Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Less than 30% of public university lecturers have PhDs

In a report last Saturday in the Star, our Minister of Higher Education Shafie Salleh, announced that 5% of the places in our local public universities will be opened to foreign students. At the end of that article, I noticed Shafie giving an interesting statistic - that only 29.7% of lecturers have PhDs, against the target of 70% which the government has set. I assume that Shafie is referring to lecturers in public universities although that wasn't explicitly stated.

This statistic surprised me greatly. My sense has always been that the % of lecturers in the local universities with PhDs is closer to 50% than 30%. Perhaps my impressions have been based on my interactions with faculty in UM, USM and UKM. It might still be true that the % of lecturers in UM, USM and UKM is substantially higher than 30%. But irregardless, this statistic is shocking. How can we expect to have world class universities if only 30% of our lecturers have PhDs? It would be impossible for someone to lecture at a half-decent university in the US or the UK without a PhD qualification. But this seems to be the norm rather than the exception in Malaysia.

Granted, Malaysia has a unique system whereby lecturers without PhDs are required to teach in local universities before being sent abroad to get their PhDs. But still, wouldn't one expect this policy, after time, to increase the % of our lecturers with PhDs? My impression is that a university like NUS is drastically ramping up the % of its faculty with PhDs. I won't be surprised if it reaches 100% by 2010. In contrast, our Minister of Higher Education, in the same Star report mentioned above, that we'd have difficulty even reaching the 70% target. Perhaps, our UM VC and our Minister can ask Prof Shih, the president of NUS, for advice on how to achieve this 70% target.

But in the meantime, I'd like to offer up my 2 cents worth of advice based partly on my own experience and what I've heard from my friends in Malaysian academia. Firstly, encourage those lecturers without PhDs to apply for private sources of funding to do their PhDs. One of the major impediments to those lecturers who want to go abroad to do their PhDs is the lack of government funding. This is not surprising given that the government pays for both the school fees as well as the living expenses of lecturers who go abroad to do their PhDs. In a good school in the US, this would probably cost 45,000 US$ per year ($30,000 for school fees and $15,000 for living expenses). Hence, there are only a limited number of places available in a year, which explains why some lecturers have to wait 10 years or more before being sent to do their PhDs abroad (if at all).

The system does not give incentives for aspiring PhD candidates to seek external private funding. The length of the bond is the same regardless of the amount of the government scholarship. And if one wants to apply for external scholarships such as the Fulbright (US) and the Chevening (UK), one has to go through a government body such as the JPA to apply rather than apply directly. Furthermore, most local universities only provide funding for 3 years which encourages potential candidates to apply to universities in Australia and the UK rather than the US, where private funding is more readily available. In my case, I obtained a school fee waiver ($30,000 per year) plus a yearly stipend from my university (guaranteed for 5 years), Duke, as well as summer funding from a Fulbright scholarship. It is common practice that if you are accepted into a good PhD program in the US, your school fees will be waived and you are likely to receive some form of yearly stipend. You'd be lucky to get your school fees waived in a UK university. Living costs support is almost unheard of.

Wouldn't it be easier for our local universities to create a system which encourages aspiring candidates to seek private funding as a way to overcome the local shortage of funds? Doesn't it make sense to create a system which decreases the length of the bond for candidates who manage to find outside funding?

The current system in Malaysia ends up having the following consequences:

1) Lecturers end up going to get their PhDs when they are relatively advanced in age (more than 30, sometimes close to 40) which limits their productive years in academia
2) Lecturers end up going to schools which are relatively easy to get into and who accept these lecturers because of the ability to collect school fees from them rather than on the basis of talent. Usually, this means that lecturers end up forming little Malaysian enclaves in places like the University of Liverpool or the University of Manchester (no offense to the alums of these schools) rather than places like Stanford or Harvard.
3) Some lecturers end up not doing their PhDs at all and teach all their lives with only a Masters degree

The other way of increasing the % of lecturers with Phds in the local universities is to ... hire more lecturers with PhDs! Not exactly rocket science. Shafie mentioned in the Star report that, 'As a short-term measure, the Government would be beefing up the number of academics by hiring more foreign lecturers with PhDs'. If Shafie were to put his thinking cap on, he would realize that there is already a pool of Malaysians with PhDs which he can tap into - Malysians with PhDs who are lecturing abroad! In Duke, I know a full professor in the Medical school who's a Malaysian and another full professor in the Literature department who's a UK citizen but who was born in Malaysia. I know of another professor who's a Malaysian in UNC Charlotte and I was referred to a certain Prof Ho Eng Seng who's teaching social anthropology in Harvard by a friend from USM. Professor Danny Quah, a renowned professor of economics, teaches at one of my alma maters, LSE. The Star featured Dr. Tan Mah Wah in its Global Malaysian series and Dr. Tan is currently teaching in Stanford. Indeed, Dr. Tan's story emphasizes my earlier point - he applied for a British Council scholarship to do his Masters in Cambridge and then applied and got a full scholarship to do his PhD in Harvard!

There is a large number of highly qualified Malaysian PhDs teaching in renowned institutions all over the world. I'm not sure what the exact number is but a conservative guess would probably number well into the hundreds (if not thousands). Even if Malaysia could get half of these scholars to come back to teach in Malaysian universities, we'd be well on our way to acheving the 70% mark set by the government. And if the government thinks that these scholars are too difficult to entice back to Malaysia, why not try with younger Malaysians who are currently doing their PhDs on their own in prestigious universities? I'm part of a Malaysian forum mailing list which mainly comprises of Malaysians who are doing their PhDs here in the US. I'm guessing that there are at least 30 people on the list who are in various stages of their PhDs. Why not tap this market?

Shafie has to ask himself this simple question - if he or the Malaysian government cannot entice Malaysians who have gotten their PhDs from world class institutions to return to UM to teach, what makes him think that he can entice non-Malaysians of comparable standing to come to Malaysia to do the same? Whatever answer he gives will not be satisfactory.

If he says that these foreigners will come because of better career prospects or better pay, is he saying that non-Malaysians will be given a better treatment than Malaysians of equal quality and experience?

If he says that these foreigners will only be in Malaysia for a short-term contract, is he saying that faculty on short term contracts would improve the university's standing, provide better teaching and better research than Malaysians of a comparable standard who have an interest in helping to create world class Malaysian universities?

The honest truth is that the foreigners with PhDs that local universities manage to employ largely comprise of two categories:

(i) Academics (read: White) from the US, UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealandwho want to take a break to teach in the relatively undemanding setting of our local universities for a couple of years before returning home (and get paid an expat package for their services)

(ii) Academics from developing countries who cannot get a job in the developed world and are attracted to the relatively higher financial rewards from teaching in a Malaysian university. I'm not saying that there are no good academics in developing countries but if they are really of a world class standard (A) they would have gone to teach in a university in a developed country (B) they would have stayed back to teach in their home country because of nationalistic or personal reasons. (There are exceptions to this but very few. Prof Hashim Kamali of the IIU is one whom I can think of)

As a final note, let me share something more personal. After completing my PhD, I'll probably return to Malaysia but I won't teach or lecture in a public university. There are many reasons for this but the main one is that I don't see a compelling vision from the leadership of our public universities on how to build a genuinely world class university. If the VC can sell me (and others) a convincing vision of how he or she wants to build UM, let's say, into a world class university (maybe start with being a regional powerhouse first), I'm sure that I (and others) would be excited to take part in this project (even at the cost of making financial sacrifices in the short term). Just don't sell me your vision of erecting billboards and decorating lamposts with shameful banners.

It is sad to see that even as the Minister identifies a glaring problem - the low number of lecturers with PhDs in local universities - he cannot come up with a comprehensive plan for addressing this problem but instead has to resort to short term 'gimmicks' like scholarships for foreigners and visa extensions for foreign lecturers.


Anonymous said...

There is no such word as "irregardless".

Anonymous said...

Actually there are quite a number of Malaysian teaching as lecturer in NUS as well, and most of them are already promoted to either full professor or associated professor, which is not easy, taking the total number of PhDs here! I met one of them from Kedah before and he was joking about how Malaysian government handled things, which showed how sad he felt with his own country's current state. Indeed it was in a very sad state.

People there (on high post) couldnt think long term. They only want to remedy something when it happenned, in the easiest and fastest way. For what? For the sake that people will praise them for having to amend the puntured hole in no time and worship them. Yeah, for the sake of improving their popularity, or make it more explicitely, it's their bowl of money. These certainly had worked, on most of "Malaysians" but not on those with broad knowledges. Nevertheless, no matter how hard those who felt a current policy wont worked debate, no one's going to listen at all.

It is still not too late (although it's has already later for some 50 years) to improve or at least stop the current deteriorating state of the country. One of them is to change the education system into a fully democracy and meritocratic system. It is time the government stop the red tape and over-pampered behaviours, preventing potential good scholars from reaching higher level.

Anonymous said...

What is there to be amazed about the news that only 30% of University lecturers have PhDs? Since Kepten Dato Prof. Hashim Yaacob took over as UM Vice Chancellor, he has been appointing academic disasters and morons with M.Sc as lecturers. His criteria are very simple: 1. vocal UMNO supporter 2. sing praises of the VC all day and night 3. Write about the greatness of the VC to the papers 4. Go and campaign for the extension of his service at UM for another term at various ministries.
Examples of the good for nothing unqualified 'academics' appointed during his term are Wirakarnain Sani who has not completed his PhD after 9 years, Rahman Shaari etc. He also promotes and nurtures unqualified people like the Engineering Dean who has earned the nickname of Royal Professor of Bodek. The only way local universities can progress is to get apolitical academics who have a proven track record of research and publications.

Anonymous said...

You are kidding right?

Malaysian government can't even retained its better teachers in primary and secondary schools much less universities and the main reason? They are mostly non-Malay. How is billboard-VC going to lord it over a bunch of smart non-Malay in our local Uni? Principals in secondary schools and primary schools can't even do it - they all leave for Singapore where the pay is at least 4X more.

Anonymous said...

Kian Ming,

You are only interested to participate if they share your vision of building a world class university or a regional power house, right? That makes you persona non grata because without nepotism, racial politics and sponsored mediocrity they cannot hold on to their lofty positions!

Anonymous said...

Here is an idea for this website,

List all Uni lecturers and their qualification on this site, have people who know rate them and comment on them. It will become pretty clear to everyone who is doing their job and who is not.

Anonymous said...

I am currently in one of the top UK universities. Here, we have arguably some of the best minds from the younger generation of Malaysia; many of the top scorers from all over converge here. Every year, around 40 of us enter the university, as undergraduates or postgraduates, and every year, around the same number graduate.

So how many actually go back to Malaysia to contribute their talents to the country? Safe to say, not more than 10 percent of the whole lot. Why?

Because quite a number of us are disenchanted by the system.

For those who have worked their guts out under the public education system, they just want to get out. This is especially true for those from lower- and middle-income families who have to struggle beyond all odds just because they are not ‘special,’ punished by the system not because of their abilities, but because of their skin colour.

Prospects for them to explore their potentials here in the UK after graduation are unhindered by any discriminatory systems.

What about the rest of the younger generation who are not so lucky? Many above-average Malaysian students are denied proper local tertiary education and end up being picked by universities from our neighbouring country (look for Singapore).

Hundreds of talented students are there because they were not given the proper opportunity at home. After graduating, most of them have to work in that foreign country for a couple of years and chances are that a great portion of them will not be coming back.

I have talked to a close friend from in a similar situation recently and he told to me that it is very depressing; in his own words, he said that he feels "like a destitute, unwanted by his own country," and yet he does not really feel as though he belongs where he is now.

Brain drain by the tank-loads is what we get. Every single year, Malaysia loses people who could potentially contribute to the country immensely.

Anonymous said...

When our Minister of Higher Education goes to Singapore, he may express to his counterpart there: “Wow, how I envy you, most of your academic staff in your universities have PhD. How I wish it is the case in my public universities!”

The reply from his counterpart: “Actually your universities could have achieved a high % of academic staff with PhD, because many of my staff here are Malaysians who left your public universities or were not employed by your public universities. Thank you very much.”

Anonymous said...

Interesting. Why the surprise over the low % of lecturers with PhDs in the local universities? For about 30 years now, our local universities with the support of PSD and the Ministry of Education have been actively recruiting lecturers through SLAB (Skim Latihan Akademik Bumiputra).

Bumiputra students were selected and sent off to various countries offshore to pursue their higher degrees. Some returned with their PhDs while many did not complete, even after four or more years – there is no urgency to complete their degrees as there is no forfeit. In fact, the system encourages a candidate to stay longer overseas. The longer the better as the candidate will be better rewarded financially. While studying overseas, a SLAB candidate gets his local salary paid into his local account, receives all sorts of overseas allowances (including spouse and child or children allowances), and may even enjoy annual pay increments, in addition to having all his fees paid for. He can apply for an AP to bring back a luxury car. May even get another for the spouse – another luxury car to bring back to Malaysia for own use or you know what lah to make more money.

Returning back to a home university here without a PhD but with an MSc or MPhil is OK lah. For the smart ones, be a little active in UMNO, or better still UMNO Youth, politics – be seen and heard. It’s important to always remember the maxim: ‘who you know’ is more important than ‘what you know’. Soon the position will be confirmed, followed by appointments to some administrative positions (even ‘overlording’ colleagues with PhDs), and followed by promotions as Associate Professor and Professor. With some luck, may even be a Deputy VC or VC. No need PhD lah, especially PhD through research. Teruknya!

For the innovative, there is in fact a great business opportunity available to cater for the large number of non-PhD academic staff in our public universities. Get a politically powerful UMNOputra partner (failing which, his or her relative will do) to obtain a license to start a non-research PhD program – candidates will get their PhDs after say three years based on long-distance modular course work plus relevant work experience. In this way, very soon 100% of lecturers in our local universities will have PhD. Every body will be happy and a national need is fulfilled. Excellent national service and the person with the license will also laugh all the way to the bank.

Anonymous said...

great post! another possibility is to create joint appointments for malaysians academics based abroad.

Anonymous said...

There is no need to feel depress for the nation, for the ruling class does not even care an iota.

Yes, there are many brilliant and eminent Malaysians, with and without PhD, overseas. However, not many would want to return to Malaysia to serve. For who? For what? It’s not just the rotten university system (we are barking on the wrong tree if we just talk about the declining standard of our public universities), but the entire rotten system of our society that has to be reckoned with.

Why would eminent Malaysians, especially those who are doing extremely well overseas and have young children, return to Malaysia to work and to subject themselves again and, worse, their children to the injustice, corruption, and racial discrimination actively practiced by our present government? That’s the root cause of our present maladies and unless this issue is tackled head-on, we are wasting our time talking nonsense. Just for siok saja!

Anonymous said...

i just wanna add something. while we moan, whine and bitch about all this, the people with power ain't gonna give two hoots about you. that's a fact, a fact of life being a malaysian. and even if they (the politicians) are subjected to criticisms from the public, just "buat muka tebal" and ride it out for a few weeks (i.e. AP-Rafidah scandal). this is how it works down here. and unless the powers that be from above suddenly decides to right the wrongs, i don't see how anything will change until at least the next generation (circa 50 yrs from now). agree?

Anonymous said...

i was amaze that they want to change everything within 10 years from realizing vision 2020 in the star just now. what a joke by the son of razak.

Anonymous said...

Migration and emigration of human beings is a pre-requisite of human progress and development. Without migration, human beings would be doomed to an existence worse than that of animals. Even animals migrate to seek a better habitat.

Patriotism is not a one-way thing, it is a two-way commitment. If one finds that one's patriotism and loyalty is not reciprocated as having to live with a corrupt government, discriminatory policies, inhumane and repressive laws etc., one has a right to review one's patriotism and commitment if one so chooses.

Why would people stay if their talents are not recognised in their own country and they do not have the opportunities to develop their potential? Why remain when they can have these opportunities in another country?

Indeed, it is very fortunate that we all live in this day and age of globalisation where we are free to live and work anywhere in the world as long as we have the skills and talent.

There is much less reason now to put up with bad governments, or corrupt, oppressive regimes and racist, anywhere in the world.

Of course the grass is never greener on the other side. You still need the same energy, enterprise and sometimes luck to make it. But there is no doubt in my mind and in those who have worked here and overseas - the playing field is more level abroad.

Whilst, I may add that most lower middle-class Malaysian citizens and professionals are the main bulk of immigrants to countries abroad. They need to get settled first and have a few contacts to start life anew.

To expect them to be millionaires in businesses will take a generation or more and we are beginning to see that now. If they had not emigrated, they would have been hard pressed to send their children abroad and everybody knows the quota system for universities, jobs, job promotions and opportunities back home.

In Canada, we experience the best there is in life. Every citizen has equal rights. They have done well in every aspect of life.

In the US, anyone whether black, Chinese, Indian, Japanese, Mexican, etc has the right to run for president. There are no restrictions, one only needs to secure the votes.

Nobody should operate under the assumption that migration is a bed of sweet, smelling roses. Roses have thorns.

Certainly, migration is not a dirty word. In fact, migration is the reason for this multiethnic paradise I call home today. The question is, can Malaysia retain her talents?

We are simply losing good people to the more developed countries, and this problem is also faced by other countries such as India and China.

Singapore has been absorbing our talents regardless of the medium of instruction they have been taught in. Perhaps the biggest slap on our face is the fact that thousands and thousands of Malaysians have been recruited to bloom in the Lion City's workforce, while our own industry leaders have done nothing to help the government keep these investments from going abroad.

Many people leave the country for a variety of reasons. Some leave for economic reasons, some for better education, some over concerns for the climate of democracy in their home country. There is no reason to deride any migrant for their choices in life. Every human being is entitled to the right of social, physical and geographical mobility - you seek your place on earth and call it home.

So leave if you must, go while you can, but don't give up on the march.

That is a worthy sacrifice that requires courage.

Congratulations to those who have found a better future in life.

Anonymous said...

I am a Chinaman Malaysian, no pun intended and I am no proud of it. While I am not really a target of the government's drive to reverse some brain flow, I cannot tahan but to pen a word or two on that seemingly off-the-cuff statement.

I am kampung boy who grew up amidst paddy fields. Twenty years ago, along with tens of young Malaysians, I was lucky to be hired by a large Singapore multinational firm. However, the oil shock made our stint there short-lived. The company offered us student loans to further our studies.

We have never looked back since. Now, while most of us are in the IT industry, we are also involved in manufacturing, law, journalism, grain processing, airlines and academics. Similarly, while most are based in US, we are also in Australia, Japan, Singapore and UK.

Now, among us, how many have seriously considered returning to Malaysia to work and settle down? So far, a big, fat zero.

The terse comment in itself speaks volumes of the status quo in Malaysia. It is a classic feudalistic approach to handling things - the godfather way.

I wonder whether our man had thought of the very reasons why people flee the country in the first instance.

Least of all, the all-encompassing, racially discriminatory policies that suck the life out of citizens. Widespread corruption. The lopsided judiciary. Sickening politicians. Cruel and oppressive laws. Abuse of power. Absence of accountability. And the police? What a mess!

I also wonder if the PM-to-be realises who his audience is. Malaysian professionals abroad probably worked their butt off so as to reap the present-day fruits of labour. They are highly educated, and are keenly aware of things Malaysians and her malaise. Many have voted with their feet out of helplessness or disgust with the status quo.

Here are two questions for our man. How many Malaysian professionals does he seriously think, would want to forego what they have accumulated abroad, and return to the same environment that drove them out in the first place?

Does he also truly believe that Malaysian professionals abroad, once returned are convinced that they can contribute to nation building despite the stifling draconian laws that gag reasonable freedom of announcement, activity and expression?

Yes some, but not many will return.

For most professionals, living abroad has its own ups and downs. But, you get dignity, fair treatment, and respect for your ability. You get a voice, too. And ears to hear you.

Also, Malaysia does have a shortage of doctors and it seems ridiculous that Malaysian government-sponsored medical students are not required to return home.

All said, I do not lose hope. But talk of nation building should start at the individual level. If you take the oomph and the aaah out of the individual, chances are, no finger-snapping mere politician can lure him/her back to contribute to nation building.

I stand corrected.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

I am a former Malaysian who has lived half my life in Australia. I feel that it is incumbent on me to lay bare the cupboard as it were so that people can gain an accurate insight of what real life is like for an Asian migrant in a country like Australia.

Like the many tens of thousands who saw no future for our children in the land of our birth that we deeply loved, we came to Australia with trepidation and heavy hearts in the days following the dismantling of the shameful and odious race-discriminating White Australia policy.

Apart from free speech and the right to express one's views without fear of any backlash, one of the first things we found was that race and religion have no place whatsoever in Australian society.

After determining for ourselves in real life that there was no racial group that was regarded as being superior to any other group and that we had precisely the same rights as any other Australian, we determined to be even more productive citizens.

The rewards soon arrived. Owing to their comparatively good results in the Higher School Certificate examinations, our children were in the envious position of picking and choosing the universities and the courses they wished to attend - and all for free.

In return, Australia has benefited greatly from the high income taxes that our children are now paying in their chosen professions.

In this regard, will be disappointed to learn that I do not own a business, let alone a prosperous one to hand down to my children. My children have to make their way in mainstream Australian life like everyone else - and so they should.

It would be comforting for most people to know that in Australia it is unlawful to discriminate against anyone on color, race, religion or sex. Equal rights for all means precisely that - no ifs, no buts about it.

Hence it is possible for anyone of any faith who so desires and is good enough to become prime minister of Australia.

A large amount of the high taxes we pay goes towards the upkeep of the unemployed, the disabled, the needy and the pensioners. There are no freebies or special concessions for anyone else.

As freedom is speech is recognised as a basic right of every citizen, migrants have no problems expressing their complaints or views of self-serving or corrupt or incompetent politicians or bureaucrats in the open media. An impartial judicial system exists for all to take matters further.

Citizens have the right to preserve whatever cultural heritage, customs and language they are comfortable with and there are organisations set up to address whatever complaints and problems they may encounter in the pursuit of their traditional way of life.

Pensions and other forms of welfare payment are issued strictly on a means-tested basis. If anything, the system has been accused of being far too fair and generous.

Malaysian retirees and others who have not worked or paid any taxes in Australia have been known to receive pensions in Australia after satisfying the means and residential criteria.

As race is such a non-issue in this country, nobody cares or bothers to pay any attention to the financial success or failure of any particular race in the community. To do so is to invite ridicule and scorn. After all, we are all Australians together.

The same benchmark that is set with respect to educational and professional standards, opportunities, job promotions, asset acquisitions and so forth applies to everyone bar none.

Given the special privileges accorded, apparently in perpetuity, bumis in Malaysia will clearly find Australia a turn-off. On the other hand, minority non-bumis who are not as fortunate may have a different viewpoint.

Anonymous said...

We have never experienced any racial discrimination in any form whatsoever the many years I have been in Canada. A Vietnamese sushi chef here I know was once a refugee at Pulau Betong. He, like many others, I know has prospered and his children have all gone through university.

Malaysia's loss of talent to other countries is the result of the pervasive special rights now entrenched in the constitution.

It was meant to last for 25 years to allow - in the words of the first prime minister - "the malays to catch up with the Chinese". It is now 48 years later.

In foreign countries such as Canada, it is the majority that has to take care of minority rights be it the gays, the natives, the women and whatever groups there are. We pay heavy taxes but these go for the poor and low-income people irrespective of race, colour or creed.

So the malay, you may keep your rights and perpetuate them. Such things are archaic. Who loses in the end? Your country, which should have been a first world one by today.

Anonymous said...

Actually, the University of Manchester is a world-class university. It may not be Harvard or Stanford but it's in the top 50 in the world according to the THES 2005 world rankings. Not bad really!