Wednesday, June 15, 2005

How to Lower Standards at Our Universities?

The furore around the "forced" resignation of a senior academic, Dr Terence Gomez has begun to "settle" as the intervention of our Prime Minister has resulted in a "happy ending" to the unpleasant episode. Malaysiakini and Screenshots are now covering the "post-mortem" of the entire affair. In an exclusive interview series with Malaysiakini, Dr Gomez talks about why he wants to stay in University Malaya (UM) and discusses dubious promotions of lecturers. Jeff Ooi, on the other hand covered the events of the surprisingly well-attended farewell dinner for Dr Gomez.

One of the points raised by Dr Gomez during the evening as well as in his Malaysiakini interview however, caught my attention:
... the practice of tampering with students’ examination marks to increase the passing rate. He cited a paper where the failure rate was high, amid the strong protest from the lecturers, the department concerned decided to give 13 additional percentage points across the board to all students.

This is probably "best" thing a University can do to lower the standards at our Universities. The fact that this happened at University Malaya, which quite undoubtedly is still the best in Malaysia is disgraceful.

  • If it's going to be that easy to "pass" examination papers in UM, then the output quality of the students will slowly but surely erode over time, and employers will sooner or later discover the deteriorating standards of UM. It's really quite as simple as that!

  • UM should not go down the route which many of the Australian universities appear to be taken by easing the academic requirements to pass examinations. Read about some of the scandals which has hit Australian universities in recent years. Newcastle University here and here. It's also blogged by Idlan Zakaria here on the impact of Australian certificates today. A more general article highlighting some of the "scandals" such as:

    Examples of how our [the Australian] education system is being "dumbed down" include:
    • A lecturer being told to reduce lecture content to "high school level" to improve the rates of students passing his course.
    • Where "fail" marks had been overridden to grant students Honours degrees.
    • Where marks as low as 25 per cent were considered passes.
    • Lecturers were forced to relax rules on plagiarism so that students who were not capable of writing essays would be allowed to cheat.
The older generation of Australian graduates have tended to be more reliable" in terms of qualifications. These days, from my personal experience, a degree from Monash or RMIT, Australia is equivalent to the average local Malaysian universities. You can still recruit the top students (which is difficult to ascertain) but the rest are just so weak. UM does not want to go there.
  • The way to improve the pass rate of the students of UM is not to reduce the passing mark by a humongous 13% points. It is simply by (1) attracting the top students of the country to the university and (2) employing the best quality lecturers and academics in the university. The fact that the university requires the drastic move of significantly lowering the passing grade makes it obvious that either (1) or (2) or both are current failures at UM.

In a fairly long but enlightening article by Craig McInnis on Australia's e-journal of social and political debate, he was lamenting that the key reason behind falling standards at Australian universities was that:
... that the compression of grades towards the high end is an outcome of academics not having a clear and justifiable set of criteria for assessing student performance.

Without strong benchmarks and moderation processes at the discipline and subject level, academics are left to make judgments that are not always defensible in the face of external pressure. Surveys of academics in Australia, as elsewhere, find the majority is unsure whether students are better or worse now in terms of academic abilities than five years before.

McInnis' study was with reference to Australian universities but the lessons learnt are equally applicable to UM's attempt to tamper with passing grades. Is this a standard practice at our Malaysian universities today? When academic assessment in a university is no longer held sacrosanct, the student "passes" but the university fails.


Anonymous said...

This issue isnt new it existed as early the 60's. It happens everywhere at UPSR,PMR,SPM,STPM,in colleges,private institution etc.

Just because of one fristrated lecturer who think he's so great that whants the gomen to revamp the education.

No wonder that university refuses his leave application. Now I know the reason why?

Anonymous said...

should we be afraid of this?

Anonymous said...

found it in the star too, but not as detailed in nanyang

here's the url

Anonymous said...

2004 world uni rankings:

Sir sc said...

hi tony p, nice issue here..i dint knoe aus uni is like tat.
Btw can you review more on aus universities?i`m planning to go aus but i`m worried about it standards.
Agreed with you too, how can we lower the standard top uni in malaysia.

clk said...

The lowering of standards in any uni has a very large implication on nearly everyone; from alumnus, future students, academicians both past and present, employers who relies on graduates as employees, corporations who contribute or commission some studies, etc.

All these parties feel cheated despite an isolated incident .

I can only say that I'm glad I did not read my undergrad studies in a "questionable" uni. Some out there might as well tear their certificate due to "manipulation" of marks. Remember, PERCEPTION and REPUTATION are everything in a uni.

Anonymous said...

I studied Computer Science and Electrical Engineering in Monash (only Clayton campus then)Uni back in the early 80s. Those days, it was relatively easy to get into the School of Engineering. I believe one only needed something like 270+ points from the VHSC (did that at Taylors College, KL)to get into Engineering. 270+ is a rather easy score to achieve as one only needed between 65 to 70 points for the best 4 subjects (+10% of any additional subject). In 1980 (my 1st year), there were more than 300 1st year engineering students but by the time we finished our final year, less than half remained. I understand that the reason for this is that one of the criteria for funding is the number of students in a faculty. First year students are realtively "cheap" in terms of lab equipment etc so the faculty takes in a lot of students and fail many after the 1st year. Anyway, in those days, only the top scorers in the 1st year were allowed to move on to Electrical Engineering (a quota was imposed), and I believe Monash's Electrical Engineering Department was held in very high regard worldwide. Don't know about now.

As to Computer Science, we had to take an aptitude test before being allowed to enrol for Computer Science 101. Reputation wise, Caulfied College (later Chilsom, now Monash Uni, Caulfield campus) was better in Victoria, but Monash was number 2 in Computer Science then. I remember some friends facing a lot of difficulty with their programming assignments (despite the aptitude test), and some friends who (IMHO) were wizards (not only can they program but they seem to know so many things about the operating system and stuff outside the syllabus) but didn't do well (maybe they spent too much time hacking).

In the late 90's, I interviewed a Monash Computer Science grad from Clayton campus. To my surprise and horror, this person should not even have been admitted let alone graduated. Not only was his lack of knowledge in the subject matter appalling, he also didn't have the type of thinking skills/processes to do well in analytical, logical type questions. Before this incident, I used to think that only the other Monash campuses have quality issues, but now, I have doubts about that of Clayton as well.

From this single sample point, there may be something to Tony's opinion about Monash Uni grads today.

With regard to RMIT, in the early 80's, many Monash Accounting students tend to fail Advanced Accounting 3xx. This was (is?) a required subject for them to be admitted into the Australian Society of Accountants. I know of a number of Monash Accounting students who did their Advanced Accounting with RMIT because it was easier to pass. BTW, many of those Monash Engineering students who failed and were booted out ended up doing Engineering at RMIT or Swinburne etc.


Anonymous said...

I think Tony puts too much emphasis on education itself. This smacks of the typical Singaporean Scholar, the men-in-white PAP politicians.

Anyway, I think assessment of a person/talent should go beyond his academic achievements/origin.

If I have to say, I think education system nowadays with it's rote learning methods are not going to do much to produce real talents.

The best talents are those who don't need anyone to tell them what to do, they learn by themselves, self teach, self motivated and full of passion in learning to reach their objectives.

We sometimes put way too much emphasis on a person's academic achievements/origins.

Anonymous said...

What university does not have a fair share of questionable "unethical behavior?"

Even Oxford University was embroiled in Cash for Places fiasco not too long ago, when "a reporter posed as an American banker, promising a donation of £300,000 to the college. He found out that money talks and an 'extra' place on a law course would be found for his son."

Or the issues that might arise when "Figures show[ing] Oxford 'favoured' state school applicants...,5500,430866,00.html

I do wonder whether the list stops here?

This does not mean that we should condone such behavior, because it happens in many places and certainly it is not a behavior reserve for the less highly rank. I could also dig-up some "lowering the standards" behavior in places such as Harvard or elsewhere. What does this proof?

Just that there are unethical students there are unethical teachers; just because I wear a badge from a reputable university am I suppose to be “good?” Or that I wear a badge from a reputable university I better be “good” and not taint the insignia on my uniform? These are all poor reasons for excellence. We must not fail to address the corrupting influence upon excellence nor the manner excellence is being use to denial education for some. Ultimately, anyone should have a chance to education and excellence. A child will easily emulate from a good role model as s/he will emulate from a bad role model. If excellence is inaccessible accept to a few then excellence will be miss out by the many. So, if a culture of excellence is excellent, because it is not mixed with a culture of mediocrity, how do you transform a culture of mediocrity to become a culture of excellence? Should we get rid all of these mediocrities, discharge them back into society and wait for them to start a revolt or become organize crime? How are they going to experience excellence when excellence is so excellent so sacrosanct?

As in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance caution us:

“To tear down a factory or to revolt against a government or to avoid repair of a motorcycle because it is a system is to attack effects rather than causes; and as long as the attack is upon effects only, no change is possible. The true system, the real system, is our present construction of systematic thought itself, rationality itself, and if a factory is torn down but the rationality which produced it is left standing, then that rationality will simply produce another factory. If a revolution destroys a systematic government, but the systematic patterns of thought that produced that government are left intact, then those patterns will repeat themselves in the succeeding government. There is so much talk about the system. And so little understanding.”

-- Old Man

clk said...

Old Man,

Thanks for the reminder on ZAMM. Another quote from the book I recalled read:

"The real University, he said, has no specific location. It owns no property, pays no salaries and receives no material dues. The real University is a state of mind. It is that great heritage of rational thought that has been brought down to us through the centuries and which does not exist at any specific location. It's a state of mind which is regenerated throughout the centuries by a body of people who traditionally carry the title of professor, but even that title is not part of the real University. The real University is nothing less than the continuing body of reason itself.

In addition to this state of mind, "reason," there's a legal entity which is unfortunately called by the same name but which is quite another thing. This is a nonprofit corporation, a branch of the state with a specific address. It owns property, is capable of paying salaries, of receiving money and of responding to legislative pressures in the process.

But this second university, the legal corporation, cannot teach, does not generate new knowledge or evaluate ideas. It is not the real University at all. It is just a church building, the setting, the location at which conditions have been made favorable for the real church to exist."

If I recalled (either from ZAMM or another book), wouldn't it be great if we can find a university which teaches for the sake of knowledge without the ultimate aim of getting a piece of paper?

Anonymous said...

i feel that the reasons for australian/british universities lowering their standards are different from that of our local universities.

for the former, it's a case of funding. foreign students bring big money into the campus. but some of them really should never be allowed to enrol bcos of their low command of the language... but if you keep failing them, no one would be interested in your university... but you need the money... so a few notches down in the passing mark may not hurt, right? and the money would contribute to other things in the uni, bla bla bla (or so they reason)... etc, etc...

however, for our local unis, that's not the case at all... it's not a funding issue - it's not for the foreign students... it's an ego issue.... "hey, do you know that my uni has x number of passes and honours students".... "well, mine has more".... "what? your's has so few? must be lousy students huh?"... etc etc... so a few notches down in the passing mark saves everyone's ego... malaysia boleh!

...and the nation suffers...

Anonymous said...

Do U know that you can buy degrees at all level from American & British universities. So far its still ok here!

clk said...

can you sell me one from an Ivy league school? need one to become a consultant...

Anonymous said...

How much money do you have?

-- Old Man

Anonymous said...

It is just sad the way u critisize Australian Universities....maybe Rmit is bad and many others, but u have to admit the G-8 (top 8 Aus Unis) are much better than malaysia's. Look at the rankings..Melbourne uni is ranked 19th in THSE...... maybe universities like MU still got good students but admittedly, with the rise of middle class in Msia, many good students have gone to unis with better facilities and education.

Unknown said...

ummm....i believe Australian Unis are much better than Malaysia's...not only do the rankings speak for themselves but look at the students coming in as well...if all had your 'personal' view of looking at things..der wudn't be any malaysian students here..but DER ARE and hordes of dem too!
btw..wats with RMIT's World Rankings?? it's apparently better to study der than Uni Melb. but THES shows something completely different

Anonymous said...

I think Tony is far from rational in many of his 'observations'. They appear to be extremely selective and reflect a bias unfortunately all to common in that part of the world. Which university did George Bush attend and on what basis was he admitted?

Anonymous said...

MAlaysian Universities (including UM) have become inferior to top students. If you score straight A's in spm and tell someone u end up in UM... the reaction u get will be like: "why don't u study in singapore? Australia? UK?"