Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Competitive Pressures … Or The Lack Thereof

A few weeks ago I discussed the issue of funding in universities in the context of the Economist survey of higher learning . In this posting, I want to discuss the issue of competition within and between universities.

The Economist survey argues that universities will have to compete for the best students as well as the best professors on a global scale. Indeed, world class universities such as Harvard conduct their faculty searches on an international basis. But this presupposes that there already exists a competitive framework among academics within the broader university system. There is a ‘publish or perish’ culture in the academia in the US. Assistant professors who are recruited after obtaining their PhDs are immediately put on tenure track and have 6 years to put together a publishing record which would include 2 to 3 articles in major journals, at least 1 book and other administrative and intellectual contributions to the faculty (organizing conferences, giving talks etc…). Even if these requirements are fulfilled, there is no guarantee that he or she will be promoted to Associate Professor i.e. receive tenure. In my limited experience at Duke, only about ½ of the junior faculty recruited end up receiving tenure (and this is probably an overestimate). And these junior faculty hires have been recruited from a pool of 300 to 400 job applicants! Getting a job is already difficult. Getting tenure is no walk in the park either.

In contrast, there are no such competitive pressures within the academia in Malaysia. There is no ‘publish or perish’ culture. It is possible to stay at the level of Assistant Professor (or the equivalent titles in Malaysian academia) all your life without publishing a single piece of academic work. Tenure, presumable starts when you are confirmed as a permanent staff at a local university. You can work yourself up the academic ladder by pursuing administrative rather than academic accomplishments. Even the standards of publishing are far from strenuous. A fellow academic told me that he has reviewed applications for academic promotions which have listed newspaper articles and translated books as part of their academic ‘resume’. It is almost impossible to get fired for lack of output. The steps are onerous and have to involve the Minister of Higher Education. Given these structures, is it any wonder that the standard of academia in our universities is in the deplorable state that it is in?

If the academic staff are poorly trained, under-qualified and are not given incentives to push the research frontier (by using both the carrot – promotion based on stringent academic requirements - and the stick – fired if does not receive tenure), how can they teach and train a new generation of students and scholars from within?

It is not as if these competitive pressures exist in the private institutions of higher learning. The main purpose of these institutions or businesses is to generate revenue and create profit. There is no incentive for the administrators in these universities to pressure their academic staff to publish. Their main function rather is to teach as many classes as their schedules will allow them.

But I see more hope within the private sphere because external competitive pressures operate in that sphere. Demand has forced many of these private institutions to increase the range of courses being taught (from 1 + 2 to 2 + 1 to 3 + 0) which in turn has forced these institutions to hire more qualified academic staff to teach these courses. As the number of private institutions increase including those full-fledged universities such as Monash and Nottingham, it would not be impossible to foresee that private universities would be forced to compete, not only by price point, but also by recruiting more qualified academic staff to boost its reputation. These private institutions might also give incentives to academic staff to collaborate with the private sector to bring in research funds and initiate projects that would enhance the reputation of that institution. Indeed, the private sector might also prefer to work with private institutions to avoid the bureaucracy that’s endemic to the public sector.

I wouldn’t be surprised if there emerges an elite layer among the private universities (Monash / Sunway, Nottingham, HELP) that will challenge and perhaps surpass the elite among the public universities (UM, USM, UKM).

So, are our public universities doomed? Unless the structure is changed such that the academic staff are properly incentivized, it is likely that they would continue to be mired in the muck of underachievement and lethargy. One consequence is that students in the public universities will continue to bear the brunt of these effects – poorly taught and trained and less employable. We have already seen some of these effects – the hue and cry over the large number of largely Malay unemployed graduates from the public universities. Another is that the larger economy will be affected by the shortage of skilled workers in key sectors, dragging down our long term growth prospects.

Before we can even talk about competing for the best students or best talents, our public universities have to clean up their act internally first – clear out the deadwood and bring in fresh, rightly motivated academic staff.


Asian Students Association said...

I agree with your views on the competence of the academicians in the local universities. It's the question of "reform or die". Malaysia government relatively put quite a lot of resources to the university but where the money go? How effectively it been used?

Another concern of mine is the collaboration with the private sector epscially the big multi-national companies (MNCs). In order to get the funding, the university will satisfied the requirements or conditions of the MNCs. My question is how about the autonomy of the public university? Do you agree with the syllabus of the course also can change to fulfill the requirement of the MNCs?

I agree to the needs to reform the universities. It's urgent and necessary. However, we have to understand that privatization is not the answer to solve the problem. Sometime people may think if we privatize the university, the problem might solve. It will improve the efficiency and effectiveness.

The core issue is how to reform and improve the quality of higher education in Malaysia without privatize it.

elegant lily said...

It's a culture that rewards mediocrity in this country. The government/public sector does not believe in hiring the best (read: meritocracy) because it may result in some welfare loss among certain groups of Malaysians. There are groups of capable, brilliant and hardworking Malaysians who get by without Govt's help, but it's very likely this crowd is not very big, and needless to say, they too, may feel frustrated over the culture of mediocrity in this country.

And to placate and support the government policies, the private sector has to toe the line in their hiring policies. This extends to the private and public universities as well. Where politics permeate the country's institutions, mediocrity will be the unfortunate outcome.

Golf Afflicted said...

I actually hold a slightly more pessimistic view of the private institutions of higher learning in Malaysia - i.e., don't have such high hopes that they will attract the best academicians nor will they produce any significant research.

Being an "economist" of sorts, I would argue that the market is clearly imperfect from the perspective of information and knowledge. Hence, prospective students, to a large extent do not know any better when colleges "sell" to them. Due to the "easy" sell, despite the competition, there is no incentives for private institutions to pursue meaningfully in the fields of research or even in hiring the top academics (or much better ones anyway). From a business perspective, why pay more for quality teachers when the demand is equally there with the weaker, cheaper ones?

Even for foreign set ups like Monash and Nottingham - the emphasis is likely to be the same - to recruit new students riding on the reputation and prestige of the parent institution overseas. Why should these intitutions perform meaningful research in Malaysia, creating logistical issues for themselves? Even if regulated to do so, there's really plenty of measures to "get around" the problems.

The only way to strengthen the research capabilities in Malaysia will unfortunately, be through the public universities. Unfortunately, as you have highlighted, we are a distance away from being near that capable.

This is where the role of the Ministry of Higher Education comes in, not by forcing all academics and student sign "Akujanji" letters.

:) Tony P

Anonymous said...

The "publish & perish" type of academic culture found in the United States and elsewhere reflects more of a rat race than a culture of genuine schorlarly enquiry.

Since, you are at Duke don't miss out on listerning to Professor Frederick Jameson, once of the highest paid Marxist Historian.

-- Old Man

Anonymous said...

I am from Purdue. The publish or perish culture although may be a rat race, but the probability of creating a large pool of higher intellects is significantly higher compared to the system in Malaysia. Now ask yourself, would you want your society to actually advance or forever stranded in the vicious cycle of mediorcrity?
The key role of this culture is to foster the cream of the crop. History tells us, it works. Whereas in Malaysia where the public universities are spoon fed with all the money they can get, in US you fund raise most of your own money from companies or goverment to sponsor your research.
Like Tony said, private institution may not be in the position to do it either since their focus is more on bussiness. They would rather hire better lecturers than to do research.Unless there are monetary emphasis being put on researches where the industries are interested.
As for the public universities, I dont think they have the intellectual fortitud, capability and compounded with poor administrations to continously perform and sustain researches . Given the fact there isnt going to be major changes in the system after these years, hence I think they could not get the job done.

Anonymous said...

You need to separate the idea of Publish & Perish to competition and meritocracy. Yes. Publish & Perish ia a highly competitive and meritocratic intellectual pursuit. Frankly, its too much to ask from those poor bastards to meet that standard. I would settle for just being able to teach competitively which is what is the more immediate problem. This is typical of UMNO rule that takes advantage of more short-term and immediate concern by offering a solution that is half-baked and destroys all hope of the highest standards. In other words, gadai kan jiwa dan makan sehari untuk suap pagi sahaja. Everyday only eat nasi lemak in the morning, how to be strong and good?

Anonymous said...

talk is cheap. But I suppose this is the main purpose for having blogs. Mr. Tony, the situation in public universities is changing. But the pace of change is slow. And the guy from Purdue, I guess your superior education has led you to believe that your fellow brothers here working in public universities in Malaysia are of inferior intellect compared to you. Think again!

Anonymous said...

Purdue, I rest my case.

-- Old Man

Anonymous said...

"And the guy from Purdue, I guess your superior education has led you to believe that your fellow brothers here working in public universities in Malaysia are of inferior intellect compared to you. Think again!"

I think the situation should be the other way around, I did some research about local uni and Purdue. Surprisingly I found Purdue to have extensive Space Program. Neil Armstrong came from there and subsequently they are one of the school that produces most astronaut. They have manye Department of Defense research going on. They have so many faculties who are from MIT and other famous universities conducting heavy loads of productive work. They are also conducting various biomed research and nano technology researches. I am not saying universities in Malaysia are inferior but results speaks louder volume than the talk like you claimed. So is Purdue more superior than local uni?
I would think so with all these achievements they have. If you said in general that people in the local uni are smarter, then I am afraid Mr Tony's blog would not have criticism's on the local uni on every aspect of the things they do, ranging from them claiming themselves 89th best in the world, to the way the run local universities.

So if you ask the guy from Purdue to think again, I think it should be the other way around. You should think again.

Jerng said...

1. Local public universities, where got autonomy? Aisyeh.
2. ASTRONAUTS? You can't judge quality of intellect by resistance to G-force and basic tool-ey ability! It doesn't take much to be an astronaut, academically.
3. Publish or Perish is the 'industrial' form of academia. It is in some ways better than the 'agricultural' traditions of bomohs and wisemen. On the other hand, you lose a bit of the communal aspect of 'the old times' because you establish a meritocracy where the QUALITY OF THE STANDARD may not be the highest... i.e. only the best journal article writers will get tenure, but being able to write good journal articles does NOT necessarily imply a sophisicated intellect, the sort of thing which one might call 'wisdom'.
4. I believe that there is the potential for us Malaysians to come up with an alternative academic 'standard'. I don't know what form it will take, but Asia is heir to a few very rigorous academic traditions, those of the Yogis and the Monks, for example. Then you have the whole plethora of Islamic scholarship, but around here, I think enough has been said about that for the time being. In the mean time, I remain...
- the

Anonymous said...

" ASTRONAUTS? You can't judge quality of intellect by resistance to G-force and basic tool-ey ability! It doesn't take much to be an astronaut, academically."

Err, hello? Would you want some Tom, Dick or Harry to go up there and not knowing what they were doing with the instruments, where u spent millions of dollar for?
Or are you saying anybody can be just slapped in a space rocket or space ship and go up there in space? Unless u are filthy rich that is if you can. Can you?

"only the best journal article writers will get tenure, but being able to write good journal articles does NOT necessarily imply a sophisicated intellect, the sort of thing which one might call 'wisdom' "

I think you are contradicting yourself in here. Being able to write good journal articles doesnt necessary imply sophisticated intellect? Errr, what do you think of Albert Einstein? I am sure you did read his biography on how he figure out the infamous formula right? Is his mind not sophisticated enough? I will let the people be the judge of that.

cikuism said...

Well, my conclusions would be:

As long as the early-childhood education (modernists tend to act more attentive on the issue of higher-learning and life-long education problems, but the ROOT of human's the most basic edu would be from pre-natal till toddlers, that's our the most upmost moment)here never be properly managed, any extent forms of concerns and reformation of our education system will forever become our main issue all the time.

We are lacking of management, that's the fact and losing our brains too, at the same time.

"We never learn any mistakes from the history"