Monday, November 26, 2007

Open letter to Tok Pa

Apologies for my silence on the latest THES rankings. Thanks to Tony for his many updates. I've been trying to wait for all the discussion to materialize before putting my thoughts together. Also took a short holiday with my wife to visit one of Frank Lloyd Wright's most famous houses - Fallingwater - during the Thanksgiving break here in the US. I thought that I'd sum up my thoughts by writing an open letter to Tok Pa as a response to his letter in the Star. I'll also send this as a letter to Mkini.

Dear Minister of Higher Education,

I was encouraged by your letter published in the Star on the 14th of November addressing the issue of our public universities falling out of the Top 200 ranked universities in the world, according to the THES.

I was encouraged because you did not dwell on the how changes in the methodology used by QS, the company responsible for compiling these rankings, might have affected the ranking of Malaysian universities in the THES. While understanding the technicalities of why our public universities dropped off in the THES rankings might be important to gain a better understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of our public universities, I believe that you know, from your many travels to top universities in the world, that our public universities are very far from being anywhere close to the top 200 universities in the world, however measured.

I have also been encouraged by the way your Ministry has been very focused in its approach in attempting to transform our public universities as exemplified by the National Higher Education Strategic Plan and the corresponding National Higher Education Action Plan 2007-2010. The goals set out in these Plans are realistic and if achieved, will certainly make significant improvements in our public university education system.

At the same time, I am aware of how political considerations and restrictions can prevent even the best laid plans from being fulfilled and hinder a politician's ability to speak honestly.

For example, you mentioned that 'Still, massification of higher education was the right choice for a young, developing country that had to ensure its citizens access to education, and thus a brighter future.' Was the indiscriminate expansion of higher education in Malaysia a necessary thing in the context of Malaysia? Is this not one of the reasons why there are a large number of unemployed and unemployable Malaysian graduates currently in the market largely as a result of them not being able to pick up the requisite skills to make them employable in the marketplace? Would not an emphasis on vocational and technical education for those who are not academically inclined have made more sense instead of pushing these students into courses in which they have little interest in and is at least partly responsible for making some of them unemployable? Was the practice of 'awarding' and building universities in every state in Malaysia not a political tool for 'rewarding' voters in these states and as a result lead to a decline in quality in exchange for quantity?

At the same time, I would guess that it was not possible for you to say that the 'massification' of higher education in Malaysia also went together with policies which prevented otherwise qualified Malaysian students who could not get the courses of their choice to leave for universities outside Malaysia and for less qualified candidates to 'flood' the gates of our public universities, so to speak? In addition, a large pool of above average students were also awarded scholarships by the government and government linked companies to study overseas, leaving our public universities almost denuded of our top students.

I am also sure that you realize that the 'massification' of higher education in Malaysia not only decreased the quality of our students in exchange for quality but that the same phenomenon was also taking place among the ranks of the faculty. Lecturers were promoted indiscriminately, more based on 'know-who' than on 'know-how' and that promotion policies were also responsible for driving away many otherwise qualified academics to leave for universities overseas, leaving the ranks of many faculties relatively denuded.

The notion that a Malaysia public university can even be in the conversation of being anywhere close to the top 200 universities in the world is somewhat laughable given that less than 50% of most faculties in our public universities have PhDs. While having a PhD is not a necessary prerequisite for doing good research, it is important as an indicator of having received the proper training to do good research, having worked under experienced supervisors and learned from them and having the ability to complete a major piece of research work in the form of a thesis. Is it so surprising that our public universities have such a low peer review and low citation scores when many of the faculty are not trained to publish and produce cutting edge research? When this is combined with a culture which does not reward publications and punish non-publication, it is no surprise that our faculty has and will continue to score low on peer review and citations per faculty.

How can you change this? I think MOHE and the public universities are already taking some steps to address this starting with the push to send more Malaysian faculty to complete their PhDs in overseas universities. But even then, the process by which non-PhD holders currently lecturing in our public universities can obtain funding from MOHE to do their PhDs overseas is still far from transparent. From anecdotal evidence which I've heard from some of our readers, the process is still very much driven by know who rather than know how and sadly, by racial quotas instead of by performance ability. If this practice continues, I would not be surprised if the percentage of sponsored students obtaining their PhDs would be less than 50%, again leaving the MOHE in the quandary of not being able to achieve its 60% target of PhD holders by 2010.

While your strong words of inculcating a 'publish or perish' culture is encouraging, it will have little 'teeth' if not seriously implemented in our public universities. Our public university lectures are in a position of being almost 'unfireable' and hence, a threat of 'publish or perish' is not seen as credible unless real action is taken. Does this mean that you are willing to slowly 'weed out' the non-performers in our public university system (through retirements and such) and replace them with highly motivated and better qualified academics? Only time will tell.

The road ahead is fraught with challenges, both internal and external. As events and trends in the world continue to develop and evolve, our public universities are in danger of being left behind. At the same time, internal political constraints and considerations makes it even more difficult to change from within. Your job is not one which I envy and I applaud you for at least taking positive and concrete steps to effect change, hopefully at a substantive rather than a cosmetic level. But I fear that the restraints that is the Malaysian political system will eventually get the better of your good intentions, at great expense to our country.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Prof Khoo Not Optimistic

tWell, the debate over the quality of higher education in Malaysia isn't going to abate any time soon judging from the continual media coverage on the issue, in the light of Malaysian universities crashing out of the Top 200 universities in the world. The latest is published in the Singapore Straits Times, written by its Malaysian correspondent, Chow Kum Hor.

Both Kian Ming and I have written regularly on our concerns that the current administration appears to be more interested in boosting quantity at the expense of quality in our education system from various angles.

Most recently, there has been plans of increasing the number of PhD holders in our local varsities. On the surface, this is critical for our academia to increase its standards. Kian Ming who was quoted in the article, "blamed the slide on the quality of academics, as only one-third of them have doctorate degrees".

However, with the criteria set on the "quantity" over "quality" of PhD holders, cynicism has clearly set in as to whether our local universities are just going to accept PhD holders from less academically reputable colleges - and we are certainly not alone in thinking so.
...eminent academician Khoo Kay Kim felt there was too much emphasis on increasing the number of PhD holders, instead of producing quality doctorate graduates. 'If this goes on, next year I expect the rankings to slip further,' he said.
Kian Ming added that "many lecturers were promoted based on their administrative know-how and know-who, rather than on works published in respected journals."

As highlighted by my earlier post, and now confirmed by The Times Higher Education Supplement, the slide of Malaysian universities was largely due to the fact that our local academics can now no longer vote for their own universities in the surveys (this type of no-integrity blow-own-trumpet shameless culture amongst our local academia is really quite shocking!)
Mr Martin Ince, who coordinated the survey, said this year, academics were not allowed to rate their own universities. This affected the Malaysian universities' ranking, he told The Straits Times in an e-mail.
Can things get worse? By the looks of things, very likely as long as the administration refuses to recognise some of the core causes of the decline in academic standards of our local universities, such as a leadership with a denial syndrome as well as a clear lack of transparency in the student admission and the academic recruitment and promotion process.

As Associate Professor Azmi Sharom of University Malaya's law faculty put it succintly:
Quality will suffer as long as there is the dual entry system. It's time to have meritocracy in the proper sense.
Will they listen? Or continue to wear the Emperor's new clothes?

Monday, November 19, 2007

More on Malaysian Higher Education

The standards of our universities are of greatest concern to all Malaysians who care for the country. And certainly, Datuk Zaid Ibrahim, arguably the most respected amongst the UMNO Ministers and MPs, despair at the state of "continued decline of Malaysian universities in the world rankings" as per his recent published letter in

He's probably even less optimistic about its future than I am, if I were to take his comments at face value:
Even Indonesian and Thai universities appear to have faired much better than the universities here in Malaysia, once the pride of this region. By this time next year, we may have to resign ourselves to having all these universities out of the first 500.
He blames the current predicament on several factors.

1. The English Medium
Thirty years of trying to re-engineer the educational medium of instruction has brought us to this. Almost every major textbook, citation and publication is in English.

The minister must be pragmatic and muster the administrative and political will to enforce the usage of English if we are not to be left behind by countries like Laos, Vietnam and Indonesia. Even newsreaders from China today appear to be able to present news better than our local newsreaders.
2. Student quality
The minister may be stuck with the quota system for his own political survival, but surely he can help improve standards here by trying to keep at least good bumiputera students at our universities. Currently, the good ones are shipped off to very expensive overseas universities and the less capable ones are placed in local universities. Common sense indicates that this is a recipe for disaster in terms of trying to maintain or improve the standards of our local universities.
3. Appointment of lecturers
For far too long, the minister has been giving independence to our local universities to choose their lecturers. This policy must change. The dismal standards may require the ministry to step in directly to ensure that good lecturers are appointed.
4. Publications
The ministry must set up its own audit team to ensure continuous publications. Without this most important criteria, Malaysian universities cannot hope to climb the ladder again and may be stuck in the doldrums for years to come.

The publication culture even in an established university like Universiti Malaya is surprisingly absent. Publications are what make a university and this is seriously lacking in our universities. The minister must again ensure that those lecturers who publish are rewarded and not cold-storaged for being “too clever”.
Of the four points, I'm in total agreement with point (4) on publications. A university that doesn't publish, or one that only writes to lifestyle magazines, make sensationalist claims to local newspapers without peer review or prefers to take part in dog and pony shows in Europe to collect coloured medals doesn't deserve recognition, and is certainly not worth its salt. Without the necessary academic rigour, we become just a degree manufacturing facility without intellectual depth.

I'm in semi-agreement with points (1) and (3). I believe English is of prime importance but I'm not sure if it'll change the standards to drastically at our universities. The university academics will probably argue that because it's not their mother tongue, the standards will drop further after the switch to an English discourse. All hell will of course, break loose at the UMNO General Assembly. While I certainly hope that the standards of English will improve tremendously in the near term, I actually think that there are several other key policies which the Government can undertake to arrest the decline in standards.

With regards to point (3) where it was suggested that lecturers be appointed centrally by the Ministry of Higher Education (MOHE) - I would agree with the diagnosis that the culture of recruitment of quality lecturers at our local universities are abhorrent, but placing the recruitment process in the hands of the clueless civil servants at the MOHE, will certainly not change things too much.

I would start where I have always proposed vigourously - that is to open the selection and applications of Vice-Chancellors and senior academics to local universities. Have the resumes vetted by an independent senior panel, not inclined to sway to political pressures. Of course, once the "best" is selected, give them the necessary hand to overhaul the university administration to improve standards.

Finally, I'm disagreeable to the suggestion that scholars should not be sent overseas but instead retained in the local universities. I certainly believe that deserving students must be given scholarships to pursue their further education at the top universities overseas. However, the practice of sending mediocre students to 3rd rate universities overseas must be stopped for it's just a waste of the county's precious resources.

I am of the opinion that the standards of the local universities will improve significantly should there be the practice of enrolling the best students for each faculty and university, even without taking into consideration the "better" students who have been given scholarships to go overseas. Currently, it isn't transparent how students are allocated to the respective subjects and universities. There appears to be an unhealthy hidden hand behind the scenes in the above process.

Enrolling the best students for each university and course would also mean that the Government must scrap the unequal entry requirements for Malaysian students i.e., via the matriculation or the STPM system. Hence, the standards at our local universities can easily improve even if the Government continues to send students overseas. They just need to make sure that the remaining cohort of students are given an equal footing to compete for excellence. ;-)

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Tok Pa Responds

The Minister of Higher Education, Datuk Mustapa Mohamed wrote on open letter to the press today, as published in The Star. It is one of the rare instances our Ministers attempt to respond to public dismay, and it should definitely be encouraged. I reproduce in full his letter responding to Malaysian universities crashing out of the Top 200 list here for all to read. We can only pray that he'll take real concrete actions to redeem our pride.

Plan to shape varsities of world class

IT is that time of year again. The latest Times Higher Education Supplement - Quacquarelli-Symonds (THES-QS) World University Rankings were published on Nov 8 and, as in previous years, have drawn much attention in Malaysia.

More so perhaps, as the 2007 results do not include any Malaysian university in the list of top 200 universities.

As Ben Sowter, head of research at QS Quacquarelli Symonds Ltd, the British company that conducts the survey has said: “In many places our advice was taken and understood ? but in Malaysia, the reduced performance of Malaysian institutions became a source of great focus for both the media and politicians.”

The reaction this year is therefore inevitable as some have concluded that the performance of Malaysian universities has dropped further.

Some may also feel that the current rankings are the result of an egalitarian education policy. Still, massification of higher education was the right choice for a young, developing country that had to ensure its citizens access to education, and thus a brighter future.

Now, however, we have begun to direct our attention to enhancing the quality of our institutions and championing academic excellence.

As our Prime Minister has accurately pointed out, in order for Malaysia to become a hub of educational excellence, we need universities recognised as outstanding and of world-class quality.

The THES-QS rankings are based on six criteria: peer review (40%), citations per faculty (20%), student to faculty ratio (20%), recruiter review (10%), international faculty ratio (5%), and international students ratio (5%).

The citations per faculty criterion is particularly important as an increase in citations can lead to greater peer recognition and hence better peer review scores. These can also generate greater interest among scholars to teach at a given institution, thus raising international faculty ratio scores too.

I am, of course, concerned about the standing of our universities internationally.

Left unchecked, perceptions may form that our exclusion from the THES-QS top 200 reflects a low standard of education – even though Sowter goes on to report that “the drop (in rankings of Malaysian universities) is entirely attributable to the combination of methodological enhancements and improved response dynamics in the rankings themselves.”

Malaysia has made great strides in higher education but we have not yet produced world-class universities.

Malaysians therefore must gain an accurate sense of where we stand today, and the changes being driven by the Higher Education Ministry to bring us to the next level.

As I write this, I have just finished meeting with some Malaysians working and doing business in Vietnam. As with other such visits I have had elsewhere, I am reminded that Malaysians working abroad, most of whom have studied in our local universities, are able to do very well anywhere in the world.

Malaysian institutions have also begun to export our education abroad. This too is reflective of the advances we have made in the quality of our higher education.

So does this mean that we are doing all right and can ignore international university rankings?

No. We cannot be satisfied with present performance. As we are running, others may be running faster. The race is getting tougher and this notion must sink into all our institutions.

The ministry recognises that our universities are not yet world class, so there is still much to be done, and it must be done with the greatest possible sense of urgency.

While changes and improvements to education systems take time to mature, this does not mean that we can take our time to bring about change and improvement.

I am encouraged to note that in the last few years, vice-chancellors have come to accept international university rankings as important guides to performance and a gauge of their progress in building the human capital Malaysia needs to remain globally competitive.

Our universities must establish a strong academic reputation and the crux of the matter lies in having our academics recognised and cited as they publish their work in high-impact and refereed journals.

Four universities have been granted research university status to accelerate this. Universiti Malaya, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, Universiti Putra Malaysia and Universiti Sains Malaysia have been given additional funding and revised terms of governance so that they can pursue research excellence.

Vice-chancellors must therefore ensure that their institutions uphold the academic tradition to “publish or perish”.

The rationale for the apex university initiative is to strive for excellence. The apex university concept is not about declaring an existing university world class. Rather, it is about identifying one or two institutions with the greatest potential of reaching such levels, and focusing resources for them to compete with the best in the world, and hence be recognised as world class.

It is for this reason that the ministry has launched its National Higher Education Strategic Plan and the corresponding National Higher Education Action Plan 2007-2010. The action plan is an initiative in the pursuit of excellence while improving quality all round.

The success we have with these plans lies in the quality of our delivery, and the vice-chancellors must lead their institutions to play their part in translating the action plan into reality.

This has to be done quickly and effectively.

# Datuk Mustapa Mohamed is the Higher Education Minister.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

PM: I Am Worried

Malaysian universities have crashed out of the Top 200 in the world, based on the latest Times Higher Education Supplement rankings table. And hear, hear, the Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi is disappointed.
"Three years ago, we had Universiti Sains Malaysia among the first 100 and another two universities in the top 200. Now, none of the Malaysian universities are in the top 200," Abdullah said, according to the state news agency Bernama.

"People will ask - if (foreign) students come to Malaysia, is it because it is cheap? If it is cheap, we must still have quality. We cannot accept cheap education but of low quality," he said.
It's great that the Prime Minister is beginning to see through the invisible clothing wrapped around the entire administration.

Let's take the next step, and hopefully a more drastic one at that, will you be willing to "hear the truth, however unpleasant"? And if so, will you be willing to take all necessary steps, leaving no stones unturned, in our attempt to bring back respectability to our tertiary institutions? Or will it be more of the same, where "student intake in these universities would not be based on race but the enrolment must reflect the country's ethnic diversity."

Oh, and I forgot to nitpick. The concerned Prime Minister didn't get get his facts right. 3 years ago, Universiti Malaya (UM) was in the Top 100, not Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) - even then was on faulty calculations. In addition, it was only 1 other university in the Top 200, USM at 111, and not 2 others. It's a little sad that Pak Lah didn't get some of the facts right, but well, the message was there.

Friday, November 09, 2007

THES 2007 Rankings: Denial Syndrome Persists

There is plenty to blog about with regards to the latest Times Higher Education Supplement (THES) World University Rankings table which was released and blogged here yesterday. I've managed to obtain the full report earlier.

All of our universities which are "ranked" have fallen in positions. Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) fell to 309th from 185th in 2006, Universiti Malaya (UM) to 246th (192) and Universiti Sains Malaysia to 307th (277)

One point however, sticks out. In a press conference yesterday held by some of the local vice-chancellors, the denial syndrome, a disease which has enveloped our academia has clearly not been cured since the days of Kapten Datuk Professor Dr Hashim Yaakob.

The vice-chancellors, including Datuk Rafiah Salim, of UM, gave several excuses for the dismal performance by Malaysian universities.

Firstly, they blamed the "change" in methodology for the drastic fall in rankings. It sounded as if the methodology was specifically tweaked to disadvantage Malaysian universities when in fact, it was tweaked to ensure greater transparency and accuracy.

As highlighted in the main THES rankings report:
In addition, we have strengthened our safeguards against individuals voting for their own university in the peer review part of the analysis." This improvement in methodology is certainly fair as it prevents the bias to vote for one's own institution.
And the result of the above change in methodology, as specifically highlighted in the full THES report, was the corresponding decline in Malaysian universities rankings!
But we suspect that some Malaysian and Singaporean institutions have lost out because of our increased rigour over voting for one’s own university, and there are no Malaysian universities in this top 200.
This clearly indicates that Malaysian universities were ranked better in previous years in part due to Malaysian academicians ranking their own universities highly when completing the survey! That's academic honesty for you, a la Malaysia.

Secondly, what was disgraceful, was Datuk Rafiah's attempts to de-sensitise Malaysia's dismal performance by arguing that Singapore suffered the same fate as well:
"Even the National University of Singapore (NUS) has dropped to the 33rd spot when it was always within the top 10."
Here, she is wrong on 2 counts. Firstly, NUS was and has never been a Top 10 ranked university. Last year, it was ranked 19th, falling 14 places to 33rd currently. It was ranked 22nd in 2005. Hence Datuk Rafiah Salim is guilty of citing wrong figures to prove her point, with the unintended consequence of epitomising the general quality of local research.

On the second count, NUS remains well within the Top 50 of the world and has not fluctuated more than 14 places over the past 4 years while UM tanked year after year! I don't know how Datuk Rafiah equated UM's plight to NUS's.

Then Datuk Rafiah complained that "The way [she] look at it, smaller countries like Malaysia are bound to lose out as THES has introduced new criteria which is peer review and has changed the citation and list of publications."

Again, it's a case of self-pity which will not take Malaysian academic standards anywhere. Singapore is some 480 times smaller than Malaysia in terms of land area and 6 times smaller in terms of population. That didn't seem to stop them from having 2 universities ranked within the Top 100. Other developing countries such as South Africa, Mexico, Taiwan and Brazil also has universities ranked within the Top 200.

Finally, she asked for more money.
If we want to compete with some of the top universities in the world, first we have to be in the same league. Right now, we are not. One way to overcome that is through adequate funding.
No, Datuk Rafiah, the first thing to do isn't asking for new funding. Giving lots of money to half-baked researchers and academics isn't going to improve the quality of the universities by very much. It's not too dissimilar to the Government's effort of launching our so-called "space programme" by paying the taxi fare for a Malaysian to go to space. Or for that matter, more money could just mean more funds for the academically meaningless pursuit of worthless coloured medals.

The first things to do, has to be the following (in simple terms, as elaborated in other blog posts):
  1. Recruit the best lecturers and academicians from Malaysia and all over the world, instead of focusing on race, nationality and patronage.

  2. Enrol the best students qualified for each faculty, instead of the current ambiguous and seemingly random university and course allocation.

  3. Practice transparency in all aspects of the academia, from recruitment to promotions of academics, as well as setting clearly defined minimum entry requirements into every course and publishing such data post every enrolment cycle.
The above are well within the rights and functions of both the Ministry of Higher Education and the university administrators. The question is, whether the authorities are willing to face up to the challenges and weakness of our current system, and take the hard but absolutely necessary actions to raise the bar.

Without the required political will, Malaysian universities will be doomed to further demise particularly if we are preoccupied with treating the superficial symtoms such as recruiting more foreign students from 3rd world countries, instead of tackling the core issues.

I was happy to provide Datuk Rafiah Salim the benefit of the doubt when she was first appointed as UM's vice-chancellor as blogged here. However, her recent statements, her immature treatment of Dr Azmi Sharom plus her outburst at the recently concluded student leaders' meet certainly lowered my confidence in her ability to turn things around. For someone who claimed that raising UM's ranking on THES is one of her 3 core tasks, she definitely appears to be failing her own benchmarks, and failing badly at that.

Footnote: Let me emphasize that it gives me no pleasure to find Malaysian universities dropping out of the Top 200 list. I certainly wish that we have representation among the Top 50 universities, and that'll be something I'll be extremely proud of. But the state of affairs of our higher education requires a "extreme makeover", and demands the harshest of constructive criticisms. Molly-coddling the issues as our government has done over the past decades will not miraculously result in our problems fade away.

Top 200 No More

Many would have reluctantly been anticipating that no Malaysian universities will be ranked within the Top 200 by the Times Higher Education Supplement (THES) World University rankings at some point in time. It didn't happen last year, although we came very close with Universiti Malaya (UM) ranked at 192 while Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) ranked a little better at 185.

Yes, in the just released rankings table by THES, no Malaysian universities are listed on it. Critics are obviously going to have a field day. But they are certainly not going to be raising many issues which we do not already know. The fact that our universities are not competitive, are not rigourous in nature, do not promote and encourage merit and the total lack of transparency in admission and recruitment exercises served the perfect recipe for continual decline in global recognition and quality.

For the latest summary rankings table, you can get it here.

What are our vice-chancellors and Ministers going to say next? (Click here to read what they said last year) That the rankings are irrelevant? That they are inaccurate? That they fail to take into consideration that our universities are laden with "national interest" concerns? That we will speed up the recruitment of foreign lecturers and students?

This new set of data of course makes a complete mockery of the maiden attempt to rank our local universities, as blogged by Kian Ming recently. While the effort to increase transparency is laudable, the sheer lack of rigour in the local university ranking analysis renders the result superficial at best, misleading at worst. Universiti Sains Malaysia was ranked "excellent" for example, in the local official rankings table, but is clearly no where to be found in the THES or the Shanghai Jiaotung University ranking tables. At the same time, 6 other local universities were ranked "good". Has this become the manner by which the Malaysian government define mediocrity? That being "mediocre" (or worse) can be translated as "excellent" or "good"?

This blog found its "kick" sometime in November 2005, almost exactly 2 years ago, when we exposed the laughable mistake made by the surveyors when UM and USM were ranked 89th and 111th respectively in 2004. The then vice-chancellor, who had to be removed ignorably, Datuk Professor Dr Kapten Hashim Yaakob, celebrated UM's achievement like he won the Nobel Prize. Since then, despite the declared of objective of improving the university's rankings by 5 places each year, UM tanked to 169th in 2005, 192 in 2006 and now out of the official 200 list.

Prof Dr Nik Mustapha Raja Abdullah, vice-chancellor of UKM has also pledged in January 2006 when he was newly appointed that it will become a Top-80 university by 2010. I wonder if he'll make the same public announcement today.

Possibly, the vice-chancellor of UM will now use the Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC) university ranking table as the de facto rankings table, since she proudly declared in March this year that we are ranked 13th there.

"It is the first time they have come up with such rankings and the top 10 positions were taken up by Turkish universities. It is an honour that UM is in the 13th position while Universiti Sains Malaysia is at the 29th spot," she said.

Or for that matter, we might as well create a table where the world's top 500 universities are excluded, and possibly we might be ranked 1st. Or a table for the Malay archipelago ex-Singapore...

It is sad that our university administrators, our Ministry officials and the Government refuses to recognise the very simple and basic problems causing the decline in our local universities (as mentioned above). Even as the Minister of Higher Education, Dato' Mustapa Mohamed launched the much-hyped higher education action plan, the Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi himself was quoted as saying that "student intake in these universities would not be based on race but the enrolment must reflect the country's ethnic diversity." (faints)

I'm certain others will pick up this thread and keep the "conversation" going even as I don't write as much these days. I should be able to get my hands on the full report sometime tomorrow and hopefully I'll get to provide a more in-depth review of the current situation. And you can be certain that Parliamentary Opposition leader, Sdr Lim Kit Siang will do the same in Parliament.

At a cursory glance, the biggest gainers this round appears to be universities from the United Kingdom, University College of London at 9th (2006: 25th), Kings College, London at 24th (46th), University of Edinburgh 23rd (33rd) as well as the 2 universitys from Hong Kong at 18th (33) and 38th (50) respectively. The universities from China and Singapore declined, but are well within the Top 100. Well, more later.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Letter to Mkini: Criticising the MOHE rankings

Saw this letter in Malaysiakini criticizing the ARES survey carried about LAN on behalf of the MOHE. I agree with most of his criticism but I still think it's a worthwhile first step to take.

I just want to bring out two points in this letter which I don't quite agree with. I'll discuss these points below.

The Academic Reputation Survey (ARES), carried out by the National Accreditation Board (LAN), on 17 public universities (‘Public universities fail outstanding test’, New Straits Times, Nov 3), is a sad reflection of how utterly mediocre our university system is – or rather how close to that, the ARES and the LAN are as tools of public accountability.

The public has been fooled into thinking that this half-baked survey can be taken as a substitute for a ‘ranking system’. The fact of the matter is that it is not a ranking system. It was merely a perceptions survey, without the public being told who exactly were being surveyed. The ARES sent out 954 questionnaires and received 272 responses, supposedly from “higher education institutions, two Asean universities (National University of Singapore and Institut Teknologi Brunei), nine corporate bodies and 19 professional and certification bodies.”

First of all, questionnaires are only answered by respondents (or living individuals) and not inanimate bodies; only individuals perceive, not institutions. This means that we need to know who were the “persons” rather than the “institutions” who responded to the questionnaire. Did they represent the institutions and in what capacity? We need a breakdown of the profiles of these 272 respondents; such as how many were males or females, which institutions do they come from, their occupations, age, educational qualification, etc.

It would make a lot of difference to the credibility of the result (which ‘ranked’ USM as the top university), if, out of the 272 respondents, 70% were from USM itself! Furthermore, what is the breakdown of respondents from the public and the private sectors? If a majority were from the public sector then this could mean a case of government self-praise, rather than independent judgement.

Anyway, statistical validity aside (which happens to be the main problem of this survey), what about “perceptions” then? How much do these individuals know about the universities they assessed on this sophisticated-sounding, Likert-scale (which is nothing more than jottings on a scale from best to worst in answer to the questions of the questionnaire)? It really matters as to who does the “perceiving”.

To a question of whether a postgraduate programme of any university is good or bad - how could the manager of a fast-food chain company, for example, have any idea on how to rate these programmes? How could any of these individuals rate the quality of the academic staff of universities? What yardsticks are they given? I do not want to belabour the need for integrity and precision in statistical methods (or the pitfalls when abused), only to say that this is the crux of the problem of our public universities - even the guardians of their academic standards are short of standards themselves.

It may even be too late to arrest the deterioration of our universities - we are talking about the lives and future of millions of our youths, the country’s human resource, the source of its leadership. I am afraid that the education minister and the vice-chancellors are living in a make-believe world about creating an “empire of the minds” (to quote one VC in his newspaper column).

Here I am talking from actual experience. Just put a Malaysian university student alongside their counterparts from Thailand, Indonesia, Philippines, Singapore and let them all speak, and we shall know that we have done a terrible disservice to our local graduates. Not being able to speak proper English is forgivable, but not being able to articulate ideas and arguments without embarrassing themselves (if they even know of it!) is the graver cost to the reputation (and soul) of the nation.

I do not know what it takes for a wake-up call. I can only say that if it is not now, it is never. And yes, I urge the government to stop the chicanery of devising an internal ranking system. What is the point? You are only listing which of the rotten apples are less rotten, or rather which are the ones having a slower rate of decay. They are all going to get there.

Firstly, I think the writer recognizes that the identity and background of the respondents are crucial in these types of surveys. But he seems to be in two minds about who these respondents should be. On the one hand, he does not think that a majority of respondents should be from either the public universities or the public sector because this will inevitably lead to self-praise, an issue I brought up in my previous post on this issue. On the other, he doesn't think that it is appropriate for a 'manager of a fast-food chain company' to evaluate the quality of our public universities either which I interpret as not wanting too much private sector involvement (or at least private sector involvement of a certain kind).

I don't really have an easy answer for this. Presumably, one could 'solve' this problem by asking more foreigners, especially academics in other universities who are somewhat familiar with the state of research and teaching in our public universities. But this also raises the question of possible 'bias' against the newer and lesser known schools, as well as the possible accusation that we are at the mercy of 'imperialist' or 'neo-imperialist' forces that are trying to bring down the international reputation of our public universities. I frankly think that it is probably better to target a mixture of respondents - foreign academics who are familiar with Malaysia (I can think of many in ANU in Australia), some well respected local academics (Khoo Kay Kim) including some who no longer teach in Malaysia (such as Jomo and Gomez) as well as respected intellectuals and business people who are familiar with the situation in our public universities (such as Zainal Aznam Yusuf, Mohammed Arif Nun, Munir Majid). The problem will be getting enough of these people to respond.

Secondly, I think he probably under-rates our local graduates and over-rates graduates from universities in our neighboring countries (Indonesia, Singapore, Philippines, Thailand). I think if we bring together the best law students, let's say, from these countries, I don't think our local graduates will fare any worse in a mooting competition. I think our best local graduates probably have a better command of English compared to their compatriots from Thailand or Indonesia.

I also think that the average graduate from our public universities is probably no worse in terms of analytical ability compared to the average graduate from our neighboring countries, perhaps with the exception of Singapore, where standards might be more vigorously enforced. This is not to say that our local graduates are great, but rather that they are no worse. Of course, with a better university system, it would be the case that our local graduates will outshine our neighbors in all aspects, including analytical abilities, but that is a long way aways and we might not get there at all if the current situation of academic decline is not addressed.

I think it's too easy too poo-poo the efforts of the MOHE and be critical. I've been tempted many times to do this. But judging from what I see to be a sustained effort on the part of the MOHE, Tok Pa and some VCs in our universities, I will give them the benefit of the doubt for now and see the glass as half empty rather than half full.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Biomedical Sciences Talk

Here's an event for students who are interested in pursuing biomedical sciences:

There will be a meet-up session with Chau Deming, a graduate student from Cornell University. He would like to share his experiences in research in the biomedical sciences with students who hold the same interests.

Chau Deming was a former student at INTI College and transferred to the University of Wisconsin, Madison before he started pursuing his PhD in biomedical science in Cornell University, Ithaca in 2004.

He has researched on cancer research utilizing biochemistry, cell and molecular biology, and immunology technique and specifically, the elucidation of the function of gamma-secretase in cancer development.

He has worked in three different labs during college, first in the immunology department, followed by the food science department, and finally in the pharmaceutical science department.

The details of the event are as follows:
Venue: Starbucks outlet at SS15 Subang Jaya (opposite Taylor's College)
Date: 9th November (Friday)
Time: 2-4pm
Admission is free. For more information, visit Descartes website ;).

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

PMO office set up to implement Higher Education Plan

Most of us would probably say that the Malaysian government can come up with great blueprints and plans but fail at the implementation stage with regards to these plans. I have been pretty bullish on the Ministry of Higher Education in its ability to carry out its Higher Education Action Plan as indicated by my posts here and here (much to the displeasure of some of our readers). I admit that many of our readers are right to be skeptical given the track record of the Malaysian government to truly reform many or any area in the public sector. But the focus which the MOHE has demonstrated in wanting to reform Higher Education in Malaysia seems to be sustainable as indicated by the latest announcement of the setting up of the PMO to oversee the implementation of the Action Plan.

It was reported in the Star this week and last week, that a Programme Management Office (PMO) had been set up to 'drive the overall transformation and spearhead the development of the project management capability within the ministry.' The PMO would oversee the activities and actions of 13 project teams, each in charge of different areas of focus under the National Higher Education Strategic Plan and National Higher Education Action Plan 2007-2010. There project teams, according to the Minister of Higher Education, Tok Pa, would comprise of members from the academic, from the civil service as well as from the corporate sector.

In addition, the person selected to head of the PMO and its program director seems to have the right experience and qualifications, at least according to the report in the Star.

The chief executive officer of the PMO, Prof Datuk Dr Sahol Hamid Abu Bakar – whose fields of specialisation are civil engineering and economics – has been involved in many projects, including the planning and construction of nine Universiti Teknologi Mara (UiTM) campuses. He was also formerly deputy vice-chancellor (academic affairs) at UiTM. PMO programme director Mohamad Nur Kamal, among other things, whose background is in finance and business administration, worked in the United States for 10 years in a global management consultancy as well as a financial corporation.

I like the fact that the PMO promised that it would update members of the public periodically in regards to the progress of the respective project teams. I also like the fact that these teams will have the expertise and experience of professionals from the corporate sector, who are less inclined to be hampered by 'conventional' ways of doing things within the public university setting in Malaysia.

While my optimism may be proven wrong, I do think that some good things can and will come out of the progressive and focused approach taken by the MOHE and its Minister, in regards to revamping the level of higher education in Malaysia. The road will be bumpy and there will be many challenges but at least it seems to be heading the right way.

Monday, November 05, 2007

USM "Excellent", No "Less Satisfactory" or "Weak" Universities

Looks like the 'rankings' for the public universities are out before those for the private universities. Thanks to a friend from USM for letting me know about this NST article which came out yesterday.
17 out of the 20 public universities in Malaysia were evaluated and 'ranked'. Only 1 university made it to the "Excellent" category - USM. 6 universities made it the "Good" category and the remaining 10 were put in the "Satisfactory" category. None of the 17 universities evaluated were put in the "less satisfactory" or "weak" category.

According to the NST report,

And only one university - Universiti Sains Malaysia - made it into the second category of "Excellent"in the first ever university perception exercise in the country. It received a five-star ranking.

Universiti Malaya (UM), Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM), Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM), Universiti Teknologi Mara (UiTM), Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM) and Universiti Islam Antarabangsa (UIA) were lumped in the "Good" category. They had four stars.

Those in the Satisfactory list are Universiti Malaysia Pahang, Universiti Malaysia Sabah, Universiti Malaysia Terengganu, Universiti Malaysia Perlis, Universiti Malaysia Sarawak, Universiti Pendidikan Sultan Idris, Universiti Sains Islam Malaysia, Universiti Teknikal Malaysia Melaka, Universiti Tun Hussein Onn Malaysia and Universiti Utara Malaysia.

None fell in the "Less Satisfactory" or "Weak" categories.
The Academic Reputation Survey (ARES), carried out by a team spearheaded by the National Accreditation Board (LAN), involved 17 of the 20 public universities.

First of all, I think it is a good first step for the MOHE to even make these rankings available to the public. I'm always in favor of having more rather than less information in the public realm. So I would commend the Minister for making this move.

Secondly, given that this is the first time that such a task has been undertaken in Malaysia, one would expect there to be a lot of flaws in such a ranking system. Even the Minister, Tok Pa, acknowledge this when he said that the results of the Setara rating system, which ranks public universities in three categories, namely, research universities, broad based universities and specialised universities, would not be released to the public as of now because of problems with the data and methodology. We would expect the methodology and the data collection process to improve over time.

These positives aside, I have to point out the flaws, of which there are many.

Firstly, the ranking system should not be based on survey data only. Some more objective data should be used in conjunction with survey data. Perhaps because the ARES specifically aims to capture public perception (or more accurately, the perception of universities among the academia and some members of the corporate world), we should not expect objective data to be included in this ranking. But, hopefully, such measures will be calculated and included in the Setara rating system.

What sort of objective measures? I can think of a few - the % of lecturers with PhDs and / or Masters, the average GPA score of students admitted, the ratio of lecturers to tutors, library book holdings, IT expenditure per student, just to name a few. The use of more objective measures should complement and balance out the measures calculated using surveys. Of course, one could still disagreement of the exact type of objective measure to use since some will obviously be more advantageous to the more established universities e.g. the average GPA score of students admitted. But I don't really have a problem with this given that these so called 'advantages' usually translate into a better academic environment in these universities. Would someone not rank let's say Harvard higher because it has a much higher average GPA entry requirement compared to let's say Diablo University?

The use of these more objective measures also forces the universities and the MOHE to collect these statistics, some of which are important to researchers as well as to interested parents, students, policy makers and so on. Wouldn't you be interested to know what the average GPA entry into UM is compared to UUM? Wouldn't you want to know how much more UKM spends on IT compared to USM?

Secondly, the high non-responses among the respondents who were sent the survey should be reduced. It was reported that the ARES questionnaire was sent to 954 respondents and but only 272 responses were received. That is a response rate of less than 30% which raises possible questions of whether the responses were biased towards any direction.

According to the report, the respondents were replied were broken down into the following categories:

242 public and higher education institutions, two Asean universities (National University of Singapore and Institut Teknologi Brunei), nine corporate bodies and 19 professional and certification bodies.

The large number of respondents from 'public and higher education institutions', which I'm assuming are institutions in Malaysia, probably explains why there were no institutions in the 'less satisfactory' and 'weak' categories.

Intuitively speaking, there should be more variance in the rankings of these universities beyond the top three categories, especially given that I didn't even recognize the names of some of the universities listed e.g. Universiti Malaysia Pahang (where is this university located?), Universiti Malaysia Terengganu (which I'm guessing used to be designated as a college), Universiti Malaysia Perlis (can Perlis support its own university?), Universiti Pendidikan Sultan Idris (I thought this was primarily a teacher training college?), Universiti Sains Islam Malaysia (never heard of), Universiti Teknikal Malaysia Melaka (no idea), Universiti Tun Hussein Onn Malaysia (is this new?). I haven't goolged these universities individually but if any of our readers are familiar with any one of these universities, please post a comment and enlighten us.

The fact that so many of the respondents were from our public universities probably meant that many of them didn't feel comfortable in giving some of these lesser known universities a 'less satisfactory' or 'weak' rating. I think even if the sample size included more corporate bodies or even overseas academics, it would run into the challenge of many respondents who cannot evaluate the universities which they have not heard of or are unfamiliar with.

The fact that many of our public universities are relatively new and unknown is probably why the following three universities were not included in the survey - University Darul Iman, Universiti Malaysia Kelantan and Universiti Pertahanan Nasional Malaysia (what?).

This being said, I think that the rankings are indicative of the relative 'quality' of our public universities. Most people would say that USM, UKM, UM are probably the top three public universities in Malaysia followed by UPM, UIA and perhaps UITM and UTM. The fact that USM was rated 'excellent' is perhaps a validation of some sorts for the more progressive policies of promotion and emphasis on research which the VC there is carrying (Dzulkifli Abdul Razak whose columns regularly appear in the NST).

What we require is a further refinement of the ranking system and more objective measures to be used in conjunction with survey responses.

I'll stop at this point and let our readers weigh in with their views.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Political Expediency or Policy Flexibility?

5 years after the start of the policy of teaching Science and Math in English, it was recently announced that the UPSR exams for Science and Math would continue to be in English, BM, or in the vernacular language of a student's choice i.e. Chinese or Tamil. My gut reaction to this policy is one of befuddlement and confusion. I was imagining me explaining this policy to some of my American friends. So, Science and Math are taught in English in Malaysia, my American friend would ask. Yes, I said, but exams in these two subjects can be taken in BM, English, Chinese or Tamil. So, what's the point of teaching these two subjects in English, my American friend would continue. I don't know, would be my honest response!

You can read about this issue in various Star reports - here, here, here, here, here and here.

Is this decision an indication of policy flexibility on the part of the Ministry of Education because some students still would not be able to handle exams in Science and Math in English? Or rather, is this political expediency on the part of the Ministry and the Minister, Hishamuddin Tun Hussein, so as not to offend the Chinese politicians in the MCA as well as politicians in UMNO, and to a certain extent, certain segments of the voting population as well?

I suspect that it is the latter rather than the former. Furthermore, I take this as an indication of the failure of the Ministry to successfully implement the policy of teaching Science and Math in English. The excuse that some students in the rural areas still cannot cope with taking these two subjects in English is plainly laughable in that these are the same students who have been taught these two subjects in English for 6 years! The same excuse, hence, is also not valid among those in Chinese primary schools!

The decision not to have an 'English only' UPSR exam for these two subjects sends a signal to teachers in rural areas as well as those in Chinese schools that they can 'revert' to teaching these two subjects in BM and Chinese (and for those in Tamil schools to teach in Tamil). As far as I know, there's no 'monitoring' or 'policing' mechanisms in schools to ensure that teachers actually teacher these two subjects in English. So, if students still have the choice of the language in which to take these two subjects at the UPSR level, wouldn't it be 'easier' for teachers in rural areas and in Chinese schools to teach these two subjects in a language which they have a better command in, presumably BM and Chinese?

While implementing the 'English only' policy would have some short term consequences in that the scores in some of these 'vulnerable' areas might be affected, I fear that the medium to long term consequences would be greater. I wouldn't be surprised if in 2 to 3 years time, an announcement is made that the policy to teach Science and Math in English would be stopped because it was found that it had not achieved its objective of improving the standard of English.

I think this would have been a hard decision to make politically but I think the Minister should have put his foot down and fend off the critics and the naysayers. While some may criticize the efficacy of the policy of teaching Science and Math in English in the first place, I think that to give this policy a fair chance to succeed, it should be taken to its logical end, which is to use only English for Science and Math exams at the UPSR level. By allowing students to choose their language of choice to take these two exams at the UPSR level is to doom this policy to failure as teachers and students 'defect' to learning these two subjects in their own language of choice.