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.


Annon Annon said...

Well written!

Yes, we should voice support for the Minister. He has the hot potato of fighting the buggers who will now be baying for his head. But if he performs now, we voters will give him all our support!

Kudos for your last paragraph!

Anonymous said...

Kian Ming, massification is an American concept I think.

I prefer the Singapore concept. (Stop thinking negative. We should learn if we need, no matter from who.)

Singapore has this quota system. It started with only top 15% of Singaporeans can go to their Universities. Then it increased to 20% when their economy was on track. Now they are increasing to 25%.

I see value in this incremental % according to market needs and your economy planning. Your Universities have top talents. Your graduates are confirmed good without questions. Investors are more willing to employ your graduates, your University rankings go up. And your economy goes up with all these. The cycle goes on.

Giving a degree to everyone, does nothing, except cheapen the value of your degree. And confuse your employers at just who is good and who is not. It also gives you huge unemployment.

I disagree with forcefully keeping talents in Malaysia. We must allow competition, then our Universities will fight and gain grounds.

Compare European/American Universities who have to compete for students, and India who basically gives scholarships to everyone to stay back in India. India only has 1 or 2 good IITs (but they make it sound like they have 500), and America and Europe has almost all the best Universities in the world.

Let's us not be protectionistic. We should be proud that we can compete.

Anonymous said...

Still the same point, education has to be free from political influences. Period.

Anonymous said...

Why beat around the bush or be sarcastic? With these jokers you go direct and hit the nail on the head.
Dont waste time being prosaic or berpantun...

tempinis said...

Here is my take on joint professorial appointments

Anonymous said...

another pathetic act.

KUALA LUMPUR, Nov 28 (Bernama) -- The International Islamic University of Malaysia (IIUM) won four gold medals at the Innova-Energy 2007 international exhibition in Brussels on Sunday.

Anonymous said...

It's funny that with the apparent decay of our education system in addition to rising tensions in our society...our former premier Dr. Tun who had credited himself for just about everything great and imagined, and who had not too recently developed a penchant for sniping at just about anyone - has nothing to say at all. His silence is deafening.

Anonymous said...

Kian Ming
At the moment, the pergerakan gaji tahunan exercise which determines the annual salary increment the university lecturer gets is too heavily dependent on the exam-oriented Penilaian Tahap Kecekapan (PTK). If the KPT is really serious in getting our IPTAs to climb up the THES ladder and make a mark in the Top 200, the annual salary increment and promotional exercises should have given more weight to publications in high-impact and widely cited journals, rather than other meaningless and dubious achievements aka academic excellence Malaysian style, if you like.

Anonymous said...

....the annual salary increment and promotional exercises should have given more weight to publications in high-impact and widely cited journals...

Publication is not counted there in the ranking my friend, just CITATION.. we can measure it, i guess all Msia public Univ has sciencedirect which mean they can track all their citation in SCOPUS.. after all thes use scopus... NUS never count your publication, they only ask for minimum 3 citation for you to just stay in your position, not for salary rise..

Anonymous said...

Anon 11:28
If our academics get the research papers publish in high impact and widely cited journal, chances are they stand a better chance of being cited eventually due to their rigour and visibility.
But I do agree with you that ultimately it should be citation instead of publication. But I dare say that at this stage our academics have the tendency to opt for publications in the easy journals, albeit international because the incentive mechanisms do not discriminate between top tier and low tier international journals. Our IPTAs have a long way to go, and must not succumb to the soft option. I have every confident that our Tok Pa has the support to undo the dysfunctional entrenched culture in our IPTAs.

Anonymous said...

Did anyone read the write up international islamic univeristy in the star today? the idiots were boasting about the number of medals that they had won at those usless trade exhibitions, dont they have any shame even after all they have been exposed as rubbish. the other was research collabaration with iran of all countries, my god what in the world is good with iranian universities that u want to conduct research with them? they have their heads under the sand and if they really believe that malaysia is gonna turn into an international education hub they must be criminally delusional. soon malaysian universites and proton will end up in the same place, the grave.

Anonymous said...

The university rankings are just a reflection of the underlying education system as a whole.

Came across this economist article sheds a bit more light on where the focus should be:

Anonymous said...

Anon of 11/29/2007 11:28:00 PM:
Can you elaborate on how NUS go about calculating the citation? Is it an average over several years? I am curious because citation is a delayed event appearing even years after the publication of a paper. So, I just wonder how you all use it as an annual job evaluation tool.

Anonymous said...

citation can be calculated in yearly basis, I'm very sure about that... if you have a full access to SCOPUS or Web of Science (ISI Thompson) as many Univ has then you'll see what I mean... & also if you're not in academic line at all or never publish any journal in what you all call a 'reputable' journal or you never teach in oversea univ then you don't deserve to post any fishy comment abt this matter... Also you must know how the ranking is calculated, what is the flaw of each ranking etc before you can comment... I'm personally not happy to see our local U performance & the way they're managed, their recruitment, promotion & admission procedure etc but that it is... our univ is like that bcoz they're not totally free from political influence & also bcoz they didn't exercise the merit system properly... unless a very drastic change made, there is absolutely nothing we could do to save our univ...
To those who oppose the idea of using citation as a performance indicator then you might actually have more paper but very less citation, bcoz that is the only reason why you don't agree... ok in my opinion at least the lecturer performance evaluation should take into account number of publication, citation & number of 'peer reviewer' invitation from international journal... but in Msia only number of publication count & even than including conference, medal etc hahahaha funny but true

Anonymous said...

Citation only shows that the work is trendy. Revolutionary ideas take much longer to be cited. Papers that are not cited are not necessary poor. This is why academics need to network extensively too, so that other academics may cite their work to make it become important.


Anonymous said...

But papers which are continuously cited through time are of course the most important ones.


goose in boots said...

to anon 12/01/2007 12:32:00 AM,

i think you direly need an attitude change in your handling of other people's comments.

your "if you're not in academic line at all or never publish any journal in what you all call a 'reputable' journal or you never teach in oversea univ then you don't deserve to post any fishy comment abt this matter" is akin to the all too familiar phrases we hear in msia :"if youre not muslim, dun comment on our syariah laws", "if youre not malay, dun comment on our special rights", and other not so local ones such as "youre not chinese, dun comment on the human rights abuses in china", "youre not a saudi woman, dun comment on how women in saudi arabia are treated".

from the way you respond to the opinions of others in a free forum, its hard to see youre an academic. well, perhaps youre not.

Anonymous said...

To Anon 12/01/2007 12:32:00 AM:
I asked Anon of 11/29/2007 11:28:00PM how NUS goes about calculating the citation. That is a genuine question because his comment was not clear. For instance, I just checked Web of Science and I have about 400 citations for each of the last 5 years. Now what do you do with that? Average of 2000/5 = 400 citations per year; and if you need only 3 citations per year, does that mean I can sit around doing nothing for another 20 years till I retire and still be within that target of 3 per year? You know that doesn't make sense and that is why I asked that person to elaborate.
Then you gave me this shit about "... & also if you're not in academic line at all or never publish any journal in what you all call a 'reputable' journal or you never teach in oversea univ then you don't deserve to post any fishy comment abt this matter..." .
You didn't even know whether you were talking to a faculty member in the US or Malaysia and you gave me this smart-assed comment.

Anonymous said...


It has been more than a month since our "Angkasawan' returned to our planet Earth after a few days doing great and breakthrough research in the International Station sponsored by our Rakyaats money to the sum of 100 million RM

I bet with enough time has been given to analyse the scientific experiments or samples returned to Earth.

I was wondering when will our government or those involved in the design and preparation of the experiments will proudly tell us Malaysians and the world about the 'edge cutting ' experiments results? Or are the 'samples' lost in some courier services?

Anonymous said...

2000 citations in the last 5 years, wow amazing, you must be in the highly cited list then, one of which none of Malaysian base researcher manage to accomplish. You must be from either bio or medic or pharma related discipline. People like you should be a VC in Malaysia premier university, if not become Ministry of Higher Education so than you can set the rule & example to everybody.

Anonymous said...

Hey, wait a minute… 2k citations in the last 5 years?? Do u know what is that mean?? Considering the JIF for a top science journal Nature (26.681) & Science (30.028)… that’s mean average citation for this top journal is about 30 per paper… let say u’re far excellence than everybody & your paper got 25% higher citation than of any paper in Nature & Science… so it come 40/paper… & also assuming that u publish all u paper in Nature & Science… so 2k/40 = 50 journal in nature & Science in the last 5 yrs… because nobody really do publish such frequent in Nature & Science in the last 5 yrs so I can just said your 2k citations in web of science might not all yours… mind u, if I wanna search for Tan KK in web of science it will return me a 2555 citations… are they’re a same person? Certainly not… I’ve a friend namely Tan KK from Cambridge & he certainly don’t own all those 2555 citations, bcoz I know what field he is in & where he is working. It is quite tedious to search for specific number of citation in web of science but that certainly not the case in scopus where u can specify the department & institution where u’re affiliated with… even a Prof from Cambridge publishing 20+ journal/yr only have 256 citation in the last 5 yrs (2003-2007)…
you’re great anyway… hv a nice look on scopus & web of science… I know u’ve a good intention to Msian edu as everybody else in this forum…

Anonymous said...

I was directing my comment to that guy who mentioned 3 citations/yr and the guy who bad-mouthed everybody else.
My high citation count was because that work was key to a long-standing problem in that area. It was also the result of a joint work with about 7 other people at 2 institutions. It got us a patent and a license though I haven't seen a penny yet. Actually many people just cite references without looking for the original paper itself but by just copying another paper's references or reading about a paper from another paper, which I do very often. So, it can propagate very fast.
Did those few papers with high citation scores get me a huge raise? No, I only got an average raise just like anybody else because high citation score to us is not something very special.
My point is that using an average citation of say 3 per year does not make sense to me because if somebody hit a few good papers, he would be set for life without doing anything else. It is difficult for me to think highly of somebody who published a few good papers 10 or 20 years ago but have not done anything since. I believe that annual number of peer-reviewed publications would be a better indication of consistent research work. If one gets good citation scores, then that is just icing on the cake. There is actually a formula that some institutions use to take into account both the number of publications and the number of citations to evaluate a faculty member.
I myself have published many papers with negligible citations and I know it is not that easy even to publish duds like that. So, I wouldn't put too much weight on citations. Doing so would just trivialise the efforts of people who work hard just to publish.

Anonymous said...

A requirement of 3 citations/yr is easy. I have about 512 which is more than enough for another 25 years when I retire without walking into my lab.

tak-faham said...

Academics are employed to teach, conduct research, publish, mentor and supervise, contribute to the growth of knowledge in one or more fields, carry out some administrative duties, etc.

Now, it seems that our public universities are giving out cash to their academics who publish papers in ISI-listed journals.

Is this a fair and proper practice? Academics are already paid a salary. And now universities are using taxpayers' money to give monetary reward to academics doing a job which is part of their job descriptions!

Anonymous said...

tak-faham, how much do they pay for a paper? I think this practice encourages people to publish by whatever hook or by crook. That is something I am afraid would happen ..that the pressure being exerted on these people to publish would end up with people making up data for publication. Because there is now a monetary incentive. This would make the situation worst because it would end up casting a bad light on Malaysian papers and even affecting other legitimate papers. Probably research students already aware of such practices.

Anonymous said...

"Phantom writers an 'open secret'"
By : Azura Abas and Minderjeet Kaur (NST 2007/12/22)
"Hundreds of master's and PhD students are getting "professional thesis writers" to pen their theses."
If they have no problem submitting fraudulent work for their degrees, they should also have no ethical problem in making up data for publication. I won't be surprised at all.