We were just exchanging emails a few days back discussing the various angles which we can blog about for this issue. We were a tad concerned if we can put sufficient spotlight on the state of our public universities in angles interesting enough to keep readers going. But I suppose, we were definitely unduly concerned, for the current vice chancellor of Universiti Malaya (UM) has the affinity to stick his foot in the mouth.
First, he had the immediate response of "I'm not worried", and subsequent to that, after he probably had some time to "digest" the numbers, he held a press conference to claim that UM "has improved" despite the fall in rankings using some warped logic to hoodwink the public, and possibly his "superiors".
Now, to our horror, we have found out from the Star report on the same press conference held on Monday, he expressed "great happiness" that UM was placed among the top 100 universities in three out of five categories and "its improved marks are achievements to be proud of".
One of the first Malay proverbs which I have learnt to use in primary school was "muka tembok", and this is probably one of the most apt adjectives to describe the UM vice-chancellor, Prof Datuk Dr Hashim Yaacob.
Here are some additional quotes for you, and you can decide for yourself if I am being to harsh in my judgement.
Prof Hashim said that “at first glance,” it looked like UM had done badly in this year's ranking but a more thorough study would show that its performance had improved.As I've demonstrated in my earlier post, the "thorough study" Prof Datuk Dr Hashim did does not show that its "performance improved".
The vice-chancellor noted that there were more than 30,000 universities worldwide and UM still managed to be in the top 200. “I want to share my happiness with you that although there are so many universities in the world, we are number 169,” he said, citing other top universities which had dropped by many notches.
Prof Hashim said that while he did not dispute the methodology used for the survey, not all the criteria used were of importance to, or in the interest of, UM. Two examples are the marks given to the percentage of international faculty as well as international students of the university.
The VC himself have probably lowered further the bar of mediocrity by now saying that "UM still managed to be in the top 200". He might as well have argued that we are still in the top 1,000 universities out of 30,000 in the world! The entire spotlight he has brought unto himself as a result of the rankings debacle, is entirely due to himself. Had he not trumpeted his "achievements" of being 89th in the world that loudly in the past year, the backlash might not have been that fast and furious.
After all, in another reputable rankings table compiled by the Shanghai JiaoTong University (SJTU), UM was not even present in the top 500! And yet, this has received little mention because it has never been highlighted widely. Can the VC answer why UM is not in the top 500 universities of the world consistently since the SJTU rankings were published some 3-4 years ago?
I agree with Prof Datuk Dr Hashim that criteria such as international students may not be that relevant for Malaysian universities, however, it only works out to 5% of the overall score - so it really doesn't explain the dismal performance of the university.
On top of that, I am certain that he knows, if not before, then now, that the reason for UM's "fantastic" performance in the previous year was due to the international students and faculty score for UM which were errorneously compiled by the Times Higher Education Supplement (THES). The fact that he chose to specifically deny knowledge of the error in public reflects the vice-chancellor's intellectual dishonesty and his intent to mislead the public and his superiors. He stated outright that "...he could not explain why UM had dropped so much in the overall rankings when it seemed to have improved in some areas."
While the VC is probably not the smartest academic in town, I would not give him so much credit to be that stupid not to be able to read simple comparative numbers. Make no mistake about it, I believe that the VC is fighting for his academic life and he knows it. He's just hoping that no one else has the sense or the ability to expose his untruths, and the crisis will just blow over with everyone no longer making references to the debacle.
For the moment, we'll just keep writing, particularly on more expected outbreaks of foot in mouth disease from the VC. For those who has been following this blog for a while will note that this was not the first time the VC has been infected. The level of interest on this issue has been fantastic, and we've been receiving record pageviews on this issue, despite having raised them during the weekend and over the public holidays when traffic is typically much lower. Let's all do our little bits to help change our institutions of higher learning for the better.