Friday, October 28, 2005

Foreign students to be admitted to UM? Part 1

It was reported that the UM VC, Dr. Hashim Yaacob, is mulling the idea of opening up to 5% of first degree program i.e. undergraduate spaces to foreigners. The same report also had the VC saying that there are currently 1000 foreign students doing post-grad work in UM but no foreign undergrads. This, of course, confirms that UM's ranking in the top 100 universities worldwide that was based on its so-called 'foreign' student population was on shaky grounds. My understanding is that the THES 2004 rankings only took into account the undergraduate population. But even if the graduate population had been included, 1000 foreign students out of a total student population of nearly 30,000 (approximately 3%) would hardly rank UM among the top 50 in terms of % of foreign student intake. It would be interesting to see if this error is corrected in the soon to be released THES 2005 rankings.

But the point of this post is not so much to discuss the rankings but rather to debate the implications of opening up 5% of the undergraduate places to foreigners. It could potentially turn into a political timebomb but let us reasonably debate the pros and cons of this policy before the politicians get hold of this issue.

What was the reason the VC gave for wanting to open up these spaces for foreign students? In the same Bernama report, "He said the move was vital in exposing the locals with more advanced students from abroad".

Let's unpack this statement a little bit more. The underlying assumption of this statement is that admitting foreign students that are "more advanced" will someone benefit the local students. I find this assumption questionable at best. The reason why most foreign universities in the UK, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and some universities in the US accept non-citizen students is economic - they can charge them higher fees compared to local students. The recruitment of foreign students is becoming more important as public funding to many of these universities is being squeezed. Indeed, accepting more foreign students has not stopped many of these universities from charging higher fees even for local students, albeit at a lower rate compared to foreign students.

The UK university that I went to for my undergraduate degree, the London School of Economics (LSE), has a foreign student population of 50% and that number is expected to rise. The rationale was mostly economic and because of this, the % of LSE's operating budget that is state-funded is smaller than most UK universities. The foreign students accepted by the LSE have to fulfill A level requirements that are exactly the same as the British students (ABB when I was accepted) but most of the Singaporean and Malaysian students I knew had A level results that far exceeded the entry requirements. It was commonly accepted wisdom that foreign students would generally perform better than the British students.

But this does not mean that having foreign students that were generally better academically than the locals necessarily 'improved' the performance of the locals. There was only minimal contact between the foreigners, who would usually stick with their own ethnic / national groups and the British students, who would hang around each other. There was little, if any, group work done between British and foreign students.

If UM and other local universities cannot encourage local students of different races to mix with each other and to do coursework together, how will it encourage foreign students to interact with locals especially if there are additional cultural, linguistic and nationalistic barriers?

I do not think that my experience at the LSE is only unique to that university. If we examine universities like Melbourne or Sydney in Australia and universities like Nottingham and Bristol in the UK, a consistent picture would emerge.

Economic needs drive the decision to recruit foreign students and the locals do not gain very much intellectually.

The only place where one can make a plausible argument that admitting good foreign students would increase intellectual activity and benefit the locals is at the graduate level. There is presumably more intellectual interaction between graduate students than undergraduates. Many students work in laboratories on common projects or write papers together. Professors too would benefit from having capable graduate students as research assistants and would also be able to collaborate with them on projects and papers. That has certainly been the case for me based on my exposure and experience here at Duke and hopefully, such an atmosphere exists in local universities as well.

One can certainly argue that having foreign students in MBA programs contributes to the intellectual and entrepreneurial atmosphere in good school MBA schools worldwide. In most good MBA programs, group work is a big component of coursework and groups are picked by the MBA schools to maximize diversity - business and educational background, gender, length of experience and yes, nationality. Having a more diverse student population, including diversity of nationalities, is often used as a marketing tool by MBA schools to market to prospective students as well as to blue chip employers.

If the VC's 'musings' does turn into policy, I would be interested to examine the details of this proposal. Is it to generate more revenue for UM by charging foreign students more? Highly unlikely. Is it to expose local students to better foreign students in the hope that the locals will improve? Weak supposition that is not proven by facts. Is this a strategy to target more foreign graduate students? Again, this is not the intended target of the VC, at least not from his initial comments.

Perhaps the VC can examine the rules of and outcomes at the IIU (International Islamic University), which by most accounts is the most international research university in Malaysia at the undergraduate and graduate level.

Even if the VC's theory has some traction, there are still many details to be examined. What will the entry requirements be for foreign students? Where will the foreign students be recruited from? How will the admission of foreign student affect the intake of local students? Read Part 2.


Golf Afflicted said...

If I were to put on my cynical hat, this new policy suggestion is coming about because the chancellor has belatedly realised that UM's achievement of the 89th position was on the back of errorneous "international" student data! He's trying to "up" the score of UM a little bit to achieve a higher ranking.

It's afterall easier to accept foreign students than to raise academic quality, particularly in the short term.

:) Tony

Golf Afflicted said...

There's also another little snag. If I'm not wrong, 'A' level qualifications are not accepted currently for entry into UM.

Hence if international students are "permitted", I would assume qualifications such as 'A' Levels will have to be accepted.

In this case, will the locals be allowed entry with 'A' Level qualifications? It will be such an injustice if foreigners are accepted on 'A' Levels and Malaysians are forbidden to use such qualifications.

Tony P :)

Jimmy L. said...

Increasing the foreign student count might burden the system. Unless they reduce the local students.

The idea might backfire, as our tertiary education system is already heavily burdened, vis teacher to student ratio.

Anonymous said...

If interaction with foreign student is really wanted the best way to do it would be to have a special module where local students team up with their foreign counterpart for a one semester project.

This happened before in UM way back in 2000. We had a special course with students from Guelph University in Canada. Because each of us were paired to do project work there was a lot of interaction. We learned a lot from each other and quite a number of us are still in contact.

For this kind of work we need researchers who have connections with overseas, not researchers trapped under coconut shells.

Also, people are more inclined to have a joint project if they think that we are not a lousy university. That was 5 years ago. Needless to say this has all changed now.