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.


Anonymous said...

Ehh, they started it again! Check out theStar today.

Higher Education Minister Datuk Mustapa Mohamed said "We have set ourselves a target to maintain at least two of our universities in the list of the world’s top 50.”


Higher Education Management Department director-general Prof Datuk Dr Hassan Said said that "...the deadline set for the two universities to achieve the top 50 standing was 2010."

Another talking but no walking after his predecessor? Well, let's be patient for another 4 years.

On the other hand, thanks Tony for putting up the stats on the Malaysian institutions. I know that the number have increase by leaps and bounds, but never expect them to be such a huge number. :S

It seems that we are concentrating on the quantity rather than the quality, which is quite alarming. Moreover, the ratio of academic staffs to students are totally out of range! How do we go about achieving a developed country status by 2020??

Anonymous said...

Some of our universities like Charles Sturt University are just after material profits irrespective of whether there is real supervision and expertise transfer. It is sad that this situation manifests itself, after all I was told by a friend teaching at Mara who holds an MA that his students could not understand the PhD professor and had to run to him for an explanation. This is the state of affairs of Mara, you might have professors but of what quality are they or are they just collectors of initials after their names and creation of power distance between the have nots and the haves and the knowns and the not knowns.

Anonymous said...


At SPM level,The number of straight A's students are getting ridiculouly higher and higher. Did you notice that 1 in 3 candidates got an A for Maths. My colleague was flabbergasted that her daughter who frequently failed her Add Math in school, got an A1 in her SPM ! Our educational stds has gone to the dumps.

Anonymous said...

While I do not wish to undermine the achievements of straight A students or even those who achieved a significant number of A's (i.e. 5 and above), I too feel that the statistics these days are very worrying. What worries me more is that those who do achieve a good number of A's score in subjects like EST and Arts while the more important Sciences in their streams (e.g. Add Math, Physics, Bio, etc.) are only B's and C's. In fact, it is quite common to hear SPM students targetting subjects like Moral, History, English, EST, etc. just so that they can add to the number of A's on their cert. This is a very bad trend of quantity over quality.

But in any case, it is still good to hear our students doing very well. I am a strong believer in education and there is no better way to statiscally prove your mantle.

Dangerous Variable said...

I happened to be a former student of Francis Loh and I understand his frustrations... I have resigned to the don't know, don't care attitude already.

Anonymous said...

While the govt have corporatised university malaya, the reward structure remains the same.

No wonder we can't attract foregin PhDs. Our starting pay is just of pittance compared to time and monies spent by them in developed countries.

Certainly, our salary package may be attractive to those academic from thrid world countries..

But, will there be any meaningful technological transfer...

Rather, would our R&D in local IPTAs be contemporaneous with advanced economies if we can recruit academics from other thrid world countries..

No offense. National interest should come first.

Only when benchmarking ourselves against the best, we could be better in next round of THES ranking.

Anonymous said...