Friday, March 31, 2006

UM VC Appointment Ding Dongs

Hmm... impressive. Our local English dailies trying to outdo each other in their reports on the to-be-vacant position at Universiti Malaya (UM). Two days ago, the Star first reported a shortlist of 6-8 candidates - trumping the New Straits Times (NST) who are usually on top in news on the higher education in the country. Then the NST came up with an alleged announcement that Dr Sharifah Hapsah has been appointed the first woman vice-chancellor of UM and the country. But that's not the end of it. Today, as rightly pointed out by a reader earlier, the Star published that whatever NST reported the day before was absolute rubbish!

What drama! I really wonder what NST will rebut tomorrow. Hmmm...

Anyway, the Star reported that:
Universiti Malaya deputy vice-chancellor Prof Datuk Dr Mohd Razali Agus has been appointed acting vice-chancellor following the departure of Prof Datuk Dr Hashim Yaacob, whose tenure, has ended... The ministry said it was currently looking for a suitable candidate to head the university and an announcement would be made in a month.
That's possibly a good piece of news for it appears that there is some indication that the Ministry of Higher Education is putting a little more effort to select the right candidate to replace the soon-to-be former vice-chancellor of UM.

Just possibly, Dr Terence Gomez's little wish that a proper search committee is set up (or some way towards a "proper" one) might come true. Dr Gomez, currently on unpaid leave from UM, working at the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development in Geneva, supported the call by the secretary of the Universiti Malaya Academic Staff Association, Rosli Omar's for the institutionalisation of an independent search and evaluation committee for vice-chancellors.
Rosli's public appeal for the creation of an independent committee to review the performance of vice-chancellors and to appoint competent and respected academics to this important post is courageous and timely.
I expect that the current impasse over the appointment of the new vice-chancellor as well as the surprising news "deviation" between the two of the country's mainstream English newspapers to indicate that there is a tussle on-going behind the scenes. More interestingly, if we were to read between the lines, the out-going vice-chancellor did indicate in an earlier report, that the Prime Minister was responsible for the non-renewal of his contract.
"I'm sure the decision made by the Prime Minister is for the best," he said.
Maybe I'm just reading a little too much into this, but could it possibly be the Prime Minister nudging the Ministry of Higher Education to conduct a independent and thorough search for the best man (or woman) for the task at Universiti Malaya? After all, this search and evaluation committee will surely meet with less resistance and political implications than the other hotly debated and controversial committee?

Here's hoping just a little.

Friendly advice to new UM VC

Since the current hot topic is the appointment of a new UM VC, perhaps a few words of friendly advice are relevant. And since the previous VC was (in)famous for bragging about the fact that UM was among the top 100 and later top 200 universities in the world, let us revisit those rankings again.

I have to thank Dr.Richard Holmes, who sent me a link to his website on university rankings before my prelim exams and I apologize to him for the delay in publishing this post. He has
an excellent article which was published in the Asian Journal of University Education on the shortcomings of the THES ranking system and I want to highlight some salient points for the benefit of the readers and perhaps for Dr Sharifah Hapsah, if she ever gets to read this blog. (Dr. Holmes is currently teaching at MARA)

His article notes that the firm that was given the task of compiling the rankings, a certain QS Quacquarelli Symonds, "does not seem to have any specialized knowledge of research and teaching in the natural and social sciences or the humanities". Rather, it is a company that specializes in the promotion of MBA programs and executive recruitment. The fact that it has offices in Washington DC, Paris, Beijing, Singapore, Tokyo and Sydney, Dr. Holmes suggest, can partly explain the bias of the rankings towards universities in certain countries.

This company's ignorance of university education worldwide is shown using two examples. The first is their mistake in coding non-Malays in Malaysian universities as foreigners which this blog highlighted even before the admission of this mistake by QS. The second example that Dr. Holmes give is the fact that the company listed "Beijing University" as the top university in Asia even though, strictly speaking, there is no such thing as "Beijing University". A simple google search of "Beijing University" would reveal that it is actually "Peking University" and that there are a number of specialist "Beijing" universities in different fields which are not associated with "Peking University", the premier university in China.

In addition, "QS’s managing director, Nunzio Quacquarelli, is on record as telling a meeting in Malaysia that the reason for the contrast between Beijing University’s stellar score on the peer review and its score of zero for citations of research was that “they probably published their work in Mandarin but we just couldn’t find the journals” (New Straits Times, 22/11/2005). Had they looked for research from Peking University, which is how researchers describe their affiliation in academic journals, they would have found quite a bit. It looks as though some people in QS were unaware of the university’s official name." (Holmes, 2006) This makes me wonder about the ability of QS to conduct a survey of this nature. Did they offer a good 'rate' to the Guardian? Was it a quid pro quo thing? Why not ask a survey firm such as AC Nielson who have offices in many more countries than QS and would presumably be more experienced in conducting surveys of this nature? (My suspicion is that there larger, global survey firms were probably too expensive)

Dr. Holmes brings up the point that the peer review category, which constitutes 40% of the overall score, is the most problematic category out of all the categories used in the THES ranking. It lacks transparency especially in regards to the selection and sample size of the participants in the peer review survey.

Dr. Holmes' criticism probably confirms what other people who have examined the rankings in depth feel - "It is difficult to avoid the suspicion that the peer review was based on convenience sampling, with QS simply asking those that they had come across during their consultancy activities. This would explain the presence in the top 200 of several apparently undistinguished universities from France, Australia and China where the consultants have offices and the comparative scarcity of universities from Eastern Europe, Israel, Taiwan and Canada where they do not."

Dr. Holmes also makes a convincing point that the "the peer review is not really an international ranking since academics where asked "to name “the top universities in the subject areas and the geographical regions in which they have expertise.” In other words Chinese physicists, we can only assume, were not asked to name the best university for physics in the world but to name the best university for, say, nuclear physics in Asia, maybe even just in China. If this is the case, these are not then world rankings."

Dr. Holmes brings up many more criticisms of the THES survey including the dubious methodology of recruiter ratings, the theoretical foundations of using measures of international students and faculty and the bias against the social sciences and humanities in the citation score. I'd encourage anyone who is interested in the THES rankings to read his article in depth and I'd definitely encourage the new UM VC and the new Minister for Higher Education to read this article.

Finally, there are two ways in which Malaysian universities can improve its ranking among the top universities in the world. One way is easier and the other way takes more effort and will entail painful institutional changes.

The easy way includes taking the following measures, assuming that QS continues to conduct the THES survey using a similar methodology:
1) Have a lot of tie-ups with other universities to offer a multitude of MBA courses. Better yet, have tie-ups with universities that are clients of QS. That is a sure fire way to be featured more prominently and positively in the radar screen of QS.
2) Track down the academic 'experts' which QS uses for the peer review and offer them 'incentives' to rank UM highly.
3) Hire a bunch of foreign lecturers regardless of their qualifications.
4) Open up places in local varsities to foreign students regardless of their qualifications.
5) Have the local universities direct QS to employers that will rate the local universities favorably. Better yet, go directly to these employers and offer them 'incentives' to rate the local varsities highly.

The second way involves painful institutional changes but will ensure a genuine improvement in the quality of Malaysian universities in the medium to long term, regardless of the methodology used or the consultant employed to compile these rankings:
1) Hire, fire and promote lecturers based on academic work using objective criterion such as publications in highly acclaimed journals or the publication of widely acknowledge books and research in the field.
2) Make appointments to positions of administrative leadership (VC, deputy VC, heads of departments) based on ability to improve academic standards and other objective criterion that is linked to academic standards.
3) Based on the above two recommendations, hiring and appointment policies should be race-blind.
4) Create incentives for raising private funds / donations to the local universities so that resources and infrastructure can be improved and better pay can be awarded to distinguished faculty members.

5) Create incentives for members of the academia to work with the private sector on research projects so as to obtain external funding as well as to leverage the expertise available in the private sector

So, which path do you think is most likely to be taken?

Thursday, March 30, 2006

New Universiti Malaya Vice-Chancellor Appointed

Interestingly enough, I was just mentioning my surprise that the New Straits Times (NST) didn't get the scoop on the shortlisted candidates for the vice-chancellor position at the Universiti Malaya (UM), when the Star published the shortlist. The NST is usually quite in-touch with these matters at the Ministry of Higher Education. Well, they are indeed, for the NST is the first to announce the appointment of Dr Sharifah Hapsah, who will be the first woman vice-chancellor of a local public university.

A brief overview of Dr Sharifah Hapsah's career is given in the NST:
... she is currently the chief executive officer of the National Accreditation Board (LAN). She has worked for more than 20 years with the National Council of Women’s Organisations (NCWO) and has spoken on sexual harassment, polygamy, Islamic family law and rape.

Dr Sharifah Hapsah was a medical studies professor at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia from 1975 to 2002. She then joined the Education Ministry and was tasked with looking into quality assurance at public institutions of higher learning. On Jan 1, she was made LAN’s chief executive officer.

In education, Dr Sharifah Hapsah’s name is synonymous with the Malaysian Qualification Agency (MQA). The proposed MQA Act, to be tabled in Parliament in June, will replace the LAN Act. Once in force, the MQA will ensure that universities and private colleges adopt the quality and standards outlined under the Malaysian Qualifications Framework (MQF).
For those interested in the MQA, I've written a little about it here.

I'm not one who will prejudge her appointment for I hope that she will be able to prove herself worthy of the position given to her. I am however, disappointed that there was no thorough and credible search exercise conducted to appoint the most outstanding candidate to lead the premier university in the country. The shortlist of candidates appears to be practically a recycled shortlist for any vacant vice-chancellor position.

Interestingly enough, some of the well-known defenders of the soon-to-be former vice-chancellor of Universiti Malaya like the Dean of Electrical Engineering Department, Professor Dr Mohamad Rom Tamjis told a press conference that they "could not understand this".
If they said he (Prof Hashim) had brought much change and succeeded in raising UM’s standard, then his tenure should be extended. “When he became VC, we drew up a strategic plan for the university. Three years is definitely not enough to follow through on it.”
The problem, dear Professor Dr Mohamad Rom Tamjis, is that we are living in a polite society. So even if the soon-to-be former vice-chancellor is the weakest and worst VC in the entire country (an honour which I actually don't think he deserves), everyone from the Minister to the successor will still "praise" his legacy to the high heavens. For we are all skilled in the art of flattery.

After all, Professor Dr Mohamad Rom Tamjis should not appear so surprised, for he is a masterful exponent of such arts as seen here and here. Maybe he is just afraid that with his "mentor" replaced, his position as the Dean of one of the most important faculties of the university may be threatened? After all, Kian Ming did mention before that his resume certainly doesn't befit that of a Dean of a premier university.

Fellow colleague even argued that the UM Board of Directors "should have supported the soon-to-be former VC." Well, obviously even the Board doesn't think him deserving such support. The Chairperson of the Board, Arshad Ayub, is of the opinion that the “form of governance has a direct bearing on academic standards”.
While focusing on UM standards, he urged all universities to be introspective in order to arrest the decline and emphasised the need for faculty staff to rethink the values with which students are being imbued.

“Are we treating them (students) in a fair manner and in line with their rights as enshrined in our constitution? Are they allowed to express themselves freely and are they permitted to vote according to their conscience?” he asked... [he] blamed the current drop in overall varsity standards on bad administrative calls involving discriminatory practices and unfair treatment.
In addition, in a veiled reference to governance and transparency in academic promotions at the university, Arshad asked:
Are we providing a working environment where academic integrity is paramount and the path to professional satisfaction and reward? Or are we creating an environment based on feudalistic practices that can bring about nothing but dissatisfaction?

“Are promotions and appointments based on merit? Are we ensuring that the most qualified academics are selected for promotion and to lead our departments, faculties and research institutions, regardless of their ethnic background? Or are we undermining morale by appointing academics based on factors other than merit?”
Obviously, Professor Dr Mohamad Rom Tamjis' promotion as the Dean of the Electrical Engineering faculty by the soon-to-be former vice-chancellor was done with the greatest of transparency and integrity.

The out-going vice-chancellor, in probably his last public appearance as the vice-chancellor of the university, was also in the papers yesterday, giving a talk about the Philosophy of Marriage, asked all not to follow Hang Tuah's example in love and marriage.
“For those who are married, there is none closer to you than your spouse, except for your parents. This is the priority in your life... Don’t be like Hang Tuah in romance, who deceived Tun Teja into falling in love with him, only to betray her. However, one should be like him as a warrior.”
Well, as someone has highlighted a few times on this blog, he had his wife transferred from Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia where she was an Assistant Professor for many many years, to Universiti Malaya, where she was promoted to full professorship within 3 years. How tryly touching.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Hashim Goes!

Yup. It's now confirmed. The tenure of Kapten Datuk Professor Dr Hashim Yaacob as the vice-chancellor of Universiti Malaya ends this Friday. Interestingly enough, the Star reported it first, instead of the New Straits Times who has been a bit more on the ball with the happenings in the higher education circle.

As blogged a couple of days back, we will miss Kapten Datuk Professor Dr Hashim Yaacob for all the things he has done for Universiti Malaya. Some of us wouldn't be particularly displeased about it :).

Anyway, that was the "good" news confirmed by the Minsitry of Higher Education. The less pleasing piece of news is that there is still no independent credible search committee which we have been clamouring for in sight. Apparently, a shortlist has been drawn up and is being evaluated by a committee headed by Minister of Higher Education, Datuk Mustapa Mohamad. The shortlist includes:

1. Prof Dr Mahani Zainal Abidin

She is currently the Higher Education Department deputy director-general (management sector). Prof Mahani was formerly head of the National Economic Action Council's special team on globalisation and a lecturer in UM's Economics Faculty. She was also on the UPM vice-chancellor shortlist back in December.

2. Datuk Rafiah Salim

She is currently the International Centre for Leadership in Finance executive director. Rafiah has served as dean of the UM Law Faculty and was assistant secretary-general for human resource management at the United Nations headquarters in New York from 1997 to 2002. She was also a Bank Negara assistant governor before joining the UN.

3. Prof Datuk Dr Sharifah Hapsah Shahabudin

She is currently the National Accreditation Board chief executive officer. Prof Sharifah Hapsah was formerly a lecturer with Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia's medical faculty and head of the ministry’s Quality Assurance Division from 2002 to early this year. She is also president of the National Council of Women’s Organisations. She also made it to the shortlist earlier for the vice-chancellor of Universiti Putra Malaysia.

Existing Deputy Vice-Chancellors of UM are:

4. Prof Datuk Dr Razali Agus (Student affairs and Alumni),

5. Prof Datuk Dr A. Hamid A. Hadi (Academic and International)

6. Prof Dr Muhamad Rasat Muhamad (Research and Innovation)

Other Potential Candidates:

7. Prof Datuk Dr Hassan Said

He is currently the Higher Education Management Department director-general. Again, he is on the shortlist for the UPM vice-chancellor just last December.

8. Prof Datuk Dr Mohd Amin Jalaludin

He is currently the UM medical faculty dean and the University Malaya Medical Centre director.

The unfortunate thing is that there appears to be little attempt to scour the world for the best talents to truly bring about change to our university system. The same people appear on the shortlist of candidates for all the vacancies for vice-chancellors in all our local public universities. It's either someone at the top of the Ministry of Higher Education hierachy or someone who is at the top of the particular university with the vacancy. The mechanism for shortlisting hardly inspires confidence of "world class" standards which we seek to badly.

Tok Pa, you did the right thing by deciding not to renew the contract for Kapten Datuk Professor Dr Hashim Yaacob which he did not deserve. However, you should take it a step further by delaying the appointment of the new vice-chancellor for UM, and instituting the independent search committee to select the best vice-chancellor to lead the premier university in Malaysia.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Aces Go Places

Okay, now I'm finally going to put pen on paper on something which is a tad sensitive. Plenty of you out there are not going to be too agreeable with my opinions. There will however, be some of you who think that I'm speaking what is just the simple plain fact.

While I'm a firm believer that you don't need to be a straight As student to do well in your life and career, Aces do take you places. There has been plenty of letters in the print media and online blogs on this topic already, but I thought I'd share my personal perspective.

I've already mentioned many times on this blog that I'm not a straight As student. My 'O' Level result was "tainted" by 2 B3s, while I actually had the audacity to get a 'C' for one of my 'A' Level subjects (ouch ouch ouch!). This declaration is so that you know that I'm not a proponent of As just because I'm personally a superstar student academically - I'm not.

First of all, let me give you a couple of pretty good reasons why Aces can take you places.

1. It definitely helps with the scholarships.

While I'd disagree with one of the letters that you'd need straight As to qualify for scholarships, nor do I agree that obtaining As is the sole determining criteria, the possession of a sufficient number of As do help significantly in the success of securing a scholarship.

I was quite nearly destined to pursue my tertiary education at National University of Singapore, for I was 1 A short of the normal qualifying mark to be shortlisted for interviews despite having secured a place at Oxford University. I got my scholarship in the end, but I can tell you that with that extra A in the pocket, the process would have been a whole lot easier, and I would have quite some additional options.

Oh, and needless to say, top grades help you get into the top universities. Whether justified or otherwise, I dare say that having graduated from Oxford helped me win two-thirds of the battle during job interviews already.

2. It is a necessity for certain professions.

Yes, unfortunately, if you want to pursue specialist courses like medicine to become doctors, top grades are absolutely required. If you did your very best, and yet don't come anywhere close to top grades especially when thousands are doing so in SPM and hundreds in STPM, then I strongly suggest that you seek another profession in which you might just shine brighter in. There is really sometimes not too much point in banging against brick walls, especially with your head.

3. It is a benchmark for top companies.

Whether you like it or not, applications to some of the top multinational companies such as Accenture, Procter & Gamble, Shell etc., requires you to state your performance at SPM level and above. Yes, you'd also find that some companies go even below that level. Hence the commonly induced statement that your SPM results no longer matter once you have obtained your degree is misleading at best.

Indeed, your SPM grades will be among the least of my concerns if I'm employing you as a product salesman (and a not too complicated product at that), but if you are going to act as a consultant at say, McKinsey's, I'll surely need you to have the brains for it.

There are good reasons why these top companies still insist on obtaining grades from your secondary school education. For one, SPM and STPM (or equivalent) examinations are probably the only standard markers of academic quality across the board for comparison purposes. With the exception of some of the branded top universities of the world, most people can't tell the difference between the quality of a graduate from say, Curtin University of Technology from say, University of Arizona or Staffordshire Unviersity. A more thorough examination (although not necessarily conclusive) is to review the performance of a student from secondary school to university.

For organisations like my own company, where I know I have limited abilities to attract the top students from say the Oxbridge or the Ivys (I try), I have to "work hard" to differentiate the rest of the crowd of applicants. Hence for positions such as programmers, it is absolutely useful to review the candidates secondary school performance in Mathematics as well as Additional Mathematics in SPM and STPM (where relevant).

You may argue that a person who did not perform that well for his or her SPM may "blossom" in university. I completely agree. But as an employer, I have time only to interview say 10-15 candidates, will I want to trawl my net so wide and go bottom fishing for the little gems or do I just want to focus on the pool of candidates that will most likely satisfy my requirements and fill my 3-4 vacant positions?

You may also argue that SPM as an examination is not perfect and may give biased results. From some of my earlier blog posts, you would know that I completely agree that the current examination system needs to be revamped. However, having said that, it is still the best available yardstick or proxy for me to measure the likely competency and intelligence of a candidate. It's almost like a probability test.

Some would also claim that the majority of employers out there do not give a hoot about grades from secondary education (or even for that matter, your degree subject performance). Yes, I'm not surprised that it is true. But like I said, if your ambition is to work for some of the world class multinational companies and the top local firms, then your grades do matter for it is viewed an approximate proxy to your intelligence - whether you like it or not.

I dare say that from experience, these rules in accessing the candidates academic credentials which I have developed over time in hiring fresh graduates have worked out really well for me. I have always emphasized that I'm a lazy employer - that means that after I hire a person, I want to have very little to do to "manage" the person. He or she should just be able to take care of him or herself, without me breathing down their necks. And I'm glad to say, that I have little need to do so.

Hence, contrary to some of the comments you see for some of my earlier post which derided the achievers of straight As, I actually think that achieving As can get your a little further in your career and life. Thanks also to readers like peer for speaking up for the As students. :)

Don't get me wrong. Scoring straight As (or a lot of them) for your SPM does not guarantee a good life. Your performance will have to be consistent throughout to your university education. Other factors such as the oft-highlighted communication skills, attitude and resourcefulness etc. etc., all comes into the picture.

At the same time, achieving plenty of As for examinations isn't everyone's cup of tea. While its important for some of the points mentioned above, it isn't for many other scenarios. For example, academic grades will be the most important (but not the only) criteria for me when hiring computer programmers. However, communication skills and resourcefulness etc., will definitely be more important for me if I'm hiring a sales person.

Not achieving the string of As also do not mean that you will not be able to achieve financial success. I know for a fact that if my sales director meets his sales target this year, he'll be the highest paid person in the company by far and he doesn't have a degree to his name. But note that I'd never for the life of me hire him as a say, project manager or consultant. OK, for that I'm going to get a clobbering from him when he reads this tomorrow morning - but you get my point. :)

I could go on with the rest of the post talking about why not scoring straight As (or a decent quantity of them) isn't the end of the world. But I shall not. The best place to read them is found on Tiara's blog on her excellent post "'A' is for Attitude". See also her article printed in the Star Education segment a couple of weeks back.

A quick summary - getting your As is important as it facilitates the process of going far with your life and career. However, it definitely isn't the only way to enjoy a successful life and career. What's important if for you to define your key objectives in life and set the necessary targets and milestones to help you achieve them. Achieving As will be important for some of these "objectives in life", but not as important for others. Whatever the case, plan and choose wisely. :)

Monday, March 27, 2006

Don't "Phak Thor" for Straight As

Ouch. No wonder I never got my straight As for any of my examinations except for my Penilaian Darjah Lima, where I did actually achieve my only ever set of straight As in my life.

Well, that's according the advice given by a STPM straight As student, Teoh Shao Thing. He scored 5As for his exams in Mathematics, Physics, Biology, Chemistry as well as the General Paper.
“I decided never to phak thor (date) throughout my high school years and concentrate on my studies instead,” said the Chung Ling High School student.
Well, thankfully for you guys and girls out there - it's not totally true that if you "phak thor" or have boy or girlfriends, you will miss out on your straight As. :) I've had many friends who had steady guy or girlfriends who outperforms me every time with straight As.

Even a schoolmate of Teoh's, Koay Soo Theng who does have a girlfriend, got straight As in 4 subjects. Hence all is not lost on you people with "partners".

What's probably more important is your own personal set of priorities, task management and time allocation. There's always a time for everything and too much of one thing obviously leaves too little for another. Too much hard work and too little play may just make Jack a dull boy as well :)

Have fun, but be good boys and girls :)

Scholarships Reform

According to the Public Service Department's (PSD) corporate communications chief Hasniah Rashid, 15,388 applications had been received by the Wednesday closing date. This was reported in the Star Education Supplement yesterday.

There are however, only some 1,300 scholarships available. Hence that works out to a 8.4% chance of success. Note also that there were 945 straight As students for SPM last year, of who 448 scored straight 1As. These numbers don't include those who actually had like, 12 1As and 1 3B in their results. Or even the top student who wasn't a top student with 15 1As and 1 2A.

Hence, it will not be a surprise if there were going to be some hoo-haa sometime later when the scholarship shortlists are announced. With some 14,000 "top" students missing out, there are bound to be more than a couple of hundred who will feel aggrieved.

And with the slightly more transparent evaluation system (its still fairly opaque, but more transparent than before) where PSD has announced the key criteria being academic performance (65%), interview performance (15%), extra-curricular activities (10%) and family background (10%), be prepared for some of these 10 1As performers to fail in their quest for a scholarship.

Without going into the ability of our PSD to execute the interviews and evaluation in a fair and transparent manner by giving them the benefit of the doubt, the "aggrieved" outcome which will be experienced by many is practically and realistically unavoidable. The nature by which the scholarship awards are being carried out is a clear-cut case of recipe for public relations disaster. From this perspective, I do not envy the task which PSD or its Public Relations department has in hand.

Soon enough, as per previous years, despite being managed a tad better for the current year, journalists will seek out top scoring academics individuals who failed to land a scholarship and make their case, justified or otherwise, heard nationwide. Some will have valid reasons for being bitter, while others are just cry-babies with parents who think the world of them.

Why the hell would the government want to go through this mess every single year especially when elements of it has "inevitability" painted all over it, no matter how fair and transparent the PSD eventually becomes. And with the number of top scoring students increasing on a yearly basis at a faster rate the scholarships are available, PSD is fightly a losing battle.

I say, scrap the award of scholarships for university studies for post-SPM students. Besides the fact that it'll save the government a lot of unnecessary PR headaches, the move will have plenty of other valid reasons supporting it as well.

For one, SPM is probably too early a stage to be deciding if one is deserving of a scholarship to be sponsored for studies overseas. There are many real and practical reasons why SPM is the wrong yardstick for evaluation:

- SPM rightly or wrongly, do not yet fully test the critical thinking and analytical faculties of the students. One is able to score As because one is truly smart, or because one memorises pre-written essays. I would say that STPM is a better barometer for students' intelligence and their ability to cope with more difficult principles and concepts, which powerful memory capabilities will find it harder to compensate.

- And as per the above, that would be one of the reasons why there are just so many SPM top scorers with 448 scoring straight 1As. There are if I'm not wrong, only 20 students with straight 5As in STPM, with another 427 scoring 4As. With fewer "top scorers", scholarship outcomes will often be less controversial. For with less students' pool to evaluate, the risk of total subjectivity in the interview process will be significantly lower.

Top students for SPM should instead be offered just a 2 year pre-university scholarship at the top local schools to enhance their ability to perform further, whether for STPM, 'A' Levels or even Matriculation. These scholarships will hence cost a lot less, and more top SPM students will a cut of these scholarships. After all, I find the process of allocating the RM1 million per student for medicine courses to a SPM student a almost a pure lottery and may not be the most the best of choices.

I think the above proposal is seriously worth some serious thoughts by the various Government agencies.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Writing Skills

Ooh Yeoh is a good friend of mine, and a long time journalist in the industry. He wrote on his blog earlier today about his delivering a talk on "making journalism articles interesting" to secondary schools students held at the HELP University College. I read the key points raised and I thought that these points aren't just limited in its good use for journalism, but also for any kind of writing (besides self indulgent journals :)).

And I thought it was especially useful for new graduates submitting application forms and writing an answer to certain questions posed by the employers, as well as scholarship seekers who are writing to stand out from the crowd.
a) Never write for yourself. Write for your readers. And you can be sure they don't want to read self-indulgent shit. Want to navel-gaze? Go start a blog or even better still, a diary.
Remember why you are writing the short essay for - whether its to impress the employers or the scholarship committees. Neither of them would have placed the questions there on the application forms just to make your life difficult or even worse, to make their own lives miserable to reading unintelligible stuff.

Very often, when I read some of the write ups given by prospective employees, those that at least had half sensible grammars and understood the questions, I still ended up with a "hmmmph... so?". Well, so think about what you are writing and read what you wrote. If you are an employer, are they going to impressed and excited to meet you? Or are just like one of the hundreds of degree clones.
b) Always assume two things, that your readers: i) don't know, and ii) don't care about the subject you are writing about. This forces you to provide sufficient info, and write in an interesting way. Far too many writers do the opposite. They assume their readers know and care about what they are writing about.
Yes, one of the biggest mistakes made even by fairly senior people in large organisations is the failure to provide context.

I'll tell a little story about one of my valued employees. This guy is a top performer for my company as a consultant. His next logical career step was to be made a project manager. However, I delayed his "promotion" for 6 months to a year for only a single reason. He was a great organiser. He understood business issues and is able to relate back to technological capabilities. He understood complicated technical concepts extremely well. I was however, always fearful of putting him in front of the client's senior management. The reason is he doesn't put what these people hear and understand into context.

When you go into a room and begin using commonly used acronyms in our industry like BRS (business requirement study), UAT (user acceptance test), SIRs (system investigation requests) or for that matter, alien-sounding techincal terminology like "J2EE", "Hibernate", "Struts" and "Spring" standards without proper context or introductions, these top management business users will be absolutely lost. To be a great communicator, one needs to be able to discern the type of listeners and readers in front of you and from there, make the necessary context edits to make your good essay or speech become a great one.

Oooh... by the way this consultant of mine made the leap to be a project manager in the largest oil and gas company in the world. Ouch! :)
c) Have a single, clear message and stick to it throughout the article. Everything you write in that article should reinforce that message. Many articles have no message at all, leaving you wondering what they're all about.
Yes, you really don't have much space to write your little essays about "citing an instance where your leadership skills shone through" or "how can you make a difference in this position". I must say that although most candidates gave single sentence answers, many others who made it to a paragraph for one reason or other somehow managed or tried to squeeze 10 different thoughts into it. See this post for an example.

What Oon advised is absolutely spot on. You don't have to 10 different poorly articulated reasons to impress or convince the employer or scholarship committee. You just need 1 or maybe 2 good, well elaborated and contextualised reasons to impress.

Well, there you go. More tips for you to be on your way to getting shortlisted for your job interview or for your scholarship application. For that matter, these tips will probably apply to all careers which will involve some form of writing whether for reporting, sales or analysis.

For other tips and tricks, check out here and here.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Illiterate Undergraduates

Here's what Professor Khoo Kay Kim, Professor Emeritus at the History Department of Universiti Malaya have to say about the typical undergraduate today:
"I don't know how to talk to university students any more... They don't understand what I am saying, it is that bad. I cannot communicate with them."
While I'm in complete agreement with the state of affairs for many students entering universities today, I disagree with the diagnosis provided by the various parties as per the report in the New Straits Times.

Everybody seems to have something to say about the high achievers from the recent bunch of SPM and STPM graduates. Many are "complaining" about the number of subjects being taken by some of these students, enabling them to score 10-15 straight 1As.

And now, it appears that the fact that the number of subjects these students are sitting for in the examinations is the cause of undergrad illiteracy in the universities.
The Education Ministry understands that things have to change, so students coming from secondary schools are not just note-memorising, straight-A students with little creativity or people skills. That is why it is going back to the drawing board.
So the argument is that these students are just "note-memorising" to score straight-As and hence are unable to communicate in universities. That's just so rubbish.

Is the Ministry of Education now telling us that all these 15A students are unable to communicate, cannot understand tutors and lecturers and cannot think on their own two feet? Well, if that is really the case, then I have wronged the Public Service Department (PSD) all these while. These students clearly do not deserve the offers of scholarship from PSD or any other bodies. We should instead "ban" scholarships for these 15A students for have little or no creativity and people skills, for they have taken too many subjects!

What nonsense!

Here is a clear case whereby a problem with our education system has been identified but have wrongly identified causes attributed to the problem.

First of all, are these students Professor Khoo is referring to these "15A" type students? As far as I'm concerned, very probably not. And safely assuming that they are students of the History Department or even the Social Sciences faculty, they are unlikely to be the supposed "15A" type top students.

In fact, I dare say, a substantial majority of these students are the those who were not able to secure their preferred subjects, and have little choice but to take up the offer of History or other subjects in Arts and Social Sciences. Yes, unfortunately in Malaysia where the Arts and Social Science faculties are an ostracised lot, these will mean that the median student in these faculties will have grades like D,D,E,F for their STPM or a range of 4B to 9F for their STPM.

Hence to attribute the blame of "illiteracy" amongst university students to the number of subjects some of these top scorers are taking is absolutely incredulous.

Secondly, the next most likely reason for the drop in standards in the students enrolled into our universities has to do with the fact that the number of spaces available to Malaysian students in the local public and private universities and colleges have increased at a much much faster rate than the rise in standards of student output from our secondary school system.

This is a very simple straightforward argument. As outlined in my earlier post here, the number of places available to tertiary students have increased by some 350% over a period of only 15 years from 1985 to 1999. I'm certain the rate of growth would only have accelerated further in the 2000s. It is more than reasonable to assume that the standards of the students enrolling into tertiary education in Malaysia could not possibly have been maintained. It's just humanly impossible for the tertiary students to have increased from 170,000 in 1985 to more than 550,000 in 1999 to have maintained the same entry standards.

Hence its only expected that the quality of students entering our universities would have declined dramatically over the past few years. Students who would have previously (had they been born 10 years ago) been unable to enter universities would now have easy access to a degree certification.

At the same time, while our examination system isn't perfect, it's not imperfect because students are allowed to take up to some 16 examination subjects. To me, if the students have the ability to cope with the load, let them challenge their own individual potentials. Why try to limit the students exploration of their academic and intellectual abilities?

To me, the reason why the secondary education and examination system is churning out rubbish input into our universities is because the manner in which the secondary school subjects are taught and examined is weak and focused on the wrong areas.

I've written on this issue before and you may read it here. But the key sections is repeated here as follows:
I find that the problem is not with an examination system (which I regard as critical) and tweaking with experiments like taking fewer subjects, but in changing the approach to examinations - beginning with the teachers and the examination questions. Let me give an example of comparative question from the much maligned subject of history. Compare the following three questions:
1. What are the events leading to the fall of the Melaka Sultanate?

2. What are the factors which caused the fall of the Melaka Sultanate?

3. Was the fall of the Melaka Sultanate inevitable?
The questions to me, represents different degrees of thinking and analytical skills despite dealing with the same subject as well as probably comprising the very same content in the answers. The approach to the first question probably involves a semi-chrological listing of the events leading to the fall of the sultanate with cursory linkages to the reasons behind the fall of the sultanate.

The approach to the 2nd question will be slightly more analytical as the student will have to discern and derive the factors behind the fall, from the actual historical events.

However, the 3rd question is probably the hardest as it requires the student to think and analyse hardest as to the inevitability of the fall of the sultanate given the events and factors. However, you would note that the students, irrespective of the question are required to learn and know in hand, the facts with regards to the fall of the sultanate.

Hence, my brief argument in an issue which can spawn volumes of theses, is that there is nothing wrong with examinations per se, as well as learning facts and figures as part of the curriculum. However, what is important is for the educators to take the next step and inculcate analytical and critical thinking skills for application on the facts and figures learnt.
Less examinations is not an answer to better critical thinking, creativity and people skills. Better teaching and examinations is the right approach.

But do we have the right experts in our Ministry of Education to make the right decisions? I usually fear the most when ancient and archaic civil servants make the calls with regards to changes in our educational policies. How are those without critical thinking, creativity and people skills going to be able to institute policies which encourage and inculcate the same such skills? Hmmm...

Thursday, March 23, 2006

College for Malaysian Idols

Have anyone seen the aggressive TV advertisements made by SEGi College (Systematic Education Group International) recently? About 2 months or so back, the SEGi College television ads were "super-imposed" with Donald Trump's The Apprentice making it appear as if Donald himself (and all the Apprentices) went to SEGi. I had thought then, that it was marketing gimmick at its best. Well, not quite.

Now, the latest advertisements being broadcast has the past 2 Malaysian Idols giving SEGi the thumbs up. In fact, if you visit the college's website, you'll find publicity materials for SEGi College Open House which invites prospective students to meet up with the Malaysian Idols, Jaclyn Victor and Daniel Lee. Quite clearly, the college is relying on Idolmania to attract students. Don't you think that speaks a lot about the college?

Based on their press release announcement, the College has signed up the Malaysian Idols as the College "Ambassadors".
“Our students relate well to the two Idols. They are of the same age group and their background is shared by the vast majority. Both Jac and Daniel are hardworking and creative. We feel that their clean image bodes well for our students. We picked Jac and Daniel not only for their celebrity status, but also as role models for our students,” said Lee [Principal of SEGi College Subang Jaya].
Note that I have nothing against the Malaysian Idols. They absolutely deserved their celebrity status and the fact that they must be remunerated handsomely for being the College's ambassadors - after all, none of them were alumnis of SEGi College (although SEGi might just decide to award them honourary doctorates :)). The practice by the College to enrope the Malaysian Idols as their ambassadors is also not commercially unethical. However, it does appear a tad "grey", from the perspective of a educational institution that is seriously interested in providing "quality" education. I for one, am totally not impressed with their marketing strategy.

Interestingly enough, a reader who pointed out the following allegations on a forum to me. It appears that if the allegations were true, the College isn't particularly ethical in its assessment practices as well.
...when officers from overseas wanted to come over and check the students situation, they(Management) will ask you to say something good about the college (if the officer ask), and they(management) will print GOOD(fake) results of your testimonial to show them how good the students are in there. They give students some sort of a script to study and a short session to learn how to talk in front of the officers. AND THEY CLAIMED THAT IF STUDENTS WANTED TO TELL THE TRUTH OR SAYS SOMETHING BAD ABOUT THE COLLEGE,THE OFFICER WILL HOLD THE WHOLE ADVANCE/DIPLOMA CERT AND WILL NOT APPROVE IF PROBLEMS OCCUR. What the hell was that?
In addition, it appears that some of the services provided to the students are well below acceptable levels.
They ask you to pay online fee's so you can get updated news/bulletins and courseworks info in the link(website) provided. But they never UPDATE IT,and will NOT accept whatever complaints and feedbacks given by students when facing a problem.They will just know how to ban and kick out students.... ALWAYS ASK THE STUDENTS FEEDBACK BEFORE JOINING THE COLLEGE. THEY KNOW & SPEAK BETTER THAN THE MANAGEMENT DOES.
Taking away the angry vitrolics, the last line, "always ask the students feedback before joining the college" is good advice.

Also, don't be fooled by some of the scholarships on offer. It has been advertised that students who achieve straight ‘A's in 10 subjects and above will be eligible to receive full scholarship for the entire duration of their studies at SEGi. Partial scholarships will also be granted to those who score 8 and 9 ‘A's in their SPM exams. In addition, the College also announced rebate of RM500 for each ‘A' one score in the SPM.

The above is purely a strategy to attract top students to the College, who will then perform very well largely due to their own personal efforts, despite and inspite of the quality of teaching services and learning facilities at the college. If I'm a top SPM student, I will not go to SEGi College which is not even one of the better private educational institutions which I've lamented frequently about here on this blog. Job applications from SEGi College graduates practically have an automated route to the reject bin in my Jobstreet folders.

Oh, and you will find on their website that they have listed University of Sheffield, which is a good university in the United Kingdom as one of their new partner universities. Candidates who are still interested in SEGi should ask what type of partnership is this for I could find nothing in the courses structures which leads to a degree from Sheffield. So guys, keep your eyes wide open in your pursuit for higher education.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Less Examinations

It's all in the frontpage headlines of the Star today. And the New Straits Times says it here.
Among the measures proposed are:
  • Reducing the number of subjects in public examinations and testing only certain subjects at school level;

  • Introducing a semester system instead of the current term-based school system;

  • Emphasising skills and abilities rather than focusing on content and achievements;

  • Encouraging personal development through subjects like Art and Physical Education; and

  • Improving teaching-learning methods by encouraging more project-based assignments.
Students will rejoice for they will have to sit for less examinations. They will also be happy that examinations have been given an official "demotion" in terms of importance. There have after all been a fair bit of groaning and moaning in the newspaper forums and letter pages in recent times.

Teachers will be happy because they will have less subjects to teach. They'll also be happy that their performance will be less correlated with the actual performance of their students. Correspondingly, the "evaluation" of students, if such a term is even allowed to be used on students at all, will be based on subjective matters such as co-curricular activities.

Are students and teachers however, happy for the right reasons?

I am more than a tad sceptical with regards to the proposals by the Ministry of Education, as announced by Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein. Mind you, I'm not a examination fanatic such that everything must be examinations based - for example, "Moral Studies" for SPM. Neither am I satisfied with the nature of our current examination system which is probably a tad overly reliant on rote learning and memorisation techniques, and less on critical thinking and analytical skills.

I am concerned that we are changing our examinations system for the wrong reasons. I am also wary that these wrong reasons will lead to a "new" system which have counter-productive impact on the education experienced by our students. Instead of raising the standards of the "output" of our education system, are we taking an unintended step backwards, and as a result fail to fully realise the potentials of our young ones?

I have much to say on the above topic. And I've been meaning to write about it for the past couple of weeks. But I must get back to work (or sleep) after returning from China in the wee hours of this morning. I'll catch up on this later this evening to put my thoughts down on paper.

In the meantime, I'll be expecting plenty of "angry" mails lecturing me on the futility of an examinations based system. Well, have your say here and I'll put in my replies later and we can have an eventful discussion. :)

Why does a PhD in the US take so long?

I'm taking my preliminary exams in less than a week's time so I thought it might be a good time to highlight some of the differences between PhD programs in the US and in universities outside the US. When I tell my friends that I will take at least 5 years to finish my PhD in political science in the US, more often than not, the question back to me would be, "Why so long"? The people with PhDs in Malaysia, I'm guessing, come disproportionately from universities in the UK, Australia, Malaysia and New Zealand and they usually take approximately 3 years to complete. Why this disparity?

The main difference lies in the coursework requirements. Almost any PhD program worth its salt in the US requires its students to complete at least 2 years of coursework before they are even allowed to start on their PhD proper. I'm almost at the end of my two years at Duke and I'm one of the few students from my cohort taking my prelim exams this early. Most of my cohort are taking the prelims in 6 to 9 months' time which means they would have finished at least 2 1/2 years of coursework.

Why have this coursework requirement? At least for the social sciences, it is to ensure that you are familiar with a broad enough 'vision' of your field of study before embarking on your 'narrow' PhD thesis focus. I feel that this is one of the great strengths of the US PhD. You are exposed to different fields besides your main area of interest. You are thus able to borrow different techniques and ideas from different fields.

The coursework requirements often have some 'technical' elements. For political scientists who want a teaching job in the US system, statistical and mathematical knowledge is almost a 'must have' (unless you are a political theorist). You'd be surprise that a lot of what passes for political science here in the US comprises of regression anaylsis, game theory and models filled with equations. Those who want to skip these technical elements have the choice of learning 2 or more foreign languages. In practice, what you find is that most political scientists would be proficient in at least one foreign language and at least some quantitative methods.

I recognized the strength of the US PhD program even before coming here. Now that I am here, I value it even more. It provides necessary training and it inevitably increases the quality of your work at the thesis stage.

I'm not saying that coursework is not a requirement in other non-US universities. Increasingly, it is becoming the norm in many economics programs in the UK (at least at the LSE and Cambridge) where taking and passing one year of coursework is mandatory. I'm not sure about the current situation in Australia and New Zealand.

As more and more academics are trained through the US system, I believe that a US PhD will be valued more highly than a PhD from the UK, Australia or New Zealand, at least among the members of academia. I know that I will be getting a lot of flak about this but it's a general position that I'm willing to stand by and defend.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

New UM Vice-Chancellor Soon?

Hey hey hey, guess what's one of the best news I've read today?

I found out from Sdr Lim Kit Siang's blog that the contract for Kapten Datuk Professor Dr Hashim Yaacob as the vice-chancellor of Universiti Malaya will be ending by the end of this month. That's just less than 2 weeks away.

Obviously that doesn't mean that his contract will not be renewed. However, given the penchance of the current vice-chancellor to make himself heard in the press, and the fact that it has been all silent on that front makes the possibility of a replacement being seeked a real one. After all, it is well known in the university circles that the renewal of the contract of an incumbent vice-chancellor is typically done 2 months or so prior to the end of the contract.

Kapten Datuk Professor Dr Hashim Yaacob will be disappointed that the former Minister of Higher Education with whom he has clearly established a "close" working relationship came to an end just before his contract is up for renewal. After all, the vice-chancellor has done his very best to publish the former Minister's mug prominently on practically anything from billboards to press adverstisements.

To quote Sdr Lim:
This provides [the new Minister of Higher Education] Mustapha the opportunity to demonstrate that he is serious about his ambitious target to ensure that at least two Malaysian universities are in the world’s top 50 by 2010, impressing both the local and international academic community with the appointment of a Vice Chancellor who is internationally- recognized for his or her scholarship, or as Dr. Azmi Sharom, Associate professor of Law Faculty, University of Malaya, said in his Open Letter to the Higher Education Minister, the Vice Chancellor must have “the qualities of an outstanding intellectual, manager and diplomat, who can ensure that academic principles are paramount, not political expediency”.
In anticipation of Kapten Datuk Professor Dr Hashim Yaacob departure from his current position, let us now count the ways why we "love" him so in events over the past 12 months:
  1. The honourable vice-chancellor argued that Dr Terence Gomez was irresponsible and unpatriotic for "any individual should consider the interests of their 'students, country and the nation' before deciding to resign". Thankfully, he was given an immediate virtual slap in the face when the Prime Minister approved Dr Terence Gomez's application for 2 years unpaid leave to take up his post at the United Nations. The honourable vice-chancellor also rejected the leave application by the wife of Dr Terence Gomez which he subsequently claimed to be a "procedural error" for she applied to the vice-chancellor via email.

  2. The honourable vice-chancellor was a busy busy man, for even the UM academic staff union (PKAUM) was having difficulties in setting up appointments with him. The latter's grouses on promotion irregularities, grades tampering and possible misappropriation of funds fell on deaf ears. Instead, Professor Rosli Mahat, spokesperson for PKAUM got a show-cause letter for his efforts.

  3. The honourable vice-chancellor, who was also affectionately known globally as the "billboard vice-chancellor" started the ball rolling by putting up billboards proclaiming UM's "world class" status when ranked 89th globally by the Times Higher Education Supplement (THES) in 2004.

  4. The honourable vice-chancellor, who had a 'zero' in the THES report card for research publications ingeniusly decided that the best way to remedy the issue was to take part in dog and pony trade shows and collect "gold medals" for his effort. For those who are unaware, almost all dogs and ponies return home with a medal in such trade shows, afterall, the participants paid for it.

  5. The honourable vice-chancellor, like the emperor without clothes, was so impressed with the "accolade" given by THES, that he proudly did the catwalk by putting up full-page colour advertisements teasing readers in anticipation of the new rankings in 2005. This was despite the fact that any half-decent statistician can work out that there were blinding errors in the THES 2004 tables. I suppose the emperor was so impressed with his new clothes that nobody, even those closest to him in the university dared say anything else.

  6. The honourable vice-chancellor, upon finding out that he was actually without clothes, did the honourable thing by denying that he was ever naked.

  7. The honourable vice-chancellor, upon finding out the real reasons for the "world-class" performance in 2004 declared, in partnership with the former Minister of Higher Education, that UM will allocated 5% of places in the university to foreign students, in a poorly disguised attempt to improve its world rankings.

  8. The honourable vice-chancellor, when faced with mounting public criticism, used university funds to once again, take up full-page advertisements to defend UM's "world class" status by using further misleading statistical arguments, for UM is after all, "worthy of our pride".

  9. The honourable vice-chancellor, allegedly had his wife transferred from Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, where she was languishing as an associate professor for many years to Universiti Malaya 3 years ago. And within the short period of time, she has now received her promotion to be a full-professor at the university.

  10. The honourable vice-chancellor, is probably the only vice-chancellor in town who have received thinly-disguised public rebuke in the media, not once, but twice by one of his very own faculty members.
I'm sure many of you will have many other memorable moments to cherish, but 10 is enough for me. Let us now shed a little tear for the dearest honourable vice-chancellor, Kapten Datuk Professor Dr Hashim Yaacob, for we'll miss him so. (Or so we hope. ;-p)

Malaysian Universities in the Top 50?

That's the target set by the new Higher Education Minister - two Malaysian universities among the top 50 in the world by 2010. As reported by the Star:
Higher Education Minister Datuk Mustapa Mohamed said this was in line with the ministry’s emphasis on academic excellence and internationalisation.

“Among the tools available to help us gauge our progress towards these goals are international benchmarks and rankings. We have set ourselves a target to maintain at least two of our universities in the list of the world’s top 50”.
While there are those who will argue against an excessive obsession with world rankings (which I agree - if it's "excessive"), I think it's great that the new Minister of Higher Education states his position at the start of his "reign" on top. It's always healthy to have a healthy dose of comparative competition to challenge oneself to do better, in this case, our local universities.

Some of the other little positives I gleaned from the press report included the fact that Datuk Mustapa Mohamed (Tok Pa) recognised that in order to attract the best talents to the local academia, that includes both students and staff, a strong reputation from internationally published rankings or comparative tables is extremely important. Unlike his predecessor who "appreciated" rankings only when its favourable to the local universities, and criticised them when the local universities rankings dropped, this is a particularly welcome change.

So which are the "2" to-be-selected universities? While the Ministry claims to be identifying them, it's a no-brainer that Universiti Malaya (UM) will be one of them on the list. After all, it's still the only university listed in the Top 200 list. That probably leaves 2-3 universities "fighting" for the second spot. Who are the favourites?

Well, in the year when Malaysia performed credibly in the 2004 Times Higher Education Supplement (THES) rankings table due to misrepresented statistics, it was Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) which was ranked at 111th, behind UM at 89th. However last year, while USM dropped out of the rankings list altogether, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, made a surprise appearance in the Top 100 Science universities of the world at joint 91st. At the same time, the new Vice-Chancellor of Universiti Putra Malaysia, Prof Dr Nik Mustapha Raja Abdullah has openly declared his objective for the university to be in the Top 80 in 5 years' time.

I won't be surprised at some intense lobbying by some of the vice-chancellors now, for the simple reason that the identified university will receive "all the support needed to compete globally" from the Ministry of Higher Education - which basically means plenty more funds.

The only unfortunate thing about Malaysian politics is that despite making such bold declarations, our Ministers will never be accountable for the actual outcome for hardly anyone is punished for "average" or even poor performance. On top of that post-2008 general elections, we might again have a new Minister for Higher Education, and objectives, policies and targets will change once again.

But then again, there's never harm praying for sunshine :).

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Crisis in Malaysia's Public Universities? Part II

The Part I post on "Crisis in Malaysia's Public Universities", I've covered one of the key macro-education policy in the country since the early 1990s which has contributed significantly to the debilitating standards of education in this country. This "mistake" in our higher education strategy was highlighted in a long essay by Francis Loh published in Aliran.

The second part of this post deals with some of the other micro issues affecting the performance of our local universities which were highlighted by Francis. Two of the key issues highlighted were the loss of qualified and talented academics for a variety of reasons, and the second, on the declining standards of pre-university education and the consequent drop in the standards of the students enrolled into universities.

For the first reason, based on his experience as an academic in Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) he found that his peers left the academia for various reasons which included:
  • Top bumiputeras being headhunted into civil service, government think tanks as well as consultancies.

  • A group of non-bumiputera professionals getting frustrated with the leadership at the universities as well as the lack of promotion prospects and hence "migrated" to the private sector, joining the mushrooming private universities or in certain cases, moving and migrating overseas.

  • Due to the retirement age being set at similar levels to the civil service i.e., 55 years old, many senior academics have also retired leaving few with decades of teaching and research experience in the 17 local public and 15 private universities locally.
The above reasons becomes clear, when Francis cited a study at USM which indicated significantly increased faculty attrition rates from 7% in 1990 to some 27% in 2000. I would personally be fire-fighting every hour of the day should there be a 27% attriction rate in my company!

The quote of the day however, was when he recalled a remark made by a former deputy vice-chancellor of Universiti Malaya with regards to the declining academic standards at the universities.
In the kingdom of the one-eyed king, he would appoint a completely blind minister, who in turn would appoint a deputy who was blind and one-armed.
Sounds familiar? :-)

Apart from the drastic shortage in supply of qualified and experienced academics, Francis lamented on the quality of students enrolled into universities today.

The yearly hype about the number of students who score A's in all their subjects in the SPM and STPM, alas, has clouded the fact that grades have been inflated and the top achievers are not necessarily of the same calibre as their counterparts some decades ago.

This, I suppose, comes as a timely reminder on the exaggerated exuburence with the increase in the number of top students in SPM this year. Actually, many readers couldn't wait but to remind me of the situation in my previous posts! While I dare say that it is a global trend that students will get smarter over time i.e., the number of straight A students will increase over time, I do share some concerns with regards to certain outcomes such as 28.1% of students scoring A in Mathematics (!). Of course, there is also the oft-cited reason whereby the set up of matriculation colleges have resulted in double standards for entry into the local universities.

As part of his conclusion, Francis came up with 4 recommendations for the Ministry of Higher Education, 3 of which I'm in full agreement with regards to their importance.

1. Restore the necessary balance between the "democratisation" of tertiary education, and the pursuit of academic excellence.

As argued in the previous blog post, the decline in university standards particularly at our top universities has to do with declining priority of academic excellence over social factors as well as other trivial pursuits. Four years ago, it was proposed that Universiti Malaya, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, Universiti Sains Malaysia as well as Universiti Putra Malaysia be made into "world-class research universities". However, I have to agree with Francis that this has been "all talk and no action".

However, creating the "elitist" world class institutions does not mean that students who do not qualify into these universities are ignored. Their needs will then be served by the 2nd tier universities which focus less on research and more on teaching as well as inculcating creative and critical thinking skills.

2. Selection of university leaders

In the same vein as Associate Professor Azmi Sharom's call to the Minister of Higher Education a couple of days ago, we have had enough of "one-eyed kings". Francis cited the example that universities in Japan, Thailand and the Philippines have the academic staff participate in the selection of their vice-chancellor. Over here, its simply the prerogative of the Minister of Higher Education who usually appoints individuals who are well connected politically, and therefore 'trusted'. A case in point cited is the recent appointment of the vice-chancellor of Universiti Utara Malaysia, a former director of the Biro Tata Negara. Similarly, I've blogged here on the type of shortlist the previous Minister of Higher Education came up with in the selection of the new vice-chancellor for Universiti Putra Malaysia.

To quote Francis, "[i]f Malaysian universities are to be able to compete internationally, surely the position of the VC should be filled by academics of the highest quality."

3. Promotions should be made transparent and peer reviewed

Well, there's enough said about this already. Browse through previous related posts here.

With all due respect to Francis Loh, there is absolutely nothing earth-shattering about the above conclusions or the recommended course of action for the Ministry of Higher Education. They have been the standard prescription given by all parties, academics (like Azmi Sharom) and lay men (like myself) alike. We have all been harping on the same issues repeatedly. I'm almost half-fearful that I'll begin to lose my loyal readers since they might just get bored that I'm repeating the same themes in this blog about education in Malaysia over and over again. Unfortunately for me, until these issues get resolved in the local institutions of higher learning, I will have to harp on them until such a point in time that they are no longer relevant.

Dearest Tok Pa, save my readers the misery of reading the same stuff written by someone with an irrational obsession to improve the educational standards in this country. Work on the above "simple" conclusions, and you will easily become the best minister of education since... errr... forever. The country will be so totally indebted to you.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Crisis in Malaysia's Public Universities? Part I

Regular readers will note that this writer have been very vocal in his opinions that the liberalisation and rapid expansion of the education sector is having some debilitating effects on the overall quality of education in Malaysia. Well, for those who wishes to explore this line of thought further with a more empirical study of our higher education system, look no further than the very very long and extensive essay by Francis Loh, published in Aliran last month.

Some readers have also requested here earlier (yes, I was aware of the article as I subscribes to Aliran) that I "review" the article and maybe blog a little about it. So apologies for the slight delay, but it is after all a very long article :-)

Francis defines the nature of the crisis
In its essence, this is a problem arising from the age-old need to maintain academic standards while expanding tertiary education so that it caters not only for the elites but for the masses as well, a process that educators term the 'massification' or 'democratisation' of tertiary education.
According to research by Molly Lee in her thesis "Restructuring Higher Education in Malaysia" at Universiti Sains Malaysia in 2004 the number of private colleges increased from 200 to 690 private colleges from the early 1990s til 2004. In addition, while there were no private universities then, there are now 15 private universities and 12 university-colleges.

As a result, enrolment in tertiary education "skyrocketed" in the 1990s. Tertiary students increased by some 350% in a period of less than 20 years!
The total number of students registered in tertiary institutions was only 170,000 in 1985, increased to 230,000 in 1990, and hit 550,000 in 1999. The increase especially in the private universities and colleges was staggering rising from 15,000 in 1985, to 35,600 in 1990, to 250,000 in 1999. The enrolment rate of the 19-24 age cohort in the universities has risen from 2.9 per cent to 8.2 per cent over the 1990s.
Interestingly enough Universiti Teknologi Mara had some 80,000 students in all its campuses nationwide. That will certainly make it one of the largest universities in the region in terms of student population, a recognition which is not necessarily positive. Such a sprawling university often results in poor maintenance of standards, uneven teaching qualities as well as neglected students.

Therein lies the problem. While the insatiable demand for "education" has resulted in the mushrooming private sector, weak regulations and incompetent monitoring has resulted in a severe drop in quality in teaching and research. While licensing can be fairly easily obtained to set up an education institution, and buildings can be constructed with liberal financing, the supply of qualified lecturers and academicians remains short and restricted. To compound the shortage, the mass commercialisation of higher education has resulted in the growth of "corporate and bureaucratic culture".

In 1999, we had less than 11,000 academics in public universities. However, the number of academics in these universities in 2000 grew by less than 20% to 13,000 - despite twin dramatic increase in the number of universities as well as students. In addition, according to Lee, "only 21.6% were PhD holders, 72.1% Master degree holders, while the rest were first degree holders". If the statistics are bad in the public sector, it's actually significantly worse in the private sector.
Out of 8,928 academics in 2000, only 4 per cent had PhDs, 25.6 per cent had Master degrees, another 58.3 per cent had Bachelor degrees, and 11.9 per cent did not even have a first degree (!)
Part of the reason for the dismal statistics in the private sector has probably got to do with the fact that many private institutes of higher education are clearly cutting corners by hiring less qualified candidates as academics at the universities. After all, if students are still willing to sign up by the thousands despite only have masters and degree holders as the lecturers, there's really not much commercial incentive to recruit better qualified but significantly more expensive PhD holders.
The corporate culture began to get embedded as a result of the corporatisation of the public universities following the passing of the new Education Act 1995. This corporatisation of the universities was part of a larger turn towards the adoption of neo-liberal market-driven economic policies in Malaysia, indeed, throughout the world, during the 1990s...

Hence the universities began to seek new sources of funding. One of the ways to do so was to increase student intake particularly at the post-graduate level. Various post-graduate programmes were launched and local and foreign students recruited to enrol in them. Often, in order to ensure that enough students enrol for the courses, entry requirements have not been as stringent as they should be.

Yet another way to seek outside sources of income is to launch 'twinning programmes' with local private colleges that are not allowed to grant their own degrees in that area. Business, IT and computer, and communications courses are among those that have been 'twinned'...

More than that, the university administration is also particularly keen to develop programmes and courses that can cater to the market. More so than before, there is increased emphasis nowadays in designing and offering courses which have a 'practical component' and are 'hands-on'. Invariably, there is less emphasis given to 'theoretical' courses which require critical and creative thinking.
Hence from the above statistics, it has become blindingly clear on the mistakes made on the macro-education policies for higher education in Malaysia. The "uncontrolled" nature in which education has been liberalised in the country without corresponding growth in qualified teaching faculties inevitably leads to a drastic decline in overall standards of higher education in Malaysia. Without looking into all the other "micro-level" problems besetting our universities (highlighted by Francis and will be blogged about next in Part II), we have already "lost" the battle at the macro-policy level.

To Tok Pa, our new Minister of Higher Education - this will definitely be one of the key issues which must be addressed in the up-coming Ninth Malaysia Plan to avert (or at least stall) the continuing deterioration of standards at our institutions of higher learning.

Monday, March 13, 2006

School Places... Going, Going, Gone!

"A Chinese primary school is offering places to the highest bidders, starting with a minimum donation of RM300." That was the first sentence of a report by New Straits Times last week.

WIth Chinese primary schools being so popular nowadays compounded by the fact that the increase in demand is not matched by new schools, it is certainly not surprising that the above is a common practice. Apparently, some even forked out RM500 to "get a better chance of securing places for their children". As reported, despite the "condition", the number of students registered still exceeded the available places by some 25%. And I'm fairly certain that this practice isn't taking place only in this school, SRJK (C) Foon Yew 5 in Taman Mount Austin in Johor Bahru.
Hundreds of parents who turned up at today to register their children for the 2008 intake cried foul when they learnt of the condition.

"What kind of system is this? This is a school, not an auction house," said one parent... Registration should be on a first-come-first-served basis, not by means of a donation." They got more upset on learning the RM300 merely bought the right to register, not guaranteeing a place.
While I wouldn't call it "daylight robbery" as one "Madam Lee" put it, the practice is certainly unethical for it certainly makes a mockery out of universal availability of education to all irrespective of wealth and place in society.

And what did the schol administrators say? In the same article, the school's headmaster, Ms Wong Wei Choon admitted that the "school had to resort to this method because of the overwhelming number of families seeking places for their children". Furthermore, apparently the scheme was approved by the school's parent-teacher association (PTA). These donations rae mean to be used to build some 32 classrooms to ensure sufficient classrooms from next year on.

Interestingly, in typical Malaysian fashion, the day after the report was raised, the school board called for a press conference denying the entire affair. Was the principal "misquoted"?
SRJK (C) Foon Yew 5 board chairman Cheng Chean Chiang said... the donations were entirely voluntary with no parent being compelled to fork out the money. "It is absolutely not true that we had sold places in the school to the highest bidder... We merely asked for donations to build extra classrooms. But this is not compulsory. Neither did we set a RM300 minimum limit for contributions."
Mr Cheng argued that registration was strictly on a first-come-first-served basis. In which case, I'd like to ask, why allow registration of 750 students which was 150 in excess of the 600 available places? Was the school going to put the 150 "extra" students on a wait-list? Or was the school just interested to collect extra non-refundable RM45,000 for the school funds?

Principal Wong then attempted to reason that "If there was bidding, as claimed by some parents, do you think hundreds of parents would throng the school to get a place for their children? Some even camped overnight to register first. Many waited in the queue for well over 10 hours. If there was bidding, nobody would do this." Oh, Principal Wong, you are being really sly here - I am certain that there are many who will still queue for a place in the school despite knowing that there is going to be a "donation" required of a place in the school. RM300 while not a trivial amount, is certainly not a serious enough financial obstacle to registration. After all, these parents are likely to spend much much more for their children's education in the future years (not to mention exhorbitant amounts on tuition fees!).

If the school is that transparent that registration is done on a first-come-first-served basis, then it should come clean with the acceptance of students criteria and process. Since 750 students have been registered with the 600 places be alloted based on a draw of lots, irrespective of the donation quantum? Will students who do not live in the vicinity of the school be "disqualified" based on the relevant guidelines? Will the school provide details on the amount of donations collected during the registration exercise - whether it exceeded RM225,000 which will indicate that all generous registrants have paid the "donation" of RM300?

If the donation exercise was indeed voluntary - why can't it wait till the students have been accepted but was instead carried out during the registration exercise?

The Johor state education director Jailani Rusni said there was no provision in the law allowing any school to solicit donations as a condition for registration. He requested that parents facing this problem should lodge a complaint with the state education department. The question is, will the Ministry of Education take any actions against these schools? Given the stance taken by the Minister of Education in the more critical (and criminal) issue of corrupted headmasters - whereby the vested interest parties in Chinese education sort it out amongst themselves - we are definitely unlikely to see the end of this practice. After all, a large part of the reason for the above practices is due the lack of approval and support by the Ministry to build new and more Chinese primary schools.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Corruption in Chinese Schools: Not My Problem

I wrote about the issue of corrupted headmasters a couple of days ago, A certain Mr Ong Koh Hou offers a reward of RM500,000 for information and evidence of corruption by headmasters in Chinese primary schools and the Federation of Chinese School Headmasters (FCSH) responded by going beserk.

In an interesting side comment our Minister of Education, Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein gave to the press yesterday, he "said the issue was between school boards and the headmasters, and the ministry had no intention of getting involved... Let them sort it out internally". Huh?

Dearest Minister, this is a serious issue involving potentially hundreds of millions in the Malaysian Chinese vernacular schools, which as far as I'm aware, is still under the purview of the Ministry of Education. Corruption in schools is not a Chinese community issue. You can't wash your hands off it!

The Ministry should instead set up special committees involving senior Ministry officials, parent-teacher associations (PTAs), the police force as well as the Anti-Corruption Agency to investigate and audit the financial transactions of the individual schools. Those parties - headmasters and teachers - found guilty of corrupt practices must be sacked from the civil service.

Headmasters' corruption is a very serious issue. We often complain about traffic police officers requesting "duit kopi" for traffic offences which are valid or otherwise. However, I actually think that systematic corruption in our schools may actually be even more lucrative than that of the junior police officers. There probably used to be a time whereby the sale of "exercise books" and all provided some side income for the headmasters. However, today, I am pretty certain that some headmasters take home more from these "side incomes" than their actual pay.

More importantly, our young ones should not be exposed such systematic corruption right where they are supposed to be educated to be righteous individuals with rock-solid integrity. If they were to learn that even the headmaster, the de facto leader of the school, condones and is involved in petty corruption, it is then unsurprising that this dreaded culture becomes one accepted by the students as they grow older.

Be brave and bold, Datuk Seri.