Tuesday, April 25, 2006

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.


Anonymous said...

I need to add 1 more point..some of lecturers in public university already reached their "comfort zone". That's the reason why they never bother about doing their PhD. If compare their salary, the different between master holder and PhD holder is around RM500 (including allowances). If people with family wants to pursue their PhD overseas, their spouse has to leave their job, which means they only depend on 1 salary. They need to think about mortgage, car , child education etc.. Not to mention JPA's overseas allowance, which is "barely" enough to live in big cities (probably enough in small cities). This means they need their salary as well.

Anonymous said...

I think there is too much emphasis given to PhDs. Although they are an indicator of academic achievement, they are not the only ones. Publications of articles in refereed journals and books with respected publishers are also an important indicator of quality. There are some truly excellent academics without PhDs and some absolutely dire ones with PhDs.

Furthermore writing a PhD is no joke and it requires a lot of dedication as well as a pretty good original idea to start with. A lot of the new blood in public universities are simply not the best and brightest (this is because the pay is awful compared to the outside). Forcing these people to do a PhD will ultimately be an exercise in futility. I have seen so many PhD applications which are totally without worth and when questioned find out that the applicants were being pushed into it. They are simply not ready. They can become good teachers and even good researchers, but probably at a slower pace. Now, you might say these sort of people have no place in universities. Sure, if you have the luxury of loads of very bright applicants, you can say that. But here in Malaysia, we simply don't have that. We have to work with what we have. We should also look at ways to improve the staff we have without sending them to do the (very costly) PhD. Of course those who can do it should be helped in the ways described in the piece above.

Incidentally, NUS does not make a PhD a requirement for their lecturers and they seem to be doing just fine.

Anonymous said...

I want to clarify some of your points. As far as I am concerned, there is no regulation on stoping any civil servant from applying Fulbright or Chevening or any sponsorship, as long as they read carefully the agreement, if there is any bond attached after the study, the candidate have to think and consider about it- I've got many friends sponsored by Chevening even to both husband and wife (both are civil servants)! I am not from JPA but I hope JPA's officers are reading your blog. If you noted, I didn't use the 'lecturer' term because any civil servant from any service can apply to further study.

Now, come to your question, why are there not many civil servants applying Fulbright and Chevening? Since qualified civil servants have more than one options, for example, they can choose either Chevening or JPA's scholarship. What's the different? The decision is really critical if the applicant wish to bring their family. Chevening or Fulbright only sponsored the candidate but JPA by virtue of its 'ciput' amount, the scholarship is covered for the living cost of the family (up to 3 children). In fact, if the spouse is also the civil servant, JPA is willing to sponsored or half sponsored if he/she wish to pursue 'spouse program' at any university. So indirectly, their children can get free English/American school education. Think, which one would you prefer?

Another information for you, all candidates must obtained an acceptance letter from the university (of cause after clearing all TOEFL, GMAT etc pre entry qualification test) and the candidate have to justify their choice of university. For example, for fisheries they should go to McGill in Canada rather than Cambridge, for science policy study better go to Sussex rather than Oxford. As a matter of fact, the selection meeting is referring to the list of university ranking (based on subjects, programs) before they make the decision. The commitee is also encouraging the candidate to at least 'once' studied in overseas if they have done their study locally before - to broader their experience, learning new skills etc and the candidate is not encourage to further their study at the same university (from 1st degree to master to Ph.D) unless they have strong reason for that.

JPA's agreement is standard to all Ph.D student - 3 years time, but JPA is acknowledging that in US and now becoming a trend in UK of having 1 year M.Phil before proceed to Ph.D, and the student can ask for extension due to the program structure (the same case for Japan university). And definitely, the student have to justify diligently if they need extension on other reason (not personal) especially those on hard science which involved 'living things' like biotechnology, science marine etc.

Do you know that, government has also created an allocation for researcher (not lecturer for teaching per se) to have attachment to any top notch lab in the world (this is not sabatical)? the most important, the applicant must present their progress work, justify their application, show the acceptance or approval letter from their host university and their attachment work schedule.

I hope my input will enlightening those who still guessing on this matter.

my2c - TQ

Anonymous said...

One thing to note. do you seriously think that UM will send their lecturers without PhD to get one from NUS? This has got to do with their pride. No way they are going to do this in their lifetime!

India and China on the other hand would be a more better option, if they care to consider them. Peking U and IIT, especially, are not bad in some sense, except that you have to mingle with Indians and Chinese. However, thinking of the number of lecturers, which nearly 80% are Malays, how plausible you think they would want to go to those countries?

Anonymous said...

My response is actually to divide potential sponsored PhD candidates to 2 categories. For the excellent performing lecturers or those with high quality publication and research, they should be lumped into a pool where they will be sent overseas for their PhD. For the others, mainly teaching lecturers, they should instead be sponsored to local universities or regional universities (NUS, NTU, SJTU, etc.). This way it gives the incentive for all to perform well as lecturers and produce excellent research work. It will also help improve our academic standard in the long run by these lecturers who will work hard in the hope of being funded overseas.

Anonymous said...

You all make one fatal error! Nowadays the PhD holders are produced locally, with candidates being examined on 'kawan tolong kawan' basis. hehe
So there is no true examination of quality. Nowadays its the number of PhD produced and not quality counts. This is the problem of local PhD generating mechanism.
In breeding of low quality PhD results in in breeding of nonsense and stupidity
Its not uncommon to see the phenomena nowadays where a person who graduated with difficulty to get a Masters after a few years will be acting as supervisor and examiner for the MSc the very same or next year
In Uk, after getting a PhD, you are recommended to do a post doctorate. Only after post doc will you sort of become a lecturer. Even then he begins by taking one student for honours project with a more experienced lecturer. Only if this goes well, next year he will supervise an Honours research project alone. This is followed next year by sharing to supervise an MSc with an experienced lecture...So we see the stage of progression in learning research and supervising research.
Having a PhD is no immediate license to supervise or carry out research independently. Yet in Malaysia..fresh PhDs and Masters are so greedy in supervising research and post graduates. No wonder our local bred PhDs are of low standard.
It is very important the asessor appointed to examine must be proven his scholastic values through his publications in peeer reviewed jounals. The practice of using external examiners through 'kawan tolong kawan' should be stopped for the sake of quality

Anonymous said...

Ultimately, this is the biggest problem Malaysia face. It's not only in academia but practically every other indudstry/area as well. However, let's not dump them all into the same category. There are some who are good, but just that they never got the opportunity to pursue their PhDs overseas. We should not all generalize them as poor academicians.

Anonymous said...

'kawan tolong kawan' is a global problem, not only in Malaysia. Of course in Malaysia it is more serious since so many public universities allow their student to write their PhD thesis in Malay i.e USM and UKM, if you need to submit in english you must apply first from graduate school. If it's in Malay, there's no way the examiner can be from overseas.When you attend conferences in Malaysia, you can see almost the same faces in every conferences. Sometimes the same name in advisory committee list. That's where 'kawan tolong kawan' come. -I passed your student, make sure you do the same to my student- Not to mention long list in publications, I put your name in my paper, nxt time put my name in your paper...another corruption in academic/research area.

NUS and NTU are not bad at all especially in research. In terms of facilities, their lab much better than our lab.No wonder so many student from China are doing their PhD in Singapore nowdays. And scholarship offered by Singapore gov is much higher ~SGD3000 per month, in Malaysia the highest is National Science Fellowship RM2300 per month(I think stop already until 9MP).and in Singapore their works are close to industrial application. In Malaysia, we don't actually have support from industries. I would say most lecturers don't even know the need in industries..and politicians, they just concluded local graduate can't speak english properly. I met a few chinese from China who used to work in US for 1 year. when I spoke to them I wonder how come these people can work in US as it's really hard to understand their english. After sometimes then only I realize, they are hardworking, they are good in terms of technical...and they can work..

Anonymous said...

I know of a friend who wasted both time and money by doing a DBA from a university located down under and had a franchise program with a local college. It is a painful lesson but then again it showed that the institution was more interested in money than education.

Anonymous said...

The quality of PhD programs in China has been a subject of much criticism within that country. The major problem is plagiarism. In any case, a high standard of Chinese language proficiency is required even at the first degree level. If there is insufficient government funding to support the program to increase the PhD holders within Malaysian universities, the plan might well have been over-ambitious and its targets unreachable. I disagree with the introduction of discriminatory program whereby lecturers are classified into (a) those to be groomed in world-class universities and (b) those to be coached in regional universities. When the students look at their qualifications, they have a clue whether their lecturers stand a chance of becoming the next associate professor. An integral part of the issue is "No money, no talk".

Anonymous said...

Kian Ming,

Why can't we have our non-PhD lecturers to do their PhD's in our own public universities? This could be the last choice and help speed up the process of ensuring more lecturers have their PhD? Of course, writing in Malay and the 'kawan tolong kawan' syndrom would be a deterrent, but couldn't it be an option also?

Anonymous said...

To Anon @ Tue Apr 25, 05:28:36 PM,

Could you enlighten us on which particular university/college is this? I'm sure it will help others from being duped into such programs as well.

Anonymous said...

Civil servants are not allowed to apply Chevening on their own. They have to submit their applications through JPA. JPA then do the shortlisting and send to British council. It is written in the application form. You must also have very good score in your year-end appraisal to be shortlisted.

About lecturer applying funding to pursue PhD. If you are Bumi, you can definitely get one from JPA (SLAB) if you make an effort, for example by getting a good offer (or several) before your interview. If you can get an offer from Cambridge/Oxford, you have very high chance of going. However, for non-Bumi, you can only get funding from the university, so if there are many non-bumi in your university, there is a good chance that you have to wait for many years (and end up passing the age limit), since university has limited funding as they need to sponsor tutor (those with bachelor only and hence not a permanent staff yet) as well. For most non-bumi lecturer, they usually look for their own sponsor (e.g. US, Japan).

About fresh PhDs and Masters (lecturer) supervising PG students, not all are "greedy" to do that, sometimes they are forced to do that. Marks are given for supervising PG students,applying for research grant and etc in your appraisal. To carry out research you need grant, once you get a grant, you need people (students) to do it. As a new lecturer, you are lucky if you have good senior co-worker to guide you (or help you by just "letak nama"), if not you have to learn to be independent or else you will get very low mark.

Anonymous said...

What I understand is that there exists several channels for securing PhD funding:
1. Skim Latihan Akademik Bumiputera (SLAB)
2. Academic Staff Higher Education Scheme (ASHES)
3. Academic Staff Training Scheme (ASTS)

SLAB is exclusive scheme for bumiputera only. This is the preferred choice by local uni and commonly found advertised in local newspapers.
ASHES is for current lecturers who has given at least 3 years (teaching) service at university.
ASTS is open for all. Anyone with good first degree CGPA (>3.00) is eligible to apply. Applicants do not necessarily have contributed academically (e.g teaching) when applying for this scheme.

ASHES and ASTS are the route for a non-bumi hoping to get financial assitance and later joining the local uni as academic staff. Usually non-bumi will take up ~10% of ASTS, not sure about ASHES.

For overseas funding, a bumi recipient under ASTS receive full financial assistance (tuition fee, living costs, housing-family-book-thesis-winter allowances) A non bumi will receive everything EXCEPT the tuition fee (this is the recent tweak of sponsorship agreement). Non bumi will have to seek funding elsewhere (which do not has any bonding). I have seen such an offer letter (offered to both bumi and non-bumi) with my own eyes. For PhD done locally, a non bumi is eligible for full sponsorship if the PhD.

Anonymous said...

I am a currently pursuing MSc at local uni. There are 5-6 of us and we have 5 lecturers. There is a good student: supervisor/lecturer ratio. However only one is Prof, and the remaining are junior lecturer who obtained MSc quite recently (2001-2003). Although they may be seen as very naive and junior for teaching MSc, some of them do possess very good academic calibre, with publication in international peer-reviewed journmals.
On the other hand, i have seen local lecturers (trained in UK) with the Prof. title in the same field as mine, but yet having difficulty conversing technical terms in English. What i am trying to conclude here is a PhD is not necessarily a good yardstick in judging who is a good academician.

Anonymous said...

I was a ASTS and being a non-bumi, at times you feel like an "anak tiri" to the whole system. True, JPA will pay all except fees and we all know that fees account for quite a substantial part of the finance required. So with no fees, choice of uni is limited and that is why I ended up in UK (awarded Chevening, fortunately), and hence, I could not go to USA despite my referees insisting that USA will give me a better training. Oh yes, the recipient has to serve the same number of years as those who get FULL funding.

The no fees assistance already existed 10 years ago and it is still like that now.

Anonymous said...

Easy! Just register with our swasta universities...sure can get PhD's
Now our swasta universities have licenses to produce PhDs

Anonymous said...

Dear all,

Is it a good idea to mass producing postgraduate students? Malaysia is trying to triple its output from now to 2010. Any comments?

"There will be a three-fold increase in the number of postgraduate holders in institutions of higher learning in five years. 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."

I personally feel that we are producing too many first degree students and at the same time wondering why there is so many unemployed undergraduates. Are we pushing the problem to higher level (postgrad) in the nest few years?

Anonymous said...

I'm pretty sure that they were achieve their target of 60-70% of lecturer with PhD. Look at the way they produce doctors. In Bolehland quality is not important. What important is to achieve the target.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Malaysian public universities can certainly churn out lots of PhD graduates. Already there is annual competition among our public universities to see which university confers the most number of higher degree graduates in its convocation. Quantity counts, not quality.

We are a nation of people who love titles. Our Cabinet must be one of the most impressive cabinets in the world - since most of our Cabinet Members have titles before their names - Tan Sri, Datuk Sri, Dato', Dr., etc.! So, by hook or by crook, a Cabinet Member must get a title.

As for the Dr. title, if you can have it, I juga mesti boleh dapat punya! Malaysia Boleh!

Anonymous said...

PhD byk senang dapat lorrr!

Anonymous said...

I did my PhD in France, in virology. In france, you can only defend your PhD if you have published at least 2 papers in international journals. Publishing 2 papers while doing your research/ PhD is hard work. Your work is reviewed by specialists in the area, nobody you know personally. I think Malaysian universities should start to do that.