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.


Anonymous said...

Look, every year about 1000 to 2000 of top bumi students are sent oversea under Mara, Petronas, JPA or whatever scholarships. The talents and money supplied by Malaysian government to oversea universities have more or less helped oversea university to pump out quality research work and achieve high ranking..Malaysia spent about Rm20 billion each year to sent students oversea.. So, top few percent of bumi students have gone oversea, only not so top bumi students stay in Malaysia..RM20 billion has gone oversea..thus only little funding left for R & D for local u..Oversea u have our best students and our money....and we wonder why they are better than us....

Anonymous said...

Referring to the anon at mar 16, I agree with that if we want to be an education hub, we must start building our brand name. We refer to NUS, ANU and U of Tokyo when we addressing the academic excellence of these countries. Just like twin towers, we need some strong icon to represent ourselves internationally.

Wake up, bucreucrats presiding in our local IPTAs and JPAs.

Think globally, act locally.

Please give preference to our local varsiities first.

We can definitely produce some cross cutting resutls with RM20 billion..

What say you, people out there ?

Msian Taxpayer

Anonymous said...

Perhaps the government should rescind degrees awarded in the period of time when the standards of our public unis have deteriorated. And start all over again - and this time round, make it right. It's hard to achieve something when UM's reputation rivals that of the lokang water at my backyard.

Anonymous said...

Well. No doubt that UM standard has dropped throughout the years of mismanagement.

But please do keep in mind, that in the pond of muddy water ( or Longkang water ), you will find some lovely lotuses floating on it.

Its not all bad. I graduated from UM in 2006. No doubt, seen the "mud" but seen the "lovely lotuses" too. I know of 6 UM students who are currently working in top commercial firms in the world. And best of all they are hired when they are fresh from university, beating over 1000 applicants from all around the world.

3 of them are in major banks in UK and 3 of them in major foreign oil companies in UK, France and Australia. All currently making >RM20k a mth after tax. Higher than average wages in the country they are currently working.

How do i know these facts? Because i`m the guy working in Australia.

In fact, me and another friend has managed to impressed the company that we are working to hire from UM.

Please don`t think i`m blowing my own trumpet here.

Reason i`m stating these facts is that, please don`t think UM is full of losers due to the declining standard. Things might not be as rosy there compared to 20 years ago, but its not that bad either. There are still jewels in that uni if one could look past the uni`s administration.

However, i would like to note in view of the discussion on STPM and matrix students, we are all STPM based and 2 of them are bumis who took STPM. I know thats a rarity, but it happens.