Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Attracting Top Universities to Malaysia (I)

In an attempt to make Malaysia one of the key destinations for global students to pursue their higher education, the Ministry of Higher Education appears to be taking a two-prong strategy. The first one appears to be the increased liberalisation in the private college sector, in terms of setting up new colleges as well as in terms of awarding degrees. The second one, which is the subject matter of this particular post, is with regards to the ministry's attempts to attract universities from the western sphere to set up "branch campuses" in Malaysia.

The policy of attracting the "top" universities of the world to set up campuses in Malaysia, is not a bad one. Theoretically, if we are able to attract the top universities in the world to set up campuses in Malaysia, it will not only attract more foreign students to the country, it will also benefit the local education environment. For instance, the local top students will have a choice of attending the local campuses at a cheaper cost to acquire top-notch education. At the same time, public universities which has been under scrutiny today will face greater competitive pressures to improve performance to maintain their standards.

It is Malaysia's offical goal to attract up to 100,000 foreign students in 5 years time from just under 50,000 students today. Deputy Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak read a speech by Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi which stated that "the country needed to recognise the impact of 'internationalisation' on the education sector," when officiating the launch of the University of Nottingham Malaysian Campus (UNMC) in Semenyih. This was reported in the Star on September 27th. The UNMC has currently over 1,200 students from a remarkable 30 countries. The University of Nottingham is ranked a very respectable 12th in the Times Good University Guide for 2006 in the United Kingdom.

On Sunday, Higher Education Ministry director-general Datuk Dr Prof Hassan Said claimed that "more foreign universities from Ireland, the United Kingdom and the United States are preparing to have a presence here." This was reported in the New Straits Times on Monday this week.
Most of the universities he visited in these countries showed keen interest in either setting up branch campuses or research and development centres, he said.

"In the case of Ireland, we are discussing a lot of things. There is a possibility the individual universities will set up branch campuses. There is also the possibility that all of them might come here as a consortium."
On the surface of it, this sounded like good news. However, upon more detailed scrutiny (with no disrespect at all to Irish Universities), these colleges are no where near the top colleges of the world. In the respected and widely cited Shanghai JiaoTung University (SJTU) ranking table of the top 500 universities of the world, 1 Irish university (Trinity College Dublin) is placed in the 201-300 category while 2 others were placed in the 401-500 category (University College Cork and University College Dublin). Even in the more doubtful world rankings list compiled by the Times Higher Education Supplement (THES), the only Irish University appearing in the top 200 was Trinity College, placed at 87th. Are our Ministry officials pursuing the right universities to set up campuses in Malaysia?

In circumstances such as this, it is inevitable for anybody not to make comparisons to the policies instituted in our southern neighbour, and envy their success in some of their undertakings. Singapore has been extremely successful in attracting the top schools in the world to set up programmes or campuses in the country. Some of the top universities which have set up presence in Singapore includes Insead, the leading European business school from France, University of Chicago Business School, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (5), Stanford University (4), Cornell University (12) and John Hopkins University (19) (SJTU world rankings in brackets). Additionally, Duke University (32) from the United States and the University of New South Wales (153-202) are expected to open their campuses in Singapore within the next 3 years. I will dwell more in terms of Singapore's policy to attract the top schools in the world in the subsequent post.

The question that we (and the policy makers) need to ask is whether we have a specific strategy in recruiting these "top universities". Are we trying to really attract the top schools, but are misguidedly pursuing the second and third tier universities - University of Nottingham (83), Monash University (203-300) and the Irish Universities?

Alternatively, is it an intentional commercial decision to attract the 2nd and 3rd tier universities, as there is justifiably a very strong demand for their degrees throughout the world? From a foreign exchange income perspective, attracting these institutes is not a bad decision at all. The number of students who can qualify to the top universities of the world are few. On the other hand, there will definitely be a larger pool of students who will qualify into the next tier of good universities.

The difference in the nature of the above policies have subtle implications for our education industry in Malaysia. The latter policy may be a successful one in terms of commercial factors, but it will not have as strong an impact in their ability to improve the quality of our students and local education sector, as the former policy. In addition, Malaysia is likely to be labelled (if not already), a "mass" education centre of higher learning, instead of the "top" education centre of higher learning.

I don't think there is a strictly right or wrong to the above choices, although I'd like to believe that Malaysia should be more ambitious in attracting the real top colleges to set up some form of presence in Malaysia. It is more important that the officials at the Ministry of Higher Education formulate a clear policy for the country and stay focused in achieving the objectives of the policy. At the moment, I'm just not convinced that the officials know what they are specifically doing.

Interestingly, Datuk Prof Hassan claimed that "Cambridge University was planning to collaborate in research and development with various local universities," in the latest interview. The same newspaper published on the 6th June this year that "Cambridge University is looking into the possibility of setting up a branch campus here." It was immediately rebutted in a low-key report in Malaysiakini, in which Cambridge officials flatly denied any plans to set up any "branch" and any other countries.

Collaboration between academics are common occurences and definitely not as claimed by Prof Hassan that "[i]t is the first time that Cambridge has explored this possibility with other universities."

I just wish that our officials focus a bit more with their roles and responsibilities and a lot less in try to "name drop" to associate themselves with supposedly "great" achievements. These actions by our government officials will obviously negatively affect potential collaborations we may have with institutions like Cambridge (imagine being questioned by the Malaysian media about a non-existent plan like setting up a "branch" in Malaysia!), not to mention that it'll make Malaysians look really stupid.

As mentioned earlier, my next post on this same topic will do a comparative study on Singapore's single minded pursuit and their innovative strategies to attract the "top" institutions of the world to the tiny island.


Eric said...

Tony, I admire your commitment to Malaysian higher education. I do however have two comments on your post. First of all, I think you attach to much value to the rankings. Ireland for instance has done a superb job the last decade to go from Europe's most troubled economy to its most prosperous economy and the universities have played an important role in that. There are more good universities in the world than Harvard, Stanford, Oxford and Cambridge. My second comment is more like a question. What do you expect from these foreign universities? I have gone through some of them and I am 100% sure that their staff is far less qualified than the staff in their home institution. What do you expect is the value of for instance Nottingham University over UM or USM when Nottingham uses mostly local staff, mostly without PhD degrees and often without Masters degrees. Is it the management of the universities that you expect to be better? Or is it that a 'global brand' will give students more opportunities on the job market? I would be interested to hear your views.

clk said...

A comparison with our cousin down south will show a vast difference in attracting top-notch schools. S'pore goes after post-grad students (i.e Insead, Chicago, JHopkins, Cornell etc.) due to land constraint and to put more concentration on research based schools (which is where the prestige lies).

We tend to go for masses and undergrads as we have land and large population. We have apart from the two mentioned schools,Curtin-Sarawak and smaller campus of other lower-tier schools in various forms of tie-ups.

For undergrad in S'pore don't forget NUS which is by itself a top-notch teaching school as well.

There is a large gap btw us and our cousin down south and I don't expect the gap to narrow.

Our masses tend to be misguided by what is "world-standard" as used by our politicians/ civil servants.

Anonymous said...

While purportedly, Singapore and Malaysia is seemingly trying to do the same thing in being an education hub, the truth is the understanding to road to success is vastly different.

Singapore government decision to attract top schools to Singapore is mitigated my an understanding that it may just be a commerical success at best and can be worst. There is a strong realization that there is no replacement for improving their own schools and hence opening it up to competition at every level and providing the necessary environment for improvement such as funding for research and foreign faculty and attracting top students.

Malaysia idea of making an education hub is they see it as opportunistic. Opportunity to make some money, opportunity to take credit for work someone else do or really easy things that can be spinned into something bigger. Its part and parcel of the entitlement mindset.

There is no realization that these things are just tools for doing something really really hard. That in the end, they have to face the demon within and without. That every compromise ia a compounding to mediocrity and failure.

There is real dishonesty in the whole effort as in the NEP and racial equality in this country. Except for a few idealist, most do not really believe it will achieve its goals. The real aim of all stakeholders is to get the short term gain of jobs, money and credit/glory and worry about the real long term aim when it comes home to roost.

The problem is that its transparent to everyone outside the system. The dishonesty and the lack of consequence for failure deters anyone who has something great from committing to this idea. Its no wonder that no top schools want to come. Its no wonder lower-ranking schools with low-commitment to standards show up. Look at ourselves in the mirror and the answer is clear.

Anonymous said...

speaking about curtin malaysia, i would say tat it isnt still a good or top notch for malaysia..it is more likely a low average uni compared itself with murdoch or UWA..

Golf Afflicted said...

Hi Eric,

Thanks for popping by. Visit your blog as well, I'm quite impressed, although I'm floored by the depth of semi-theoretical education issues I have delved into since uni days! :)

With regards to your concern that I'm placing too much importance on rankings - I must admit that I do use the rankings table a fair bit, for a simple reason that it provides the best indication of the quality of the university. Rankings table, as I've mentioned in previous posts, are never going to be accurate. But there are usually "more or less" there i.e., there's going to be a vast difference between an institution ranked top 50, versus one which is ranked in the 200s. That will be the extent to which I rely on the rankings table.

With regards to the second issue you raised, I'm in complete agreement, except I thought it wasn't so much relevant to my post. It's one thing setting up a branch campus in Malaysia, but its another getting the same quality of education. But dwelling on the issue in the same post will probably mean I would get to sleep last night trying to complete the post!

:) Tony P

Anonymous said...


I wrote in passing related to the 2nd part of your issue-question some time ago:


-- Old Man

Anonymous said...

Hi Tony,
First off, I read your response to Eric and I think you haven't addressed his second question. What do you expect from these foreign universities?
Following on the two alternative strategies you suggested, I would also ask: What exactly is the function of the Ministry of Higher Education?
Is its purpose to promote higher education as an industry to generate forex? Or is its purpose to improve the quality of higher education for the locals?
Suggesting commercial motives behind the Minister's actions was nifty thinking on your part. But I think you were just being diplomatic with the powers that be. I'm impressed.
After all, your focus is the quality of education in Malaysia. For the people. Isn't it?

Eric said...

Hi Tony,
thanks for your reponse. I understand your argument about the rankings. I just think it is sometimes useful to look at other countries as well. I think Malaysia could learn a lot from Ireland for instance, or other countries that are focusing very much on innovation and knowledge in their policies and that have gone through major reforms. I am leaving for the Netherlands (which also falls into this category) in a few hours and will be talking to several people there about similar issues. I'll have some posts about that in my blog later.

Countries like Ireland or Finland are very succesful in many ways and in terms of magnitude and population size are more like Malaysia (although of course I understand there are many many other differences). I'm looking forward to your new postings on this issue.

Anonymous said...

Ireland and Finland is very successful, so much so that the Singaporean government has been studying them in their "remaking singapore" initiative a couple years back.

-- Old Man