Sunday, April 30, 2006

More postgraduate students - Quantity versus Quality

This seems like a busy week for education issues. The Zahid Higher Education Report was released to the public and I'm sure Tony and I will be blogging about it as more details are known. As usual, we're a step behind YB Lim Kit Siang who has already blogged about it here. But in this post, I'd like to discuss a report in the Star a few days ago quoting Higher Education Minister as saying that there will be a three fold increase in the enrolment of post graduate students in our local varsities, both private and public.

"Higher Education Minister Datuk Mustapa Mohamed said the current enrolment of 39,000 master’s and 7,000 PhD holders would increase to 116,000 and 21,000 respectively by 2010."

Let's analyze this statement further.

Where will the bulk of these postgraduate students receive their degrees? Mostly from public universities. According to Table 11-6 of the 9MP, out of the projected 21,680 PhD enrolment for 2010, 21,410 (98.9%) will be enrolled in public universities. Out of the projected 117,320 Masters student enrolment for 2010, 111,550 (95.1%) will be enrolled in public universities.

The first question that comes to mind is this - where are all these 'extra' postgraduate students going to come from? According to the same Table, to achieve this three fold increase in postgraduate student enrolment, we need to have an annual average growth rate of 26% for the next 5 years. That seems like a pretty tall task. Imagine a faculty with 40 Phd students and 40 Masters students. To achieve a three fold increase in enrolment, this faculty has to take in an average of 16 new students in both the Masters and PhD programs for the next five years (closer to 20 if you take into account graduating students).

I am quite sure that if one requires a department to increase its intake of students at such a rate, quality will surely be compromised. Most programs probably won't get sufficient applications to makeup the additional places required for growth. And if they do, it probably means that they are letting in students who might not have otherwised qualified.

One can only begin to imagine possible consequences. Since most departments would not be willing to fail or to hold back the underperfomers, what might happen is that we'd get a flood of underqualified Masters or PhD holders coming out from our public universities.

I had an earlier post here with some recommendations of how to increase the % of PhD holders among the academic staff in our public universities. I'd like to thank the many people who posted replies and enlightened me on some of the intricacies to applying to do a PhD within the public university system. I'm quite sure that some of the posts were from current lecturers within the system.

One of my suggestions was to force those lecturers who cannot get into foreign universities to complete their PhDs locally. Some lecturers with PhD's will struggle mightily to complete their degrees in an overseas environment that is foreign, competitive and difficult. At Duke, even with very well qualified applicants, the completion rate for PhDs stands somewhere between 60 to 70%. It makes more sense for these lecturers to try to complete their PhDs in a local environment.

But getting our non-PhD lecturers who are underperformers to obtain their PhDs locally is one thing, tripling the number of PhD students in 5 years is a whole new ball game. As if a mass of underemployed and underqualified undergraduates is not enough, should we exacerbate the situation with a mass of underemployed and underqualified postgraduate students as well?

Worse yet, what if some of these post graduate students who cannot get jobs in the private sector gets 'absorbed' back into the public university system as professors and lecturers? Then we're back to square one (if not worse).

We also have to look at the other side of the equation. Increasing the number of postgraduate students also means that we have to increase the number of qualified professors who can teach and supervise these postgraduate students. Given that we currently have less than 60% of our academic staff who have PhDs (and we will only reach this 60% target in 2010), is it realistic to assume that we have the capacity to train TRIPLE the number of postgraduate students at the Masters and PhD levels by 2010? The numbers just don't seem to add up!

My assessment of the situation goes something like this.

The numbers in the 9MP are just targets. The Higher Education Ministry and the administrators in the public universities are probably aware that a three fold increase in the number of postgrads is not viable. They will probably aim for a two fold increase (still problematic, for the same reasons outlined above). They probably won't get sufficient local applications. They will open up some places to foreigners, probably from other developing countries. They will also try to hire foreign lecturers and professors to fill up the 'gaps' in capacity and manpower. But the quality of the courses as well as the graduates will inevitably be affected, negatively.

I think that Tok Pa is caught betwen a rock and a hard place. To achieve developed country status and to upgrade the reputation of our local varsities requires more postgraduate students as one of the elements. But without a more substantive change in the structure and culture of local varsities (hiring and promotion decisions, the competitiveness of academic salaries, incentives to publish and do good research), quality will have to be sacrificed to achieve quantitative results.

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Top US Undergraduate Business Schools

Business Week has a regular rankings table for US and Global Business Schools for a Masters in Business Administration (MBA). However, for the first time ever, they have released a rankings list for the Top 50 Undergraduate Business schools in the United States.

According to Business Week, undergrad business programs are "getting MBA-like respect, and competition to get into them is hotter than ever".
To identify the best undergraduate business programs, BusinessWeek used five unique measures, including a survey of more than 100,000 business majors at top schools and a poll of undergraduate recruiters. To better understand career outcomes, we also looked at starting salaries for graduates and how many each school sent to top MBA programs. Finally, an academic-quality score--a combination of five measures including SAT scores and faculty-student ratios--identified schools with the smartest, hardest-working, and best-served students.
The top 20 schools are listed on the left (click for a larger image). You can also obtain the full top 50 rankings with additonal information such as scoring details as well as student comments in the PDF document here.

Originally, I was actually surprised at not finding Harvard any where on the list. Then I was reminded by a comment by a reader for the earlier post on United Kingdom vs United States, that there wasn't a degree for Business Administration offered there.

As shown above, University of Pennsylvania topped the rankings list. Some of you will be more familiar with the Wharton Business School which is placed 3rd in the MBA rankings.

Here, the class is made up of just 25 sophomores, most of whom Souleles knows by name... It's the kind of personal attention that landed Wharton at the top of BusinessWeek's inaugural ranking of the nation's best undergraduate business programs. But the school's merits go well beyond that. To succeed in the ranking, which incorporates five measures -- of student engagement, postgraduation outcomes, and academic quality -- schools must be firing on all cylinders. Clearly, Wharton is, landing in the Top 10 on four of the five ranking measures. Small classes, talented faculty, top-flight recruiting -- and a four-year format that allows its ultracompetitive students to delve deeply into business fundamentals -- lofted Wharton to the No. 1 position.

So, for those seeking to pursue undergraduate degrees in Business Administration in the United States, you now have a new guide to help you make your decision.

Footnote: Hmmmph... 25 in a class and that's "personal attention"? :)

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Vice-Chancellor Search Panel Permanent

A few days ago, I pointed out in my post “New UM Vice-Chancellor: Rafiah Salim”, the set up a an evaluation committee to pick the new vice-chancellor for Universiti Malaya (UM) was a small but critical step taken by the Ministry of Higher Education to improve the selection process for vice-chancellors at our local institutions of higher learning. While the media focused on the fact that Datuk Rafiah Salim was the first woman appointed as a vice-chancellor in Malaysia, I thought that the evaluation committee was a footnote which deserved greater praise and attention.

I asked the question in my post as to whether this committee will be an ad-hoc committee, just for UM or a permanent one for all public universities in Malaysia.
The first question I have for the Ministry, however, is whether this committee is set up on an ad-hoc basis or one who will look at the appointments of all vice-chancellors in all our 18 public universities? Ad-hoc committees will always have its shortfalls in terms of consistency especially in the event of a change of ministers.
Almost as it on que to the question I raised, the Minister of Higher Education, Datuk Mustapa Mohamed (Tok Pa) confirmed that “the Government-appointed search committee which picked Datuk Rafiah Salim for the post of vice-chancellor of Universiti Malaya last week will become a permanent one”. But lest I take credit for Tok Pa's confirmation (after all, Tok Pa reads blogs now), it was actually Sdr Lim Kit Siang who did the questioning in parliament. :)

The committee comprised of:
  • Tan Sri Abdul Halim Ali (Chairman), Employees Provident Fund and Universiti Teknologi Malaysia’s board of directors chairman
  • Tan Sri Syed Jalaluddin Syed Salim, former Universiti Putra Malaysia vice-chancellor
  • Prof Tan Sri Abu Hassan Othman, former Universiti Malaysia Sabah vice-chancellor
  • Tan Sri Azman Hashim, AmBank Group chairman
  • Prof Emeritus Datuk Dr Khoo Kay Kim, Universiti Malaya lecturer
Datuk Mustapa Mohamed explained that:
[w]e are always hearing complaints about the appointment of vice-chancellors. A permanent body is the best way to solve the problem.
This is absolutely correct and I'm happy that the Ministry has decided to take this approach. While some of us might like to quibble over the constitution of the committee (I personally thought that it should comprise of more senior respected academics, and not necessarily Malaysians), it is a great first step. However, it is by no means the only step required to improve the quality and suitability of our universities' vice-chancellors.

As a summary of some of the suggestions which have been raised on this blog for some time, the Ministry needs to:
  1. Establish the independence of the search and evaluation committee to ensure that the only criteria used for selection is the candidates' ability to improve the quality and standard of education at the relevant university, and not instead, the candidates' political links or connections.

  2. The exact terms of reference of this committee should be identified and published. I'm half-suspecting that the current committee was set up in a rush given the circumstances, especially with Tok Pa being appointed only 2 months ago.

  3. The quality of the committee members should be improved over time with greater emphasis on prominent and high-achieving academics. There's no reason why foreign “world class” academics could not be appointed to identify quality academics with sufficient intellectual prowess and administrative experience to lead our local universities. The current committee is constituted by a few personalities which are more prominent civil servants or businessmen, with insufficient academic understanding and experience.

  4. The shortlist of candidates should not be provided by the Ministry of Higher Education. For the exercise which identified Datuk Rafiah Salim as the best candidate for UM, there were apparently 11 persons who were considered. Nothing has been mentioned as to how these 11 persons were identified. The shortlist should instead be derived from the applications which are sourced from advertisements made globally in search for the best available candidate.

  5. Finally, there should be a consistent set of Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) set up to monitor the performance of the vice-chancellors by these same committee members. Without a common set of KPIs, one will find university vice-chancellors spending time and effort on publicity and glory trails such as participation in trade shows to collect colourful medals instead of focusing on hard research to be published in internationally respected academic journals.
Tok Pa, in the interest of Malaysian higher education, we are all looking forward to better things to come.

Human Rights Education

Many of us associate human rights with issues such as freedom of speech, democracy and other related issues. However, while the above issues receives the bulk of the attention due largely to the controversial nature by which they are implemented in the country, human rights actually mean a fair bit more than that.

A recent survey conducted by the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam) and highlighted by the Star, indicated a low level of awareness of human rights in the country's secondary schools.

Suhakam has published a 132-page report based on the survey entitled "Knowledge and Practice of Human Rights in Secondary Schools". 5,754 secondary students, 2,132 teachers and 142 administrators from 40 urban and rural schools took part in the survey in 2003.

One of the most striking findings, I thought was the fact that there was "a high level of ignorance with regard to the rights of a disabled child - over 95% of administrators, teachers (93%) and students (90%) said disabled children should be placed in special schools."

Professor Chiam Heng Keng, one of the Suhakam commissioners in-charge of the report said that "[t]hey are not aware that children with disabilities have the right to live a life as normal as possible as outlined in CRC."

Similar to an earlier posting on a innocent child who was rejected schooling opportunities due to being infected by the HIV virus, there's a tendency for society to take the easiest route out by placing these disadvantaged individuals in isolated, demarcated and controlled space and environment, compounding their already disadvantaged circumstances.

Suhakam made several recommendations which should be implemented immediately for there is really nothing preventing the actions from being taken besides administrative and bureaucratic inertia

The recommendations included helping students understand their rights and providing human rights courses in teacher training institutions. In addition "[a]mong Suhakam's recommendations... were to make public transportation and schools disable-friendly, require the private sector to offer employment opportunities and for Parliament to enact a Persons with Disabilities Act without delay."

While we might not be able to reverse a person's disability, let's make the lives of our disabled as normal as it possibly can.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Porn Punishment

Hmmm... this is novel. Misbehave in class and get yourself a porn "treat" as punishment. Well, apparently this is the case for 10 Form One students in a school in Muar.
Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein has ordered an investigation into complaints by several parents here that their children were forced to watch a pornographic video on Friday at 4pm in the audio-visual room of Sekolah Menengah Jalan Junid.

A Chinese daily had reported that the teacher ordered the students of both sexes into the room, closed the curtains and told them to watch the movie, saying it was their punishment for not doing their homework.
The principal of the school refused comment. As far as I'm concerned, the punishment is simple. Sack the teacher and ensure that he or she never becomes a teacher ever again.

Thanks to MageP's Lab for the update.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Tok Pa Reads Blogs!

Wow! I'm impressed. Our new Minister of Higher Education, Datuk Mustapa Mohamed (Tok Pa) reads blogs and makes it a point to reply quickly where required.

Parliamentary Opposition leader, Sdr Lim Kit Siang blogged 2 days ago based on a newspaper report that Tok Pa should "prove first-class mentality" by releasing the Zahid Higher Education Report to the public immediately instead of in August this year.

On the very next day, Tok Pa emailed, yes, emailed Sdr Lim his response that the newspaper report was not exactly accurate, and that he has begun the process of de-classification and should be made available to the public within the next two weeks.
The report by the media at the press conference held at LAN last Thursday was incomplete.

What I stated was that the Wan Zahid report will be made public as soon as possible, to allow for public consultations and updating of the findings and recommendations, including the incorporation of elements outlined in the 9th Malaysia Plan. Tan Sri Wan Zahid has been tasked to oversee this effort and the final report is expected to be completed by the end of September, this year.
Sdr Lim rightly praised Tok Pa for "passing the first test... for blazing the path as the first Cabinet Minister in cyberspace to respond to views concerning his ministry on blogs and the internet".

Now, if Tok Pa reads blogs, or at the very least, one of his senior assistants must be, then I may safely assume that this blog is being read (or monitored?) as well. :) For Sdr Lim have often liberally quoted, linked and plugged various posts in this blog in the past and as recent as a week ago.

Tok Pa, if you are reading this, both Kian Ming and myself would like to warmly welcome you to our modest blog on Education in Malaysia. Both of us are extremely concerned about the state of education available and accessible to all Malaysians in this country and would love to help it improve. I'm sure you'd have read the many criticisms we have had on the system to date, some harsher than others. These are not written out of malice, but of a sincere and heartfelt desire to be providing constructive criticism so that the relevant authorities may take the necessary steps to remedy the weaknesses.

Tok Pa, we look forward to a more open, transparent and constructive Higher Education policy and era under your leadership. Despite the many cynicism which have been expressed by many Malaysians, some as comments by readers of this blog, we hope that the standards and quality of our tertiary education sector will improve significantly under your reign.

Welcome once again! :)

How to increase the % of PhDs

Tony has started the ball rolling on the new UM VC. I'd like to chime in by continuing to give the new VC some additional friendly advice, on top of what I gave here and here.

I'm glad that Tony didn't refer to Datuk Rafiah Salim as Datuk Dr since he rightly recognizes that an honorary doctorate doesn't merit an official title of Dr. I won't prejudge the fact that she herself doesn't have a PhD even though one of the objectives stated by the 9MP is that 60% of the academic staff in public universities should have PhDs by 2010. Although it is a plus to have a PhD from a good school, I think it's probably more important to have the political will and skill to introduce and implement purposeful structural changes given the current state of our public universities.

I will, however, venture to give some friendly advice as to how we can increase the % of academic staff with PhDs. This applies to the larger context of public universities in Malaysia though UM is perhaps better placed to strive forward on this front given its history and resources.

Academic staff in our public universities who do not have PhDs usually fall into 2 categories. The first category comprise of those academics who are over the age of 40 and have been lecturing or teaching for a long time. They are too old to pursue their PhDs and have served too long to 'let go', in a manner of speaking. Some of them might be great lecturers and teachers but are probably past their time in terms of cutting edge research in their respective fields. There's not much that a VC can do for the staff in this category except to give incentives for them to retire early.

The second category is where most of the 'action' is. These are lecturers who usually hold degrees from our public universities, under the age of 40 and have been lecturing within the system for a few years. Most, if not all of them, are waiting to obtain government / university funding to go abroad to do their PhDs. From my conversations with some of my friends in our public universities, the path to a PhD goes something like this.

You start off by doing pretty well academically at a local public university. Then, you apply for a position of a lecturer at a public university. Some lecturers would already have obtained their Masters degree, usually from a local public university. Others would take their masters as they are lecturing. They will usually be 'confirmed' after an average of 3 years or so. Only after they are confirmed will they be in the running to apply for funding to do their PhDs, usually overseas. But because funding is so limited, only a small number of these lecturers ever get to take the next step to do their PhDs. You can stay as a lecturer for more than 10 years without getting your chance to go abroad. There's an age limit of 39 or 40 over which you will no longer be funded. So as that deadline approaches, it is increasingly likely that you will be funded to pursue your PhD.

Let's reflect on the incentives that this system produces. Firstly, you won't apply to a PhD program until you get the go-ahead from your department or from your university because even if you get into a PhD program, you might not be able to go if you don't have funding. If you're really ambitious and politically savvy, you'd approach the right 'channels' to expedite the process of obtaining funding. If you're comfortable staying at the position of being a lecturer without a PhD, you'd sit and wait and sit and wait and hope the funding will come ... eventually.

With this kind of system in place, is it any wonder that we have problems boosting up the % of academic staff with PhDs? Think about this for a moment. We're still expanding the size and intake of our public universities. This means that we have to keep hiring lecturers without PhDs to keep up with our pace of expansion. But the funding for these lecturers to do their PhDs is not keeping pace with the hiring of these lecturers. Let's say that our public universities hire lecturers without PhDs at a rate of growth of 10% per year and that the % growth in the number of lecturers being sent overseas to do their PhDs is only 5% per annum. You do the math. I'd be surprised if the 60% target is reached by 2010 at the rate we're going.

Within this system, there's also very little incentive to look for your own personal funding to do your PhD since (1) you can't be fired from your job as a lecturer (2) the government / university 'guarantees' funding for you (at some unspecified time before you turn 40). So there's no need to apply to US universities where private funding is much more easily available becase (1) those very hard to get into (2) it takes longer compared to UK and Australian universities (3) the government only guarantees you 3 years of funding.

Furthermore, there's this bureaucratic wall which says that individual lecturers cannot apply for the Fulbright (US) or Chevening (UK) scholarships on their own. They have to be 'sponsored' by either the university or the JPA. Imagine how keen the JPA or the university is to do the additional paperwork of vetting through suitable candidates. Imagine how keen potential candidates are to go through that lengthy process without a guarantee that the university or the JPA will 'sponsor' you. It is hardly surprising to me that most of the recipient of scholarships such as the Chevening and the Fulbright are private candidates with little or no affliation with the public universities. Talk about disincentives.

OK, I think I've outlined the discintives sufficiently. What then are some possible solutions? I have a few:

(1) Send potential PhD candidates to countries where the cost of obtaining a PhD is much lower. Instead of the US, the UK and Australia, our public varsities should look for alternative institutions which are cheaper in countries such as China, India, or even Singapore! This way, more PhD candidates can be funded through smaller amounts instead of relying on one huge lump sum to fund one or two candidates. To give you an idea of the cost of funding a PhD candidate, let me use myself as an illustrative example.

I just received my funding letter for my third year at Duke. My fees for 2 semesters round up to $33,000 (all figures are in US dollars). My stipend including health insurance comes up to $18,000. That adds up to $51,000 per year (not including summer funding) or approximately RM180,000 per year or RM900,000 for 5 years. If UM were my sponsors, they would probably pay for 3 years and give me a lower stipend. That would probably still come up to around RM150,000 a year or RM450,000 for 3 years. For half a million ringgit, UM could probably sponsor 3 PhD students in NUS or 5 in New Delhi.

The potential problem with this approach is that UM (or any other local varsity) would still have to incentivize their lecturers to apply to cheaper alternatives. If I were a lecturer, I would definitely prefer to be sponsored to go to a university in the US or the UK than one in China or India or Singapore. What's in it for the lecturers? My response is the 2nd proposal.

(2) Streamline the application process such that potential candidates who have been 'confirmed' are forced to apply with 3 years, let's say, to PhD programs in different universities in different countries. Pay for the application process. Set an amount of sponsorship that will be given but set this at a relatively low level so that candidates are incentivized to apply to programs that will give them financial assistance in addition to what UM is giving them. It means that if you want to go to a more expensive school in US, you need to find additional funding on your own. If you can't, then you have to go to a lower cost alternative. Set a time frame for these lecturers to receive and to take an offer. For example, you may feel that at your first try, none of the universities which have accepted you are up to your expectations. You still have, let's say, 2 more application cycles to go before you're forced to accept an offer.

Related to this streamlining process is to offer incentives for lecturers to seek funding from scholarship boards such as the Fulbright or Chevening. This way, there's a natural weeding out process where the best candidates apply for good universities in the US and UK and get private funding from these universities and scholarship boards. UM will top up the shortfall in funding (up to a maximum) and if private funding is sufficient to cover fees and costs, the basic sponsorship money from UM comes as a 'bonus' so that these well qualified students are not penalized for their efforts.

(3) 'Let go' of lecturers who obviously don't have the aptitude or desire to do and finish a PhD. This is extremely difficult to do since a job with the university is considered an 'iron rice bowl'. Some of these lecturers could be shifted to do more administrative jobs and hence decrease the denominator in the calculation of academic staff with PhDs. But if there are lecturers who can't teach, can't research and can't do administrative jobs, then, they should be 'let go'. There's no easy way out of this. An academic culture of excellence cannot be inculcated if the lecturers or professors themselves do not have to excel at what they are supposed to do i.e. teach and conduct research.

My basic thrust is this - there has to be incentives to push people to do their PhDs. The incentives should be in the form of carrots and sticks. You'd be amazed by what people are willing to do given the right incentives. The largest group of international students at the graduate level at Duke come from China and I would say that over 90% of them have obtained funding from Duke in one way or another. Most of these scholars I've spoken to received little help from their professors or universities in China in the application process. One applied to 20 schools in the US and obtained fully funded offers from 5 of them before deciding on Duke. There are about approximately 1,500 PhD students from China in Duke alone, mostly in the hard sciences. Currently, there are 2 Malaysian PhD students in Duke, including myself. Both of us are fully funded by Duke. I would hazard a guess that there are probably more PhD students from China in Duke than there are overseas PhD students currently sponsored by all of the public universities in Malaysia. I would be really happy to stand corrected on this but I suspect that I won't be.

Right now, the process of getting non-Phd lecturers in our public universities to do their PhDs is screwed up - it doesn't motivate people to seek private funding, it doesn't give people incentives to apply to programs without a guarantee of funding, it doesn't punish people who can't teach or do research and so on. People as rational creatures respond to incentives. The tricky part is to implement structures that will allow these incentives to work.

Monday, April 24, 2006

United Kingdom vs United States

Congratulations to Kylie Anne Francis who received her offers of acceptance from both Harvard and Cambridge University. She has opted to accept the offer from Harvard University, a decision I would hazard a guess, was helped by financial aid from the university of up to US$44,000 a year, inclusive of housing and tuition fees.

Twins, Arun and Ashok Thillaisundaram, however, have no qualms selecting Cambridge as their university of choice to pursue their degrees in Physics and Mathematics, with the latter having already secured a scholarship from Jardine Foundation.

Putting the availability of financial aid or scholarship aside, how would you choose between Harvard (US) or Cambridge (UK) University?

This thought about comparing a degree from United Kingdom (UK) and that from the United States (US) has been playing in my head for a fairly long time. I'm certain that everyone will have their prejudices :) as well. After all, Kian Ming has insinuated once that I should get acquainted to an American education, instead of being too "outdated" and UK-centric. :)

So here you go. Here are some of my thoughts on the comparisons which are likely to be accrued generalisations over the years. They are by no means facts which are cast in stone. The reason why I'm putting them down is so that this "impression" may get corrected, qualified or even possibly justified by you guys out there, for the benefit of the young readers here who might be interested, but are uncertain as to where they should pursue their education overseas.

There's an additional assumption I'd like to state - that is in all likelihood, I'm comparing only the top universities of both countries and not all universities as a whole. This is because when attempting to generalise too wide a pool of schools, the generalisation will no longer have any practical or meaningful value.

Regular readers will know that I'm a product of a British-centric education having undergone the 'O', 'A' Levels as well as a degree from the UK. I've barely stepped foot in the US (for a 3-week training stint at St Charles, Chicago) and have no experience whatsoever with schools in that country. During my 'A' Levels, I was faced with an choice of taking the SAT examination in order to apply for the universities in the United States. I never took SAT because I thought I'd prefer a UK-based education, after receiving some word-of-mouth information and advice from friends and seniors.

The information I had, and the impression that I still have today, is that a UK-based degree will be more disciplined and specialised, while a US-based one will be more generalised and be of less depth. I have also understood from the various posts I've read online that, very often, one doesn't have to even decide which specialisation (e.g., economics or political science or history etc.) until the 2nd or 3rd year of studies.

Hence in terms of subject-matter knowledge, one will actually get more out of the UK degree rather than the US degree. This is not to say that the US degree is worth less, because it'll be equally good in terms of cultivating critical thinking. And therefore, as I was pretty certain of what I wanted to read for my degree as well as the "slight" hassle and cost of having to sit for the SAT (not a very good excuse, this one), I opted for a degree in the UK.

However, for postgraduate studies, I understand that the US-based qualifications will have the slight edge over the UK ones. This is probably due to the fact that US based universities have much larger research funding as well as ability to attract the best academics in the world to provide a more rewarding postgraduate and research experience.

For MBAs in particularly, none of the UK or European schools appear to be able to compare themselves against the top schools in the US like Harvard, Wharton, Chicago or Kellogs. This is probably due to the fact that the world's largest and most profitable corporations are US-based companies and the experience one will be able to gather from these schools as a result of the network (as well as the top notch lecturers) will be tremendous.

So, the way I look at it, Kian Ming has done it "right". He pursued his first degree in London School of Economics, did a Masters in Cambridge and is now pursuing his Doctorate at Duke University, United States. The only thing is maybe he needn't have done is Masters for he had "complained" on the time needed to complete his PhD in the US. But having a "Cambridge" in the resume never hurts. :)

Now, would I have approached my applications differently today? Yes, only on the basis that many of the top universities in the US such as Harvard, Yale, MIT and possibly Princeton offers full financial aid to students from families with income of less than US$60,000 per annum, as long as they are accepted by the admissions office. That will really save one the hassle of hunting high and low for scholarships or financial assistance - which I did.

Note also that while the topic makes for a interesting discussion, I believe the actual decision of whether one should opt for a UK or US-based top university is moot, and is really dependent on individual preference. Whether Kylie graduates from Harvard or Cambridge will make absolutely no difference to her future employment prospects, and she will receive quality education both ways.

So, for you guys out there pursuing your degree (or have recently completed them) in the UK and the US - what do you think? :)

Friday, April 21, 2006

New UM Vice Chancellor: Rafiah Salim

Well, looks like readers can't wait for postings here on the new Universiti Malaya vice-chancellor. Plenty of comments have been received in my previous post, which isn't exactly related to the topic. :) I've also received a couple of mails requesting my comments on the issue.

So apologies for the delay. I've taken the family back to kampung to visit the grandparents for the weekend. Anyway, I'm still back in Batu Pahat, but I thought I'd put in a quick word on Datuk Rafiah Salim's appointment.

Here's a brief on her profile, based on the little information I've gathered through the various news reports e.g., here and here.
Rafiah is currently executive director of the International Centre for Leadership in Finance and had served as lecturer, deputy dean and UM Law Faculty Dean.

Born on May 13, 1947, Kelantan-born Rafiah made a career move in 1989 to become the head of Malayan Banking Berhad’s legal department. She was Bank Negara Malaysia’s assistant governor from 1995 to 1997 and United Nations Assistant Secretary-General for Human Resources Management from 1997 to 2002.

Rafiah received her Bachelor and Master’s of Law degrees at the Queen’s University in Belfast, Ireland. She obtained her certificate in legal practice in 1980 to become an advocate and solicitor of the High Court of Malaya.
You can also read a glowing reference of her career to date, which was probably the citation given to her when she received her honourary doctorate from Queens Univesrsity, Belfast.

I'm in no position to make a fair assessment on the capabilities of Datuk Rafiah Salim, particularly on her suitability to be the vice-chancellor of Malaysia's premier university. As mentioned in an earlier post to the "mistaken" report by the New Straits Times which suggested that it was Dr Sharifah Hapsah was appointed, "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."

However, it is interesting to note that the Ministry of Higher Education has not selected a candidate who have received his or her doctorate and has undergone the "full" academic experience. As commented by several readers and fellow bloggers, to a certain extent, this is contrary to the 9th Malaysia Plan's target of having at least 60% of the university lecturers being PhD holders.

It also appears that the criteria of administrative and management capabilities carried a tad more weight that the candidates academic credentials. Was it a case whereby the evaluation committee decided that UM required somebody to whip it into shape first before focusing on the academic aspects (after all, UM is beset with a whole host of non-academic issues as well) or that the management skills and achievements of Datuk Rafiah Salim well compensated the weakness in her academic credentials? As suggested by Kian Ming in one of his earlier post:
As a leader of a research university, one of the VC's most important tasks is to promote the growth of academic excellence in his or her university. Only a person who has had extensive experience within the academic setting would know how to effectively accomplish this objective.
On a slight more positive note, it was revealed for the first that there is an "evaluation" committee set up to selected the vice-chancellor from a shortlist of 11 candidates. The committee comprised of the following individuals:
  • Tan Sri Abdul Halim Ali (Chairman), Employees Provident Fund and Universiti Teknologi Malaysia’s board of directors chairman
  • Tan Sri Syed Jalaluddin Syed Salim, former Universiti Putra Malaysia vice-chancellor
  • Prof Tan Sri Abu Hassan Othman, former Universiti Malaysia Sabah vice-chancellor
  • Tan Sri Azman Hashim, AmBank Group chairman
  • Prof Emeritus Datuk Dr Khoo Kay Kim, Universiti Malaya lecturer
While one can always have qualms on the constitution of the committee, it is a positive step forward by the Ministry of Higher Education to have set up this "independent" committee, and making known its members, to evaluate the shortlist. The first question I have for the Ministry, however, is whether this committee is set up on an ad-hoc basis or one who will look at the appointments of all vice-chancellors in all our 18 public universities? Ad-hoc committees will always have its shortfalls in terms of consistency especially in the event of a change of ministers.

Hence, my 2-cents advice for the Ministry of Higher Education to further improve the process of selection of vice-chancellors:

  • Make permanent a search and evaluation process for the appointment of vice-chancellors (and their deputies) at our local public universities. There should be some form of permanence in the process to instil a culture of transparency and integrity.

  • Enhance the independence and credibility of the "evaluation" committee to be a "search and evaluation" committee. Our local universities should follow the best practices of the world's best universities by advertising the vacancy in the position in the academia globally. Resumes should be collected and headhunters appointed to seek the best for our universities.

  • The shortlisted candidates should then be evaluated by both the university and the selection committee (comprising of eminent academics) before the best is chosen.
I've written more on the "Elusive Vice-Chancellor Search Committee" here.

Irrespective, we wish Datuk Rafiah Salim all the best in attempting to return Universiti Malaya to its former glory.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

"Making the Most of the Best and Brightest"

I am certainly glad that the Malaysian Parliament does not consist only of clowns like Datuk Badruddin Amiruldin (UMNO-Jerai) who continually spout bigoted and uneducated opinions such as "[c]lothes can be indecent, too. That's why rapes happen. Clothes play a part when someone becomes a rape victim.". (The President of the Bar Council, Yeo Yang Poh was understandably"speechless, when a statement of such ridiculous proportions comes from a representative of the rakyat.")

Datuk Zaid Ibrahim, the founder of one of Malaysia's largest legal practice and the Member of Parliament for Kota Bahru, has this to say recently on the development of human capital under our 9th Malaysian Plan (9MP):
It is true that the development of infrastructure and superhighways has propelled this country to great heights... However, it is impossible to maintain our present economic status, let alone achieve developed nation status, without world-class manpower and highly skilled workers.

What is needed is a holistic approach to creating a framework whereby knowledge and skills are developed; where society puts a premium on ideas and the country values people who are intelligent.
Datuk Zaid asked if we possess the "First World mindset" that our Prime Minister continually harped on throughout his tenure, and particularly in the 9MP. He went on to argue that many of the policies contained in the 9MP are in themselves contrary to the Prime Minister's aim of inculcating the "First World mindset". He rightly pointed out that "government nannying and restrictive affirmative-action policies will hinder the development of Malaysia's human capital".

Datuk Zaid proceeded to highlight three key critical success factors in achieving the "First World mentality" as well as to achieve maximum gains from the crtical objective of developing human capital.

1. Meritocracy
...we must subscribe to meritocracy as a desirable and valuable proposition; which is worthy of support as it is an ethical proposition. Only through a vigorous adoption of this policy can we achieve a world-class economy. How else can we garner the best and the brightest to serve the country if we are not resolute about developing and nurturing them?

It is impossible to get the best to serve the country in any field of human endeavour unless we value and reward them accordingly. The emphasis on meritocracy does not mean we have to abandon our desire to help the disadvantaged among us. The compassion we offer to the less fortunate and the less gifted must continue. However, no allowances should be made to accommodate mediocrity and laziness.
2. Ethnic Neutrality
...we must overcome this obsession with racial statistics within the various contexts - corporate ownership, the civil service, the number of professionals in the country, and student ratios in schools and universities.

Past or existing affirmative action policies extending assistance to Bumiputeras must be reviewed to remedy drawbacks because these have contributed to unhealthy practices and inculcated a feeling of alienation among some Malaysians.
3. Academic Freedom & Intellectual Growth
...the development of manpower capabilities requires an environment that is conducive to intellectual growth and stimulation. Such an environment would encourage and promote the rational pursuit of knowledge, reward healthy competition and be pragmatic in its approach...

We must be willing to grant some autonomy to our academic institutions, protect freedom of expression to allow our media to comment and inform without fear of prosecution, and nurture intellectual growth through open debate by academics on crucial issues of public importance... We must adopt and adapt the cultural values of the First World if we are determined to compete against them on the playing field of knowledge.
Well, I can't agree more. Dearest cabinet members, can you hear the rakyat speak?

Footnote: Datuk Badruddin Amiruldin was also infamous for his statement that "Malaysia ini negara Islam, you tak suka, you keluar dari Malaysia."

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

University Entry Criteria: Co-Curricular Activities

It has been highlighted in the press for quite a few weeks now. The Ministry of Higher Education, Datuk Mustapa Mohamed has further confirmed and clarified that co-curricular activities will make up 10% of entry requirements into public universities from this year. You can read reports from the various news sources here, here, here and here.

I'm in full agreement that co-curricular activities (CCA) should be part of the evaluation process although I must admit that I would be clueless as to whether a 10% contribution is the right percentage - should it be 5% or 15%? From an initial gut feel, a 10% contribution sounds like a fair percentage to start with. After all, the Ministry should be given a bit of leeway to fine-tune the entry process over the next few years.

The little concern I have with regards to this new criteria is the fact that it applies directly to those STPM and matriculation students seeking entry into our public universities in the current year. I thought its a bit unfair for the entry requirements to be decided at this stage when the students were not given an opportunity to "make good" in their secondary schools. It's kinda like moving the goalposts in the last minute after one has managed to work his way past all the defenders. It would have been better if the policy is implemented for students enrolling into Form 6 or pre-university courses in the current year.

In addition, co-curricular activities, being a subjective matter, will be extremely difficult to achieve standardisation in terms of participation across schools throughout the country. And when subjectivity comes into play, it leaves plenty of room for manoeuvre - whether legally or otherwise.

The Minister of Higher Education has stated that "[f]or those who had submitted their application on-line, the information would be berified with the respective schools to ensure it is accurate." The Ministry will be receiving thousands and thousands of applications each year, how in the world are they going to be able to verify all these information accurately is beyond me.

Hence, it is hoped that the new system will not be abused by students and teachers alike. You can surely imagine teachers and students attempting to abuse the system through favouritism and worse, corruption.

On the balance of it, as long as the guidelines are put in place properly and the system is not abused too badly, I suppose it'll be good for our students. It's about time for students to be evaluated not just on academics (although academic achievement is still the absolutely biggest component), but also activities which will help build an well-round individual.


Being quite a comics geek myself, I've always thought that pretty girls in sexy and cool outfits who can pack a mighty punch like Supergirl only exists in the fantasy world. Well, that's till I read about Suzanne Lee while on the flight in The Sun today.
Suzanne Lee is a roving free spirit. In her 21 years she's been a mechanic, a model, a PR agent and now a travelling photographer.... it doesn't seem possible that she's been to 16 countries, served as a team mechanic for Aarows Racing Team, stood in as stuntwoman for Mendam Berahi in Bombay Dramas, hiked through Pakistan's Thar Desert.
You might want to ask, what has this got to do with an education blog? Has Tony's repressed teenage angst been suddenly unleashed? (Well, maybe – the repressed bit. :)) But more excitingly, is how Suzanne has totally took her life by the scruff of her neck and seized the day. Carpe Diem, they say.

Suzanne started off modelling at sweet sixteen (by accident). But her experience at modelling led to a flair and passion for photography with all the big cameras and disproportionately gigantic lenses. She bought her first SLR camera from the proceeds of a beer shoot and off she went on a four months backpacking tour of Europe. And how does she afford all these travelling?

“I travel on a budget. You need a great deal of emotional and mental control to travel alone for long periods of time. Emotional beause you're on your own and you have to be in control of the situation at all times. Mental control comes into play in expenditure, no matter how much you love a souvenir, a budget is a budget.

I also do freelance jobs along the way. When I was in Europe for example, I was an unofficial photographer for the Sauber-Petronas F1 Racing Team.... Now I travel on sponsorship. It's an exchange of services – I take photos and they sponsor me the trip,” she said with a happy grin.
What about her education?

My personal take? With a life as full as hers, formal education can wait. Suzanne was enrolled into a degree for photography programme at a local college but that has since been put in “indefinite hiatus” for she is unsurprisingly learning much much more out there.

While my life has not been without its excitements and adventure, I read with a tinge of regret that the path Suzanne has taken is now beyond me (not unless I decide to ditch my wife and daughter :)). This would have been something which I would have been extremely interested to do, but of course, there are just too many things to do in this short life of ours.

As reported by the Sun, for Suzanne, the turning point in her life came when she became aware of a big, big world out there accompanied by an “undeniable attack of wonderlust”. And she quoted St Augustine, “the world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.”

Yes, its alternative education at its best. I'm certain that there are others like her around, but Suzanne certainly sets a perfect role model for our young ones.

Monday, April 17, 2006

9MP: Electronic Labour Exchange

Yes, I'm still trawling through the 9th Malaysia Plan (9MP) and it seems to be taking a bit of time. :) But something caught my eye which I thought I'd share here first.

In the Chapter 11 of the Plan entitled "Human Capital Development", which is essentially the key chapter for Kian Ming and myself to read, it appears that one of the measures the Government is seeking to implement is an Electronic Labour Exchange (ELX) to improve labour market information and reduce unemployment due to mismatch.
11.42 Labour Market Information. The implementation of Electronic Labour
Exchange (ELX) will be improved for effective placement of jobseekers as well as dissemination of labour market information to ensure efficient functioning of the labour market. In this regard, education and training institutions will provide information on their graduates to the ELX including their employment status to facilitate job placement.

Effective measures will be undertaken to disseminate information on ELX to stakeholders including employers, students and jobseekers. Employers will be encouraged to make regular use of ELX to register job vacancies and provide feedback on placement. A mechanism will be established to monitor and ensure optimum utilisation of ELX. In addition, greater efforts will be undertaken to facilitate graduates, particularly those who have participated in Government- sponsored education and training programmes to secure employment.
This is quite interesting in that the Government wants to play match-maker in the market today. I just hope that they will think this through thoroughly before deciding that we need another electronic labour exchange.

Well, you will have noted that I mentioned "another" electronic labour exchange. The reason is simple, we have one of the most successful electronic labour exchanges in Malaysia already - and I'm certain that most of you readers out there who are in the job market (or are going to be) will have your resume published in If I may hazard a guess, every prospective graduate worth his salt will have submitted his resume into the repository. Without sounding like a plug for Jobstreet, it has some of the best mechanisms for jobseekers to apply for jobs while providing powerful tools for employers to filter, sort and shortlist their candidates (well, improvements can still be made, but you get the gist).

Why should the Government attempt to build another ELX, probably at the cost of millions, without taking into consideration the various measures (and their associated cost) to promote the exchange? Why should the Government attempt to reinvent the wheels?

In this particular case, instead of having the precious funds invested in another exchange with no (or possibly even little) assurance of success in its objectives, the funds should instead be used to enable to be even more accessible by prospective employees and employers. It'll probably cost less for the Government to subsidize the employers placing advertisements in the well-oiled Jobstreet mechanism to encourage "effective placement of jobseekers as well as dissemination of labour market information to ensure efficient functioning of the labour market".

Hey, you guys at Jobstreet, time to start lobbying the Ministry of Human Resources to make sure that the Government does the right thing. There's really no point for the Government to attempt another "Exchange", which in all likelihood will be an expensive failure for Jobstreet has done an exceptional job in cornering the job placement and advertisement market in Malaysia. And guess what? They are not at all expensive (relative to the press ads anyway). It costs less than RM400 per advertisement which lasts for 1 month.

Hey, you guys at Ministry of Human Resources - if you make full use of, not only will the Exchange be off the ground running immediately, and you get to see immediate returns to your investment, you will get to help promote one of our local internet MSC companies at well, which is one of the ICT objectives of the 9MP as well. So you get to kill 2 birds with a single stone!

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Fancy A Trip To Oxford?

Well, if you are the winner of the English Speaking Union (ESU) International Relations Conference Contest, you get to attend the conference at Oriel College, Oxford University in July this year. The prize includes air ticket and transferee cost, lectures and visits, accommodation and meals during the conference.

In 2005 34 delegates attended the Conference and they represented a total of 21 countries. The majority of delegates were young professionals from the fields of trade and industry, law, journalism, teaching and the diplomatic service.

During the week four main topics will be covered: British Institutions; International Relations; Law and Government, British Institutions and International Trade and Industry. Each session will take the form of a short lecture followed by a comprehensive discussion involving all delegates.

Contestants this year must write a 150-word essay entitled “How international relations can benefit Malaysia." The closing date is April 28 and submissions should include name, identity card number, nationality, degree and qualification, address, telephone number and e-mail address.

Submissions should be sent to ESU International Relations Conference, Star Publication (M) Bhd, Menara Star, 15 Jalan 16/11, 46350 Petaling Jaya or e-mailed to For more information on ESU Malaysia, log on to or call 03-8942 6278. You can also download the application forms here.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Nincompoops @ Public Service Department

With the annual uproar over our Public Service Department's (PSD) scholarship award and allocation process, I was slightly hopeful for a less controversial year, especially with a slightly more active public relations policy in attempting to make it slightly more transparent the evaluation process. But it didn't take long for the first controversy to be highlighted in the papers, whom I'm certain are just lurking like vultures waiting to pounce on PSD in any clear (or even not so clear) cut event of “injustice”.

It was highlighted last Wednesday that a 12 1As disabled student was denied even an interview for a scholarship by the Star.
As the country’s top special-needs student, he was exhilarated that he was one step closer to achieving his ambition of being a lawyer for people with disabilities. And he was looking forward to sharing his hopes and vision at the short-listing interview for the Public Services Department (PSD) scholarships. But he received a letter of rejection instead.

“I am supposedly the top disabled-student in the country. If I don’t get a shot at the PSD scholarship, then what are the chances of other special students?” said Wong, 18, who suffers from Duchenne Muscular Dsytrophy, characterised by progressive muscle weakness, and thus requires assistance with physical activities.
One of the official reasons (excuses?) given by PSD, or at least their corporate communications chief, Hasniah Rashid, for Albert's scholarship rejection was...
... [f]or example, we can’t accept a blind student for medicine, as he will not be able to do some of the practical work. We also have to see if the necessary facilities are available in the local preparatory colleges where they will undergo the first stage of the programme (pre-university studies).
To me, while its true that there are indeed limitations to what a disabled person can study, as quoted in the example above. However, by further arguing that Albert will be denied an opportunity to secure a scholarship purely because there may not be the “necessary facilities” at the local preparatory colleges is such a pathetic excuse. To me, it's the simplest thing of all to build disabled facilities, and the hardest thing to come by is talent. Hence if the talent is indeed shown to be available, the such facilities must be build to ensure the talent and potential of the Malaysian is maximised. Read also letters to the Star here and here which highlighted the Governments lack of care for the disabled achievers.

Furthermore the reason given by Pn Hasniah above is invalid in Albert's case for he isn't seeking to study medicine, but instead to study Economics, whereby his disability will be absolutely no bearing. And this brings me to the bit where I think that some of these guys at the PSD are nincompoops. Pn Hasniah absurdly argued that
[i]n Wong’s case... he might have been disadvantaged because he was a pure-science student but had applied for an economics degree for which applicants need at least a 2A in Basic Economics and either Principles of Accounts, Commerce or Entrepreneurship Studies – subjects that he did not take in his SPM exam.
What sort of nonsense is that???

While I'm not a Pure Science student (I took Physics and Chemistry without Biology, but with Geography and English Literature), I certainly did not take Economics for my 'O' Levels (I barely even knew such a subject existed). Without being overly immodest, I dare say that I did extremely well for Economics both in 'A' Levels and at University. It is absolutely unnecessary for students who wishes to read Economics to have prior studies at 'O'-Levels or SPM for Basic Economics, Principles of Accounts, Commerce or Entrepreneurship studies!

Now, if one wants to pursue Medicine studies and they have not been a Pure Science student with Biology as a key subject, I can completely understand the rejection. But for Arts and Social Sciences related degrees where the emphasis is on analytical thinking capabilities and less on technical knowledge, prior studies of any subject is irrelevant!

Who are these civil servants in PSD making these absolutely ridiculous rulings and policies? Do they really know what they are doing at all? These are supposed to be the important people who are supposed to be wise to the ways of higher education and their requirements. The evidence so far points to incompetent fools running the show!

Thankfully, in Albert's case, the media highlighted it and the Cabinet made the decision that he should be supported.
... Cabinet members decided that the country’s top special-needs student, who obtained 12 1As in last year’s examination, should be given due assistance. For a start, Chief Secretary to the Government Tan Sri Samsudin Osman will meet with Albert and his family as soon as possible to discuss how the Government can best help him pursue his studies.
Like civil servants who run helter skelter to carry out instructions of their superiors “to the letter”, Albert was immediately awarded a scholarship without even having to attend a scholarship interview! As highlighted in the Star today:
PSD Training Division officer Azman Ishak called on Albert at his home here to present him with the offer letter and to explain the terms and conditions of the scholarship to him and his parents. The scholarship covers the remainder of Albert's A-Levels programme at Kolej Damansara Utama (KDU) and a three-year University of London (external programme) Bachelor of Law (LL.B) programme, also at KDU.
Congratulations must go to Albert for securing his scholarship! However, big question marks must be attached to the manner in which PSD carries out its scholarship allocation and award process. In addition, it appears that it's perfectly alright for a pure science student to pursue a career in law, but not okay to study Economics.

Final footnote, particularly to Albert if he sees this post - with all due respect to the University of London external law programme, I'd like to suggest that if he does well for his 'A' Levels, aim higher and apply for the top universities in the United Kingdom or United States. It'll make a world of a difference.

Set Realistic Goals - Top 20 in Asia Pacific

The Minister of Higher Education recently set a goal of placing two Malaysian universities among the world's top 50 universities by 2010. While it's laudable that we would want to 'reach for the stars', I think it's more productive for us to set more realistic goals. Instead of wanting to be placed among the top 50 universities in the world, we should instead gun for a place among the top 20 universities in Asia Pacific.

Why do I say that it's unrealistic for us to want to rank among the Top 50 universites in the world? (Let's put aside the question of how rankings are determined or whether they are important for the moment) A few reasons.

Firstly, no top 50 university in the world will have only 60% of its teaching staff with doctoral qualifications, which is the target according to the 9MP. Of course, there can be a range within the public universities. For example, UM or UKM might have 80% of its teaching staff with doctoral degrees while Unimas in Sarawak or UUM in Kedah might only have 50% of its teaching staff with doctoral degrees. But even then, no US university that is ranked in the top 200 (perhaps more) would have anything less than 100% of its academic staff with PhDs.

Some might say that PhDs are no the be all and end all to judge the quality of a tertiary education. But since a large component of what universities are about has to do with academic research, isn't the % of academic staff who have gone through the rigors and process of getting a PhD an important indicator for the quality of research coming out of a university? I think it is.

As I've said before, getting a PhD in the US entails a longer and arguably, tougher road compared to getting a PhD in the UK or Australia. And even after graduating from a top program in one of the top universities in your field, you are not guaranteed a job. Many graduate students with newly minted PhDs in political science and economics (two fields I am most familiar with) usually end up with tenure track positions in less well-known universities (Utah State or Binghamton, just to name some examples) and even then the competition for these jobs is very intense.

In comparison, if you have a PhD from a university like Harvard, Cornell, Stanford and Duke, I doubt that you would have a problem finding a job in any of the local universities. You could probably have your pick, if you're willing to accept the constraints that come along with a job in a local university. Even then, the best local universities (UM, USM, UKM) are having problems attracting Malaysians with overseas degrees to come back to teach and do research.

Secondly, there's no way any of the local varsities have the kinds of resources that top US universities have - access to alumni who are more than willing to contribute to ever growing endowment funds; the ability to charge high fees (especially among the private universities) to fund higher salaries, better facilities, etc...; the access to private and public sources of funding for cutting edge projects (especially in the sciences); the ability to attract the best minds from all over the world.

I could go on but you get the drift.

Therefore, instead of trying to aim for the unrealistic goal of getting 2 universities into the Top 50 ranking, I think it makes more sense for Tok Pa and his Ministry to gun for a more realistic goal - that of placing 2 universities among the Top 20 in the Asia Pacific region.

This is not as easy as it sounds. In Newsweek's last survey on universities in the Asia Pacific in 2000, UM ranked 47 after being ranked 27 in the 1999 survey. UM has to go against universities in Australia, Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, India and China. Many of the top universities in these countries are already feeling the heat of globalisation and have responded to it using a multitude of strategies. I'll blog later about how I think Malaysia can find a comparative advantage in terms of strategies but for now I'll state my point again - Gun for a top 20 position in Asia Pacific, Discard the notion that we can be ranked among the top 50 universites in the world.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Political Science Nonsense

Yup. That's what Mr Chou Cheng Ngok thinks of his degree in Political Science (hopefully, half in jest :)). For those who are unaware, Mr Chou is the chairman of Popular Holdings Limited, the owner and franchisor of the many Popular Bookshops around the country and region. As explained in an interview with the Star today:
And the reason the affable Singapore-born businessman chose to do political science at Wayne State University in Detroit? He dropped out of medicine after figuring it wasn’t his cup of tea, but, too afraid to come home to face his father’s fury, he stayed on to do something he thought was easy – “political science is just talking nonsense”.
Ouch. Ouch again!

So obviously I picked an easy course to obtain my degree, and Kian Ming picked an easy one to secure his doctorate. And we clearly don't cut it to become doctors! >Sob!< (Well, I'm not sure about Kian Ming, but I certainly am not a doctor material :))

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Medals Medals Everywhere

Looks like the self-praise and glorifying sessions by some of our local universities will be in season soon again. Yes, the 34th International Exhibition of Invention New Techniques and Products in Geneva, Switzerland has just concluded 2 days ago. This is the popular trade exhibition that Malaysian academics loves to attend, and probably for the wrong reasons.

Prior to their actual return to the country, the contingent from Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) have already alerted the Star on their incredible success - with all 14 entries awarded medals. The teams from USM won 5 Golds, 7 Silvers and 2 Bronzes. To my knowledge, Universiti Malaya (UM), Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM) and several other local public universities all sent sizeable contingents to the event.

Besides the above trade fair, USM has also participated in another international trade fair for "Ideas, Inventions, New Products" (IENA) held at the Nuremberg Exhibition Centre in November last year, in which they "won" 3 Gold medals. Universiti Malaya (UM) proudly announced it's "fantastic" achievements at the 33rd International Exhibition of Inventions, New Techniques & Products in Geneva, securing 33 medals comprising of 19 Golds, 11 Silvers and 3 Bronzes.

I have already written a fair bit about the unhealthy obsession of our local universities with trade fairs earlier. But I thought I should serve another reminder to our higher education authorities.
  1. Unlike international competitions whereby the contestants are judged by a panel of distinguished and expert judges, trade fairs such as those mentioned above are not. The "judges" at trade fairs are more like organisers of the trade fairs themselves who will then give liberal credits to the inventors of anything from coconut husks as bicycle helmets to specially formulated herbal toothpaste. How are such awards even credible, particularly since absolutely no peer review is conducted on the research by the academics?

  2. Unlike international competitions whereby participants may be required to pay at most a token entry fee, participants of a trade fair pays a large amount of money to be at the event. What these medals are, in actual fact, are tokens of appreciation from the organisers of the event thanking the participants for spending a decent amount of money with them. It's almost like, "thank you very much, here's your gold embroidered receipt!" More than half of the participants walks home with an award or other, so that they'll all come back again the year after.

  3. Trade shows are however, not useless events. They are just not academic events. Trade shows are meant for participants to seek new business opportunities and investors. Hence the measure of success of participation at a trade show is not the number or colour of medals received, but the contacts and contracts secured. The problem I have is, it appears to me that the objective of our academics attending such trade fairs is not to secure new business, but to determine the colour of their medals!
Even if we were to give the universities some face and acknowledge possibly some value to the medals, who then were the participants of the event? For two consecutive years running, the largest contingents of participants were from Malaysia and Iran, with some Russians in the current year. Last year, for example, the Malaysian contingent took up practically 30% of the floor space! Hence clearly, while the event is held in prestigious Geneva, the participants were almost definitely not of world-class standing.

I have 2 questions for the universities and the higher education authorities:
  1. 1. How much money, or for that matter, how many millions of ringgit (yes, it's almost definitely in the millions) was expensed by the Malaysian academia for participation in the above event?

  2. What are the tangible returns through participation in such events? Since last year's multiple award winning year by UM and the other universities, how many of the "medalled" inventions have been commercialised or sold to investors?

  3. The additional question for the press to ask the universities when they hold their congralutory press conferences, is have they secured any contracts with any investors or businessmen who visited the trade fair? What is the value of the contracts secured? My guess will be that, we'd be lucky if the value amounts to anything more than five digits.
Is spending these millions of ringgit to take part in these dog and pony shows justifiable in terms of returns on investment? When I first started my own company, I took part in quite a few trade shows both in Malaysia and Singapore. After 3 years, I stopped altogether because the returns just do not justify the time and expense. Will the Malaysian academia do the same if there returns are invisible? Or will they be happy to pay millions of ringgit yearly to the happy organisers in exchange for colourful medals?

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

THES World Rankings - Australian Universities

I've been asked often by readers to give my comments with regards to Australian universities, their standards and qualities. Regular readers will know that I don't have particularly good impression of the Aussie universities today due to the fact that their entry criteria seems to have fallen significantly in their pursuit for income and fees from foreign students. From an anecdotal perspective, I do receive a fair number of applications from graduates of Australian universities that leaves me distinctly unimpressed, particularly with their entry standards.

Hence the "off-the-cuff" replies I tend to give to students seeking to find out more about Australian universities is to stick to the top 3-4 universities like New South Wales, Melbourne and Sydney. These are also the universities which, as far as I'm aware, do not participate significantly in twinning programmes overseas. (Note: There are always exceptions, like I've recently made an offer to a Monash graduate - but as stated, they are exceptions).

Given that the basis of my advice has largely been based on anecdotal evidence, I thought I would want to find some additonal basis to my arguments (whether for or against). Where better to start the analytical process but with the oft-cited Times Higher Education Supplement (THES) World Universities Rankings Table. But post isn't about the conclusion to my analysis. That will come a bit later.

This post is on an interesting piece of infomration which I found after toying with the THES data, which cast certain credibility issues on the rankings. Have a look at the summarised table of the 17 listed Australian universities for the 2005 rankings, particularly on the "International Faculty Score".

You would notice that with the exception of Monash and Curtin University, which scored 54, and Australia National University (ANU) which scored 52, all the rest of the 14 universities scored 53. Now, pardon me for being a bit sceptical - unless this is Australia's hidden university employment or recruitment policy, it is extremely unlikely that all Australian universities have equal proportions of local versus foreign academics.

Relative to all the other 200 ranked universities, Australian universities ranked between 25th to 41st in terms of "International Faculty Score".

2005 wasn't an exception as well. I went back to the 2004 data (see below) and found almost the exact same thing for the 15 listed universities. Barring ANU and Curtin, which scored 48 and 50 respectively, all the remainder 13 universities scored 49. Relative to all the other 200 ranked universities, Australian universities ranked between 13th to 24st in terms of "International Faculty Score" for 2004.

Given that the "International Faculty Score" plays a significant 5% role in the rankings table, I would have expected the surveying company to have done a much better job with obtaining the data instead of (in all probabilities) extrapolating the data from 2-3 universities onto all the remaining universities in the country. After all, we have all experienced how the scores for international students and faculty wreaked havoc onto the rankings of our very own Universiti Malaya and Universiti Sains Malaysia.

For reasons which were stated here earlier by Kian Ming (and to be further elaborated some time down the road), I'm not in favour of the "international" factor constituting 10% of the overall scores. Nevertheless, I would really have expected QS Quacquarelli Symonds, the contracted survey company to have done much better.

Sacrificing Quality for Quantity?

Three credits at Form Three level. That's all you need to get yourself enrolled into Wawasan Open University which starts operations in 2 months, subject to being at least 21 years old.

With all due respect to all who are not academic performers, isn't an entry criteria of 3 credits for your PMR examinations a tad too low for entry into a degree programme, with maybe 5-6 years of working experience?

As reported in the New Straits Times, Datuk Seri Dr Lim Keng Yaik said the idea of lowering the minimum requirement to the Form Three Penilaian Menengah Rendah examination was to "encourage the five million skilled and experienced workers in the country to equip themselves with a diploma or a Bachelor's or Master's degree."
"The idea behind this university is to make education more accessible, affordable and flexible for working adults, especially those without proper qualifications but who have the experience."
And yet in the same breath, Datuk Seri Dr Lim Keng Yaik argued that:
"Students won't have to worry about getting half-past-six degrees as all of the courses will be accredited by the National Accreditation Board."
Datuk Seri, are you sure that students don't have to worry about getting "half-past-six" degrees? I actually think that there are plenty of accredited courses which are "half-past-six" degrees (but degrees nevertheless) endorced by the National Accredition Board (LAN).

Readers, please don't get me wrong. I wholly support the idea of a Open University or Community College for the purposes of making available lifelong learning opportunitites irrespective of the academic calibres of the prospective students. However, one needs to be clear about the objectives and purposes in which the universities are set up in the first place.

Not too long ago, Datuk Seri proudly proclaimed that the Wawasan Open University College will overtake Universiti Malaya in terms of quality within a short period of 5 years! (I blogged about it here.)
“Give us five years to put Wawasan in front of Universiti Malaya (UM) which presumably is the country’s best university. That will be our benchmark,” he said.
What I see then, is 2 very conflicting targets and objectives. It is hard enough as it is to compare an Open University to a traditional one. However, if the entry criteria is set at such a low-level presumably to increase accessibility (although more likely to increase student intake), there is no way in h*** that Wawasan OUC will be able to match UM, even at the latter current state of decline.

Datuk Seri, do you really understand what you are saying? It is interesting that Datuk Seri is making all the press statements and not the appointed vice-chancellor of the university - Datuk Prof Emeritus Gajaraj Dhanarajan. It is my firm believe that politicians should really stay out of the administration and organisation of institutions of higher learning for the above, and many other obvious reasons.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Old Wine in New Bottles?

One of the key initiatives outlined in the 9MP in regards to enhancing the quality of tertiary education in Malaysia is the establishment of a Malaysian Qualifications Agency (MQA) which will oversee the implementation of the Malaysian Qualifications Framework (MQF). After a little digging, I found out that the MQF has been on the table on some time but that it hadn't received the necessary mandate to be implemented.

Pg.31 of the 9MP has this to say:

1.29 Efforts will be taken to enhance the quality of tertiary education to
become of international standing. For this purpose, local institutions of higher
education will be benchmarked against international standards and a rating
system will be introduced. The institutions will also be required to conform to
the standards for quality assurance procedures set out in the Malaysian
Qualifications Framework (MQF). To support the implementation of the MQF
and to establish a unified quality assurance system, the Malaysian Qualifications
Agency will be set up in 2006. The quality of the academic personnel will be
improved through more staff development programmes. In addition, the number
of academic staff with doctorate qualification in public universities will be increased to achieve the target of 60 per cent of total academic staff by 2010. In order to increase the quality and global outlook of universities and their academic
staff, international engagements with renowned international institutions will be
pursued, including through research collaborations.

The paragraph above is loaded with things of interest but for the moment, let us concentrate on the MQF and the MQA.

Thanks to one of YB Lim Kit Siang's past press statements, I found out that the MQF had been proposed as early as 2003, when Tan Sri Musa Muhamad was the Minister of Education before that ministry was split into two. The idea then was to establish some sort of benchmark for both private and public universities in Malaysia and this benchmark was to be set in relation to 'internationally accepted best practices'.

Given that the website of the Ministry of Higher Education's website did not provide any details on the MQF and the MQA, I had to look elsehwere on the net and thanks to google, I found this nugget on a UNESCO website. This paper was written by a Sharifah Hapsah Shahabuddin, the Director of the Quality Assurance Division (QAD) of the Ministry of Higher Education. From her paper, I get the impression that the concept of the MQF has evolved quite a bit since it has initially proposed.

For example, the paper proposes that LAN or the National Accreditation Board be merged with the Quality Assurance Division (QAD) in the Ministry of Higher Education to form a new organization called the Malaysian Qualifications Agency. This clearly shows that it is intended for the MQA to have more 'bite' given its larger scope and powers as well as the intention of the Ministry to establish more uniform standards in both the private and public universities in Malaysia. (Hopefully, this can help solve some of the 'misadvertising' and 'misinformation' on the part of some private colleges that Tony has highlighted)

In Puan Shahabuddin's paper, she outlines 3 main responsibilities of the MQA:

1) Develop internationally benchmarked standards for the MQF
2) Assuring the standards of qualification and quality of delivery in both public and private institutions
3) Maintaining the MQF resiter and becoming the reference point for information on qualifications and QA and mutual recognition of qualifications.

The MQA seems like it is going to be one of the main thrusts of the MOHE in regards to improving the quality of higher education in Malaysia. Tok Pah was quoted in this Bernama report, as saying that, "by having clear criteria and standards, MQF would facilitate international recognition of qualifications given out to the public and private higher education institutions in Malaysia".

The intentions are clearly good but the devil, in Malaysia's case, is always in the implementation phase. What kind of 'carrots' and 'sticks' will the MQA be able to use to ensure that both private colleges and public universities follow its guidelines? Will political expediency and the 'close-one-eye' attitude step in when certain universities or colleges fail to follow these guidelines? Will the benchmarks be 'competitive' enough such that they are recognized internationally? What is the timeframe for colleges and universities to achieve these benchmarks?

From these documents, it seems that there is a coherent strategy being hatched at the MOHE, led by Tok Pah. He wants to improve standards in the tertiary education sector in Malaysia because he feels that it is one of the keys through which Malaysia can move up the value chain and face an increasingly competitive international environment. He also wants to improve standards as a means to attract more international students to come to study in Malaysia, thus making us an 'education hub' for the region.

The game is on. We wish Tok Pah all the best in his efforts. From a realist's perspective, even if the MQA reaches half of its goals, I for one, would be fairly satisfied.

Tok Pa Stamps His Mark?

With about 2 months into his new portfolio of Minister of Higher Education, Datuk Mustapa Mohamed (Tok Pa) has begun to stamp his mark by reversing some of the controversial decisions by his predecessor.

Those with good memories would have remembered that the former Minister of Higher Education directed that the Aerospace Engineering programme which was taught for a number of years at Universiti Putra Malayisa (UPM) be "moved" to Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM). The result of that move was an acrimonious behind the scenes battle between the Minister, the Universiti Board of Directors and the then vice-chancellor of UPM, Prof Datuk Dr Mohd Zohadie Bardaie.

In fact the unilateral move by the former Minister of Higher Education which was done without reason or rationale upset Prof Datuk Dr Mohd Zohadie Bardaie so much that he publicly chastised his "superior" with a pantun. The former vice-chancellor finally stepped down and was replaced by his deputy towards the end of last year amid allegations of being forced to resign.

It now appears that UPM will retain its Aerospace Engineering programme after all. According to a report by the Star, Datuk Mustapa Mohamed said "the Cabinet had decided to let the university continue running the programme."
“UPM can continue running the programme as no staff have been transferred to UKM yet,” Mustapa said after a closed-door meeting with all 18 public universities’ vice-chancellors, rectors and their deputies on the Ninth Malaysia Plan (9MP)...
Those with even better memories will also remember that during the period just before the sacking of the previous Minister of Higher Education, there was another controversy over the replacement of another vice-chancellor, that of Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM) whose contract ended in January this year.

At one stage, it all looked extremely bleak for the UTM vice-chancellor, Prof Datuk Dr Mohd Zulkifli whose contract was unlikely to be renewed apparently due to a strained relationship with the then Minister, despite having plenty of support at the campus. However, in a surprising turn (which I never got the chance to blog about in detail), Prof Datuk Dr Mohd Zulkifli was retained. A few days later, the former Minister of Higher Education lost his place in the cabinet. We can only assume today, the retention of the UTM vice-chancellor wasn't his call. The question is - who made the call?

Might Tok Pa have been prepped for the position influenced the outcome or was that a call made by the Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Abdullah Badawi himself? For that matter, the former vice-chancellor of Universiti Malaya whose contract wasn't renewed last month insinuated that the decision not to renew the contract was made by none other than Pak Lah himself. Did Tok Pa play a part it that as well?

Whatever the case, it does appear that the short legacy of the former Minister of Higher Education has come to a real end and we are seeing some significant changes taking place (for better or worse). Let's just hope that there are more and better changes to come, starting with the selection process for the next vice-chancellor of Universiti Malaya.