Saturday, November 05, 2005

More foreign students in UM? Part II

Bernama reported yesterday that the Minister of Higher Education, Shafie Salleh, will give 'greater focus' to the 'internationalization' of UM as a strategy to promote its international reputation. He's starting cautiously by only mentioning mentioning the recruitment of more foreigners at the post-graduate level. This is in contrast to what the VC was reported to have said earlier which was to open up 5% of places at the undergraduate level to foreigners. Shafie is wise to start at the post-graduate level since opening up places to foreigners at the undergraduate level will open up a huge can of worms and stir up great controversy.

Let me start of with some positives since we've been bashing the VC as well as Shafie quite a bit over the past week or so. In the same Bernama report, Shafie said that 5 local universities will be having joint PhD programmes with Imperial College (IC) of London starting next year. If this indeed materializes, I think it would be an excellent opportunity for our local varsities. Firstly, it would reduce the cost of obtaining a 'foreign' PhD since Malaysian students would not have to stay in London for any extended period of time and PhD school fees would presumably be much lower as well. Secondly, in a related point, the reduction in cost might allow more lecturers who are currently waiting to be sent abroad to do their PhDs, an opportunity to cut short that waiting period. Thirdly, Malaysian PhD students would be able to learn and benefit from the expertise of professors at IC, one of the top engineering schools in the UK, if not worldwide.

But the devil is in the detail. There's an old saying which goes something like 'Beware of Greek bearing gifts'. One has to examine what IC is getting out of this. There's no such thing as a free lunch and if this partnership is realized, one must see that it ends up being a win-win situation for both parties and not just the Malaysian government dishing out tons of money to IC for this partnership. One must also ensure that Malaysians who go through these PhD program actually get sufficient contact time with IC professors and not just have email contact or see them once or twice during the course of a year. Finally, one hopes that this partnership will actually result in a revamp and improvement in the training that a Malaysian PhD student gets and not just be a purely symbolic gesture.

Having this kind of partnership with foreign universities might be a strategic way of overcoming the lack of suitably qualified professors in our local universities. One would of course prefer that this shortcoming be overcome by better qualified locals but this is at least a short term measure to stop the bleeding.

Shafie is also wise in saying that it would be unwise to recruit too many foreign students at the taxpayer's expense. I am sure that many of use would prefer to see the taxpayer's funds put to uses which can more directly increase the quality of our universities like paying qualified lecturers a more competitive salary or better infrastructure for science labs and the like.

Many state universities in the US who have experienced cuts in their education budget that is funded by the state has also cut funding to PhD students, especially foreigners. I'm lucky because I'm in a private university that is very well-endowed. In the UK, most PhD programs do not offer scholarships to foreigners and many in fact charge foreign PhD students, especially those that are funded by their home governments.

Now, for the question marks. Shafie mentioned that he would ask the governments of Australia and New Zealand to encourage their students to "participate in credit transfer programmes with Malaysian universities such as UM". What makes Shafie think that Australian post-graduate students would want to have part of their post-graduate training in a local university in Malaysia especially when the expertise in Australia is so much better across the board? I can think of a few exceptions - in areas where local varsities have professors who have expert knowledge in the field that cannot be found in Australia or in areas which Malaysia has a comparative advantage in (study of tropical diseases, study of ethnic politics). But these are likely to be niche areas. If Shafie thinks he can market Malaysian universities to post-grad students in Australia, then kudos to him.

Unlike the IC arrangement, where IC post grad students are not expected to come to UM to get credits (at least to my understanding), this seems like another hare-brained idea with little chance of success (short of throwing money at Australian graduate students).

One of the key elements of a good PhD program is to have professors who excel in research. This is what distinguishes a research university, which UM is supposed to be, from a teaching university. Having more foreign post-graduates will not drastically improve a university's research or PhD program if the same professors are in charge of those programs.

If Shafie wants to develop UM into a research university in the long term, he should come up with a comprehensive plans which (1) gives incentives to professors to conduct research and to punish those who don't (2) provide avenues for professors to bid for competitive funding sources. The other stuff is just window-dressing.


Anonymous said...

"Shafie is wise to start at the post-graduate level since opening up places to foreigners at the undergraduate level will open up a huge can of worms and stir up great controversy."

Definitely. With so many deserving Malaysians even being denied their places into public universities (i'm one of the meany testimonies), there'd definitely be uproar and a lot of hoo-hah once they open up our universities to foreigners.

Instead of focusing on the international student intake, which accounts for only 5% of the total score, why can't they focus on improving the other more heavily weighed criteria?

One blunder after another. The latest of a string of classic examples of misplaced priorities.

Howsy said...

You must be more familiar than me that in order to secure any business partnership, it has to depend on what both sides have to offer. The Malaysian part? What can they offer? Tongkat ali? Kacip fatimah? Or just purely $$$?

Anonymous said...

being a UM student, i can imagine what these politicians meant by increasing the no. of international students. and i doubt the good of doing that except improving the THES score in future. i believe it's unlikely to be beneficial to our local students if the international students are mainly from the 3rd world countries.for example, in the medical faculty, we're flooded with international students-mostly sudanese, and indonesian.the students barely talk to them. I also do not believe why would students who have 1st class uni in their home countries to come to local U for courses like engineering. i'm quite sure there'd be quota for the phD program as well.the future, is bleak.

Anonymous said...

"i'm quite sure there'd be quota for the phD program as well.the future, is bleak."

Even I am not UM I agree. These politicians are the guys who come up with the quota system in UM to begin with. Hence discrimination are all borned out of there. PhD in UM, smells fishy indeed. I am not going to believe mere words of what politicians said. I would prefer to see them doing it and doing it well.

"I also do not believe why would students who have 1st class uni in their home countries to come to local U for courses like engineering."

Yes you hit it again, if I am from USA why should I come to Malaysia. If I am from UK with so many options better than UM, why should I come. Even if I am from South America(which I have friends) I would still choose US or Europe. If I am from Indonesia, unless I have financial problem I would still rather choose Australia than UM. Unless of course those students actually bought what was advertise by UM.

As for local students especially the Chinese, do we actually get the real benefits? That is still left to be seen.

Anonymous said...

It may not be Shafie intention, but he follows a dangerous trend in this country where the Malay-ruling class turns to foreigners first to address issues before they are willing to address it using local non-bumiputra resources.

The idea that MAS or other companies should hire a foreign managers before hiring a Chinese/Indian is the same as this idea of bringing in more foreigners before we let more Chinese/Indian in student population and faculty.

It goes to prove that the non-bumiputras are headed to third class citizenship if not already there mentally for many especially a key group of people with power. The ones that are hurt are not the elite non-bumiputras who have choices but rather those with the least and working the hardest.

Long time ago Dr. M replied flippantly that there are no-first class citizen in Malaysia meaning that everyone feel second-class in Malaysia. The truth is the the non-bumiputras are now heading to third class citizenship maybe even worst.

Anonymous said...

in my opinion i believe if UM or Malaysian Universities take it for more International Students who are interesting to their Phd or underagraguate that they we can get more benefit i am local Malaysian i 've lot foreign stduents in UM , so why we dont agree what he said this issue

Anonymous said...


I am positing this here as it is relevant for a post-graduate foreign student looking for information about studying in Malaysia.

While Malaysia is very good for tertiary studies, students have to be careful when they decide to pursue their MA or PhD there. The courses themselves are fine and are of very good quality. The problem lies with the theses. Nobody will think it is normal for a student to wait for more than 8-9 months to have the viva. Worse, it takes 3-4 months to get the certificate after that. All of this time, you will be forced to sit in Malaysia and drink Teh Tarik (a local tea) and wait while the examiners and the university take all the time in the world to get your thesis approved. This is not only happening to me but to countless other international MA and PhD students in Malaysia.

No matter how hard you cry for help from the administration or even the rector, things will not change. The university will still consider it normal to take almost a year to process your thesis once you submit the final version for examination. Compare this to the fact that it takes only 1-2 month to get the viva in the US and UK.

I am not discouraging you but if the Malaysian government does not want to be more efficient and recognize that MA and PhD students are not for granted, people should not go there for MAs and PhDs. I would have thought twice of doing my PhD in Malaysia if I knew that I had to wait that amount of time to get my PhD.