Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Universiti Malaya VC: Under Pressure, Unrepentent

Hey, I'm back after the brief internet-not-very-accessible break, and wow, plenty of things to blog about! :) My wife will be upset to hear this, but I "almost" wish I wasn't away, in a "happening" period like this. This is with reference to the state of our higher education system, epitomised by Universiti Malaya's love affair with the Times Higher Education Supplement (THES) world university rankings.

So what have I missed? I'll summarise them into the Good, the Bad and the Ugly, as well as give you a Low Down on what I personally think!

The Good

1. Deputy Higher Education Minister makes sensible statement

After making a silly and ill-informed statement immediately after the release of the THES world rankings table, our Deputy Minister of Higher Education has, probably after the increased media comment on the issue, released a statement which had the right messages. Sdr Fu Ah Kiow, as been quoted by Malaysiakini to say that
Universiti Malaya (UM) has no reason to 'celebrate' its ranking... since there is a drop from last year... The lower ranking of UM now is not something that we should be glad of... We will discuss the problem. We should take the ranking seriously. We should not be celebrating.

We should not be in a state of denial.
Yes, we should not be in a "state of denial" indeed!

2. Higher Education Minister gave 'positive' feedback

Our Parliamentary Opposition leader, Sdr Lim Kit Siang who has been at the forefront of pressing the need for a review of our higher education minister, has finally been granted an audience with our Minister of Higher Education, Datuk Shafie Salleh. The outcome of the meeting appears positive, with several developments expected over the coming weeks (months?). Most importantly, Datuk Shafie Salleh appears to have agreed to support the set up of a Parliamentary Select Committee on Higher Education.
Shafie agreed with the proposal for the establishment of a Parliamentary Select Committee on Higher Education to involve MPs to be active stakeholders in this critical area with far-reaching implications on the country’s international competitiveness, economic development and prosperity. He said he would raise the proposal in Cabinet.
In addition, it appears that the Minister have given word to the university authorities to remove the embarrassing billboards which juxtaposed pictures of the nation's leaders against the unabashed self-praise pronouncements. Datuk Shafie Salleh gave the cryptic reply of "Are the billboards still there?" when question by Sdr Lim. :) I can't wait.

3. The VC search committee

The Minister of Higher Education has also announced the likely set up of a "search committee" to select future vice-chancellors of Malaysian universities.

Interestingly enough, the Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) Vice Chancellor Prof Datuk Dr. Mohd Salleh Mohd Yasin’s response was most noteworthy when he commented:
Overseas, the appointment of vice chancellors are largely based on their leadership qualities as well as academic prowess. Now that we are practicing meritocracy, we should select the best candidate for the job.
There are probably still many practical issues to be resolved in the set up of such a selection committee, some of which were highlighted by Kian Ming here, but it's definitely an important baby step forward.

4. The is significantly increased awareness

I would like to think that the effort of the blogging community has not been in vain with regards to this issue, and I strongly believe that the mainstream press has caught up with the truth and details of the issue, thanks to readers and bloggers out there. In the past 4-5 days, there has been many articles (some of which I'm certain to have missed) appearing in both the English and Chinese press.

The Sun started on Wednesday last week with Citizen Nades asking if it's appropriate for UM to abuse the images of the nation's leaders. Oon Yeoh has put up his comment piece appearing in the Sun on Saturday, drawing from the findings arrived at this very blog. They've today, followed up with an editorial calling to "stop the rot... from the top".
If vice-chancellors are not good enough, if they serve political interests rather than academic ones, the battle is already lost. We need vice-chancellors who care, who are independent and are genuinely interested in improving academic standards.

If the VCs are not up to mark and are more interested in shamelessly promoting themselves and playing to the political gallery and political parties, then they should be replaced by those who can make a real contribution to the university. Here's where the first change should take place.
In another opinion piece published in the Malay Mail on Sunday, Vasanthi Ramachandran asked "how is UM going to pull itself out of its continual decline, when it refuses to accept or address the real issues and problems within the university?"
It is really scary when UM searches for irrelevant excuses to discredit the rankings table when it is not in their favour, and celebrate when it is.
And according to Jeff Ooi, who highlighted the issue twice over Saturday and Sunday, this blog was quoted in an article by Liu Jingwen of Oriental Times as well. (If someone could get me a copy of the article, whether hard or soft copy, that'll be great!)

There are of course many more blogs and letters published in the newspapers which have brought this issue to the forefront, making it unlikely to be easily brushed aside by those seeking to have the controversy brushed under the carpet.

The Bad

1. Parliament Rejects Debate on UM

The Sun highlighted that the Dewan Rakyat rejected an emergency motion tabled by Opposition Leader Lim Kit Siang to debate UM's fall in the worldwide rankings.
Speaker Tan Sri Ramli Ngah Talib said although the motion by virtue of
Standing Order 18(1) was specific in nature and of public importance, it was
not urgent.

Ramli said the steps to be taken include instituting peer review of UM, as
well as citation from other peer educational institutions. He also said the ministry had given an assurance that UM' teaching ratio would be improved, including the international
perception towards the university.
2. More "Praise" for the Vice Chancellor

Unsurprisingly, there was another letter appearing the Star, heaping more praise and accolades on University Malaya and its Vice-Chancellor. What I'm actually surprised is that there weren't more such letters! Interestingly enough, while the earlier letter of support was from UM's Dean of Engineering Faculty, this time round, it was just from a nameless "Concerned Academic Staff" of UM.

The "concerned academic" argued that the "drop in ranking was due to factors beyond UM's control".

One such factor was the fact that there was no foreign undergraduates in UM leading obviously to a poor "international student" score. This is true, but the "academic" forgets that this score only constitutes 5% of the overall score, and most universities which performed better than UM, had poor scores for this criteria anyway.

Another factor cited was the "employability of our graduates".
It is apparent that the employers interviewed for the survey are multinational companies. These companies select graduates from the western countries where they are headquartered. Such preferential treatment is beyond the control of the universities.
While I have my personal (serious) doubts on the methodology employed by THES in incorporating this new criteria, the argument put forth by "academic" is flawed. These multinational companies do not operate on the basis of "preferential treatment". They operate by hiring talents globally to ensure sustained growth and profitability of their organisations. The "academic" should take note that despite this apparent "bias", there are still 44 universities in Asia Pacific ranked above Universiti Malaya.

The following paragraphs from the letter is the most sadly laughable parts, only serving as new anecdotes to be added to my earlier post entitled "The Art of Flattery @ UM".
...the overall score in terms of total marks have improved by leaps and bounds if statistical interpretation is anything to go by.

The university's vice-chancellor and administrators have a gigantic task complying with government policies in the best interests of the nation as well as maintaining high academic standards for the campus. Walking this tightrope is a challenge and the vice-chancellor and administrators must be given due credit for their hard work in achieving these objectives simultaneously.

The vice-chancellor has done his best to create a conducive academic and research environment.

We like our vice-chancellor, especially for his academic competence, administrative leadership and, above all, his impartiality and rationality in performing his role. Due credit must be given to him for fostering a great team spirit among the different races and religions during his tenure.

The Ugly

The ugliest of what has happened over the last few days is strictly reserved for the UM Vice Chancellor, who remains absolutely unrepentent and recalcitrant.

As highlight in plenty of blogs, as well as here, the VC has obviously found the funds and time to order a new set of some 150 buntings and banners to be hung all around the campus. He has obviously not learnt his lessons.

What's worse, the vice-chancellor has decided to print his own propaganda materials and flood the campus students and academics with them, in an apparent act to "justify" his position. Read all about it here @ Sdr Lim Kit Siang's blog.
...thousands or even tens of thousands of leaflets, 37 cm by 37 cm, flooded the campus, whether residential colleges or faculties, reproducing an article by Hashim in the local media extolling UM’s “achievements” in the THES World University Ranking 2005.

The Low Down

So what's the gut feel over the events of the past week? I'm actually feeling a tad optimistic, more optimistic than I was before my little break anyway.

Both the Minister of Higher Education and his deputy are now singing the same tune, and the right one too - that the crisis facing our higher education is not something to be swept under the carpet. Enough information has been provided and pressure has been applied to ensure that they are made aware of the truth of the circumstance, and not be easily satisfied or hoodwinked with explanations from the university administrators who have been too wily and economical with the truth.

Parliamentary Select Committees, for those familiar with political institutions and processes, are extremely important parts of the function of a assertive Parliament. One of the reasons for weaknesses in our local parliament, and hence its "rubber stamp" reputation, is not just in the overwhelming majority secured by Barisan National, but also in the (non)existence of secondary institutions within the Parliament. These secondary institutions will ensure greater contribution from Members of Parliament in the decision making process. It is not a step which will have dramatic effects overnight, but it's nevertheless an important step towards better governance, in this case, of our education system.

The response from the media, bloggers and public has been fantastic, quite beyond my own, and if I may speculate on his behalf, Kian Ming's expectations. The outright truth is being told, and I must say, some in the mainstream media are worded harsher than we have been. Needless to say, I believe that the spotlight we have all placed on Universiti Malaya and its vice-chancellor has resulted in plenty of pressure for the vice-chancellor, and for the education authorities to take the necessary actions. We definitely expect and hope that the furore to continue a little while more.

The actions of the vice-chancellor - new buntings, distribution of self written articles - are clearly that of a man forced into a corner, defending for his life in the academia. The fact that he has to focus on distributing propaganda within the university campus may just mean that he is perceiving or expecting a weakening of his authority and reputation even within the campus, and hence the need to "shore" it up. What else will he do?

I personally think that the VC has underestimated the backlash resulting from his actions and he is now in a position of no return for he has burnt his bridges. Had he been more intellectually honest with the entire exercise over the fall in world rankings as late as a week ago, he might have just about saved his seat. Unfortunately, I do think that his seat might just be too hot to handle today. We will see.


Anonymous said...

the past week has been quite an eventful one on the crisis of higher education. however, i am only afraid that given enough time, this crisis will be forgotten. hope that everyone (this blog included) will continue to push for excellence in malaysias academic future. let us all strive and work hard to make out universities REALLY of world-class standing.

Anonymous said...

Good point.

clk said...

The root caused has not been addressed, politics in education! There are issues concerning funding, appointments, staffing, students entry criteria, diversification, teaching/learning methodology, research etc. and long lists goes on.

We cannot improve ourselves until and unless that happens.

Anonymous said...

My company was formed with a "muhibbah" mindset and we the board of directors and shareholders were bent on providing jobs to all races without prejudice. The company was registered with the Treasury to enable us to be a registered vendor with Petronas.

Now, I understand, Petronas prefers to deal with only 100 percent bumi companies. Those non-bumi contractors who have worked and grown with Petronas over the years will feel cheated.

What NEP are we talking about? What irks the public - especially the non-bumis - is that government policies are never monitored and each time, the elite class cries out for more goodies and wants the NEP maintained. The government of the day just succumbs to such pressures.

Will those super-rich bumis share their wealth with the poor bumis in the kampungs? Will the government of the day be bold enough to say enough is enough?

Look at our corruption index. Look at our educational system. Look at our unemployed graduates. Look at the "untouchable" ministers tainted by corruption. What is our PM doing about this?

Divide and rule is what the government cares as along as they are in power. The loss of trust and suspicion does not happen overnight.

Do we honest Malaysians think that we are going to achieve the developed country status by the year 2020 with racial, religious and ethnic segregation and discrimination by the government?

Our PM has a very important role to play. If he keeps on keeping mum on the issues at hand and allows them to take its own course, in no time, the country will plunge deeper into oblivion.

The failures of the NEP since its inception over the last 35 years must be addressed and for this the government has to be realistic and bold. Not only for all Malaysians but also for the future generations