Friday, December 19, 2008

Postgrad smokescreen?

One of the first initiatives announced by new UM VC, Prof Ghauth Jasmon, is the decision to increase the number of post graduate students at the UM and reducing the number of undergrads. This is not really something new. We've blogged about it here and here. Many of my previously expressed concerns are still valid today. What I fear more is that this may be a smokescreen that the new VC will be forced to use to increase the number of foreigners at the postgrad level in an attempt to artificially boost UM's position in the THES rankings.

This is a sample of what I previously blogged about:

The first question that comes to mind is this - where are all these 'extra' postgraduate students going to come from? According to the same Table, to achieve this three fold increase in postgraduate student enrolment, we need to have an annual average growth rate of 26% for the next 5 years. That seems like a pretty tall task. Imagine a faculty with 40 Phd students and 40 Masters students. To achieve a three fold increase in enrolment, this faculty has to take in an average of 16 new students in both the Masters and PhD programs for the next five years (closer to 20 if you take into account graduating students).

I am quite sure that if one requires a department to increase its intake of students at such a rate, quality will surely be compromised. Most programs probably won't get sufficient applications to makeup the additional places required for growth. And if they do, it probably means that they are letting in students who might not have otherwised qualified.

One can only begin to imagine possible consequences. Since most departments would not be willing to fail or to hold back the underperfomers, what might happen is that we'd get a flood of underqualified Masters or PhD holders coming out from our public universities.


While an increase in the number of post grads is probably necessary if one wants to become a research university, it is not a sufficient condition. I asked in my earlier post the following questions:

- Can our public universities sustain such a dramatic and large increase in the intake of post grads?
- Do we have enough PhDs among our academia who are sufficiently trained to teach these new post grad students? (Currently only 30% of our academic staff have PhDs, the MOHE plans to increase this to 60%)
- Will we compromise on the standards newly hired academics to cope with this increase in the number of post grads?

These questions are still relevant. I doubt that we have the infrastructure (physical hardware and software) to support this level of increase in the number of post grads. But I can be convinced if I see substantive changes in the way resources are allocated within the universities, the way in which academics are hired and promoted and the way in which post grads are trained and supported.

What was interesting about the most recent newspaper report was the the UM VC stated that the number of undergrads accepted would be decreased. While I always thought that the number of post grads would increase over time in our public universities, I've assumed that the number of undergrads would also increase given the high and increasing demand for affordable higher education (albeit at a slower rate compared to the post grads). This surprises me somewhat.


I agree somewhat with the premise expressed by Gerakan Kedah Youth Chief, Tan Keng Liang.

"I hope that UM can consider opening up more undergraduate places to qualified non-bumiputera Malaysian students. It is better for UM to boost its rankings and improve its quality by accepting more highly-qualified Malaysian youths," he said.

This premise is true only if UM opens up more places to qualified non-bumiputera students. But I'm not sure if this is necessarily the case at least in the short run. My sense is that almost ALL the well qualified non-bumi students who takes the STPM exam manage to get placed in a public university. They may not all get their 1st choice uni or 1st choice course but I'm almost positive that the top 50% of non-bumi STPM students gets admitted into a public uni. The other highly qualified non-bumi students are either studying overseas or studying in private colleges. Most of them have no desire to apply to a public uni, partly because they know it's difficult to get into the course of their choice i.e. medicine and partly because they know that the standards are lower in most public universities. Even if the MOHE agrees to allow more non-bumis entry into the public unis, they won't be able to attract a slew of high quality non-bumi students. What they might get is those non-bumi students who took the STPM but did not qualify to gain entry into ANY public university.

What Keng Liang also needs to consider is that UM's 'quality' may be boosted by taking in more post grads and if this process is transparent and meritocratic, I'm willing to bet that there should be more non-bumis accepted at the post grad level compared to the undergrad level. If this is indeed the case, then Keng Liang should have less to worry about in terms of the quality issue compared to allowing more non-bumis entry at the undergrad level.

Prof Ghauth is right to say that having most post-grad students is more likely to increase the academic output of a university but he's got the causation arrow wrong. Having more post-grad students is a result of increasing the number of qualified academics at the professorial level who will hopefully increase the level of academic output. Increasing the number of grad students but not having the proper support academic structure to support them e.g. not enough qualified supervisors will not increase academic output because there are not enough qualified professors in place which means that the post grad students themselves will not be adequately supported.

Finally, my biggest fear is that this is a smokescreen that UM will try to use to increase the foreign intake of students at the post-grad level. I've said this before and I'll say it again - I don't have a problem with accepting post-grads who are foreigners at UM as long as it is done transparently - good quality post grads, the locals are not disadvantaged, etc... But I'm not sure that this will be the case. Rather, it may just be an easy shortcut for UM to increase the number of foreign students to increase UM's position in the THES ratings. This of course after it fell from 93 because THES realized that Indian and Chinese students in Malaysia were not foreigners after all.

20 comments:

dungu said...

Another UM-bashing piece. Just what I had expected.

I think this article missed the forest for the trees. It is also flawed for the following reasons:
1) Not having enough qualified supervisors now does not mean it will remain so. How does Kian Ming know that this would be a perpetual problem if his source of information is as good as the public? Unless he can tell us his source that UM has no intentions of increasing qualified lecturers, this is as good as working on assumptions. The VC did say he is bringing in experts in the areas of medicine, engineering, business and economics. So I do not know why the writer couldn't catch on;

2)The VC pointed out that he wants to attract first class honours grads to do their postgrad at UM. Not anyone but first class honours material. This is a vital point which Kian Ming conspicuously failed to even mention. A good institution is boosted by good students, and not solely on the availability of good supervisors. After all, much has been written on spoon-feeding amongst local grads isnt it? So why the preoccupation with good supervisors now instead of good students.

Thank you.

Anonymous said...

What is a Malaysian PhD worth??? Probably not much. If I am a first class degree graduate would I go to a crappy uni for a PhD? I would be a fool. I would try for NUS first.
Don't be a bloody fool -- Malaysian unis are bad, low quality, politicised, racially biased (when will we see a non-Malay VC?).

Penang Tionghua said...

First things first:

Eradicate unemployment and other awful (not aweful) vices, education would be more meaningful.

Anonymous said...

I can see why the VC has taken such move. The application for undergraduate will go through UPU (under ministry) which UM has no say. Opening such quota for non bumi is also beyond VC power (ministry power) - he is known for his quota-less which you can see the less bumi in MMU. For postgraduate application, it will go directly to the Uni and this will give them more power to select the student. Postgraduate student will somehow increase the number of research regardless poor or god research.

Shawn Tan said...

Dungu raises a valid point because the article in TheStar states that Prof Jasmon intends to fill up 300 academic positions in specific fields - engineering included. So, I think that this is probably a targeted expansion of the research departments in specific fields and not necessarily an overall university thing.

I have always felt that our local institutions focused themselves on being teaching universities instead of research ones due to local circumstances. While this is also a valid function for a university, it does not help to rise in the rankings, which are usually research heavy. So, that's why there's a push in this area.

I do not think that it is too difficult to pull in good students to pursue their PhDs locally. There are a lot of good students who are not able to afford their education overseas - even NUS fees are not cheap. Prof Jasmon mentioned that all the 1st class students who are accepted will automatically be given scholarships, which will help aplenty.

Hopefully, this will result in a larger number of research output, regardless of its quality. This will help to push certain universities out of the teaching mode and into active research. If this proves to be beneficial, it will probably be copied by other universities as well.

Anonymous said...

Why bother decreasing the undergraduates and increasing the postgrad when UM still carry out the asasi sains matriculation? UM shd not waste time teaching matric or form 6....hehe

Concernded UM Student said...

I fully agree that UM should open up more places for non-bumi for undergraduate....as highlighted by Tan Keng Liang. As for postgrad, increasing it is good.....but why do you need to reduce undergrad? Is it just to make sure ur Uni got more postgrad than undergrad? Isn't this silly?

Anonymous said...

I am trying hard not to be negative on the good suggestion of request UM to take in more qualified non-bumi students but the UiTM 2008 incident has pulled me away from the daydream :(

KP said...

Personally, I think it is a good move for UM (applicable to the other 3 research universities as well) to focus on postgrad studies, since we have enough public teaching universities. The challenge here is how to attract a talented pool of students. I don't have an issue on whether the students are local or foreign, as long as they fulfill the entrance requirement. For instance, in my department (Monash Australia), more than 70% of the postgraduate students are not Australian born, and many of them are supported by Monash scholarship (no bond at all). You see, many universities nowadays are competing for quality postgrad students, even to the extent of giving them scholarship. So, why do they want to come to Malaysia?

From my personal experience as a Phd student, to produce a quality finance thesis requires three very basic things. Firstly, just like the sciences, finance research also requires physical support. Does our universities have the basic software for PhD students, like Eviews, Gauss, Matlab, Stata,...? In the event that the student requires specific software, do we have the allocation to purchase? Secondly, do we have enough reading materials in our library? The most important here is the journal database. Thirdly, empirical finance research requires data. Do we have Datastream, Wharton Research Data Services (WRDS), World Development Indicators (WDI),...? Just cross-check with NUS, and see how many of them our universities have. Of course, apart from the above list, we also require quality supervisors.

It is not difficult for a university to achieve their targeted PhD enrolment, as this is a parameter that she can control. The challenge again is to produce quality graduates. But this, to some people, is very subjective. How do you define quality? If the examiners recommend a degree to be awarded to the candidate, does it mean that he/she has passed the quality control? In Monash, one of the criteria is whether the thesis contains material worthy of publication. In Malaysia, it is not difficult to find Phd graduates that have no journal publication from their theses.

Anonymous said...

I agree that UM must open up more places for non-bumiputra good student if it ever want to improve its standard!

Anonymous said...

In the Star today, new VC spends RM150,000 on blackberrys for staff. Presumably this would lead to much more efficiency and quality, do will it? Why are these Malay VCs love to spend spend and spend yet get contribute nothing in return? Blackberry is important for academics? hahaa

Anonymous said...

I was quite surprised when heard the new VC spend 150k on blackberry..jasmon is well known in his prudent spending during his tenure at MMU..finally I discovered that the VC mentioned by the Anonymous is UTM VC, not UM VC.

Anonymous said...

Admission to public university is made through UPU, not the university itself. Same for the quota, it is the government rather than the university who determine it. If we want more non-bumi to be admitted to UM, we should ask the government (UPU) to send more non-bumi student to UM or any other IPTA. All the above mentioned applicable for undergraduate application. For postgraduate, the student can apply directly to the University.

UM Student said...

I agree with Tan Keng Liang that there must be more space in UM for non-bumiputra.......that's if UM want to improve.....otherwise, it will go down the drain of rankings!

A concerned Malaysian said...

University Rakyat vs. Universiti Malaya?
Which one is better?
* see Kian Ming's comment on University Rakyat

Anonymous said...

University Rakyat is better as entrance is purely based on merits.....no BUMI QUOTA

Anonymous said...

GJ will hire more foreigners to be lecturers in order to boast the ranking as well. But he won't care about these foreigners' quality, just look at the havoc these foreigners created in MMU, they are paid more than locals and GJ will make sure the local staff will work like hell because these foreigners can't do the job well. All in the name of increasing ranking.

Anonymous said...

Nowadays whether you are a graduate from a local or foreign university the employment market is in depression. I experienced an abusive interviewer as a local financial planning organisation which produced their own qualifications. The interviewer branded me as useless, poor and not knowing my objective and direction. Not once did he mention whether he was interested in employing me. His tone was insulting and abusive and I am certain many of his candidates had gone through the same amount of verbal and mental abuse. Now with the situation at hand in Malaysia, this is rampant and many employers are making idiotic judgements to protect their own turf and position.

Anonymous said...

Can't help feeling that Malaysia is becoming like India where everyone is a doctor. Soon the garbage collector is a doctor of refuse collection. The dumbing down of standards and social engineering has made us a nation of overqualified, under-skilled workers.

Anonymous said...

im not surprised really since our country's education standard has gone to the docks anyway =(