCs were not just pure academic institutions but also excelled in sports and other activities.
Well, sports in my school is quite a big thing too. We have our bunch of good athletes, and for my batch, our football team was the best in Malacca. Yes, watching local school football was actually and seriously fun. Our rugby team was listed in the top 10 non semiprofessional teams in Malaysia ( this includes university teams). We have some medalists who participated in the MSSM in athletics, basketball ( ahem ahem), rugby and football. School spirit and pride is definitely there.
Thanks to the plegde given in the last general elections, the MJSCs provided 10% of places to non-bumiputeras, permitting LYL to secure his place at MJSC (Jasin). Now, after completing his SPM and 20 months at the MJSC, LYL is at the moment contemplating his various options for his pursuit of higher education at the top universities of the world.

It was worth noting that enrolling into the MJSC was against LYL's parent's advice, in full knowledge of the potential unequal treatment he may receive at these institutions as a non-bumiputera. Despite the odds, he completed his studies as with a CGPA of 3.93 winning various prizes and medals (silver medals for the national chem and physics quiz, 3rd placing in the state for the star compquiz, 2nd placing in the computer science/engineering category for the young scientist fair 2004, 2nd for the same competition in physics, 2005, high distinction in the maths olympiad, etc. etc.) Yes, and before he gets accused of being a total nerd, he also played basketball for Kuala Lumpur and Melaka. I'm extremely impressed, not to mention the fact that he puts me to shame. :-)

So, for those who have read the post by Kian Ming on the pros of studying in Singapore, the MJSC (Jasin) do sound a tad similar to Raffles Insitution in Singapore and looks like a good school to go to, if you can get in.

Good luck to LYL for all his future endeavours, and hopefully he'll be able to contribute his talents to the country some day in the future.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Inter-Varsity Grads... Errr, So?

In a piece of news which made the frontpage of the Star on Sunday, it was announced by the Minister of Higher Education, Datuk Dr Shafie Salleh that there may come a day when undergraduates can hop "between universities accruing credits instead of being stuck with just the courses offered by their own university."

The Minister has also proudly proclaimed this as a vision for the Ministry, "to be the first country in the Asean region to offer this flexible credit collection system."

As part of this scheme, the Ministry has taken two years to deliver a "Malaysian Qualifications Framework" (MQF)to streamline qualifications offered by institutions of higher learning which can be used as a reference point for entry into programmes as well as for credit transfers. Universities and colleges, private and public may also be rated in accordance to the framework.
Dr Shafie said that once the MQF had been finalised, undergraduates could collect credits from different universities but still graduate from the universities they had enrolled in... He described the inter-university credit collection system as "liberalising".
Forgive me for being just a tad dense, after more than one day of thinking about the credit transfer system... I've yet to figure out what's so "liberalising" about it? Mind you, there's nothing wrong with setting up a credit transfer system. I'm just scratching my head as to how this is regarded as "big news" justifying it's frontpage lead, and how is it that this has become such an important "vision" for the Malaysian higher education system?

As far as I can see, the above is purely an administrative framework which will not make any significant impact on the qualitative aspect of our higher education system. It is not a big deal as, universities overseas do "permit" credit transfers, but through recognition of the quality of courses conducted by the source university, as well as an academic evaluation of the specific candidate. The "administrative" system may instead jeopardise the quality of the better institutions, as it'll dictate the universities to "accept" students from weaker universities, removing elements of autonomy at individual universities.

What I'd like to see hit the frontpage news from the Ministry of Higher Education is how it's dealing with issues such as transparency in promotion exercises of university academics, improvements in the quality of overall student growth and maturity both academically and socially, as well as the age old issues of meritocracy in the enrolment of students into local universities. Measures such as the MQF are fair enough, but they don't and will not bring about the much needed improvement in the quality of our local public universities.