Saturday, April 15, 2006

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.


Anonymous said...

a target of 2 universities in the top 50 rankings is quite impossible to achieve. especially since we malaysians love to gloat on medals at some trade show. while universities in europe, us, australia are busy finding breakthroughs in science and being the next nobel laureate, we are happy with gold medals round our necks. how pathetic is that?

Anonymous said...

I think it can be lumped into the Vision 2020 thingy

Anonymous said...

It's a plausible goal. Even though your readers (based on their comments) seem to mostly comprise doomsday sayers and are so negative about our local academics, we do have good people at the universities. Of course I'd be the first to admit that a section who prefer to glorify themselves do exist. But this came about only recently don't you think - since 2 years ago or so. Anyway, back to the subject at hand, I concur with you that we fall behind - so far behind - as we lack resources not only to pay more handsome salaries to attract and contain the best, to fund state of the art research, but also to provide basic intrastructure teaching tools for lecture halls, seminar rooms etc. It's so sad. Some of the older universities still do not have lcd projectors fixed in their classrooms for powerpoint presentations which have become so fundamental. If we can provide universities with more resources, and leave politics out of campuses, I'm sure we will achieve success.

Anonymous said...

Set the priorities right and get the bread and butter issues correct before they even think about competing anywhere for rankings. I believe that the immediate concern would be to have proper hardware eg. properly stocked and ICT equiped libraries and lecture facilities, installed and the unis properly staffed.

Straighten up enrolment criteria and accept properly qualified undergrads instead candidates who are unlikely to achieve any measure of success without lecturers passing them with one eye closed.

The unis will have to keep their eye on the ball and with some luck, the rankings will sort themselves out. It will probably be a while before any tangible results can be seen as the unis had been so lame-duck for the last 20 years.

Anonymous said...

Meritocracy is the key and not by color, creed and code which is the detremental factor in regression of education standards of unis.

Anonymous said...

Although i agree that aiming at top 20 in Asia Pacific is more realistic and plausible, but i have doubts.

It seems like the government keep on insisting on the number of degree holders, as in the recently presented 9MP and the continuation of NEP. How valuable are those papers if any cats and dogs can enter local universities? Just flip through the entrance guide of any university and tell me what is the minimum requirement. Even if you graduate with first class, which are plenty every year, people might doubt your ability.

Secondly, the resources and infrastructures. It is rather pathetic that we launched MSC 10 years ago, same time as South Korea, but now we are 10 times behind them. They are aiming at one robot a home now while we are still struggling with one home one computer. How much money has been poured in over the past 10 years and what do we get? Where are our taxed money?

How about other issues involving our civil servants and those representing the people? Slow, not productive, red tape and the list goes on. So who wants to come to such a country to teach? Not even our fellow Malaysians who managed to leave their own country to pursue their dreams.

All the so called aims and hopes will not be able to materialize if they don't change their attitude and discriminating policies. Of course, there were no riots, no whatever, so they think we are satisfied and agreed with them. Heck, we are all aware of ISA okay! So what even if BN lost in the election? You can figure that out.

Sorry if i seem to be a bit excited. =P I just feel sorry for my own country.

Chen Chow said...

Great post by Kian Ming. However, there is one point that I wished to point out. The % of academic staff who has PhD. As far as I know, based on my experience at Cornell, not all of the academic staff has PhD. I would predict the % of academic staff with PhD would be quite high (around 90% or so), but certainly it is not 100%. I have been taught by a few lecturers who are not PhD holder, and some of this are teaching senior level courses or even graduate level courses.

Kian Ming said...

Dear Chen Chow,

I'm pretty surprised that there are some academic staff at Cornell who are not PhD holders especially if they teach graduate level courses. At Duke, in the political science department, all lecturers have PhDs. Sometimes, graduate students can guest lecture but they won't be considered as academic staff. The only exceptions I can think of are academic staff who are perhaps a little older and who may have published a lot in the past even though they don't have a PhD degree. My guess is that among the younger generation of academic staff (age 40 and below), almost 100% of them would have PhDs. Maybe Chen Chow can help us verify this - are the few lecturers who taught you predominantly older? If so, attrition over time would quickly raise the % of academic staff to almost 100%. This might happen in Malaysia but the attrition rate would be much lower (iron rice bowl) and the % of younger academic staff with PhDs is also lower than in the US.

Anonymous said...

Well, since Malaysia sends most of its tops students, be it bumi or non bumi,( 1000++ JPA sholars, 2000-3000 Mara scholars, plus another few hundreds of Petronas, Shell, Centre banks, tenaga etc shcolars),to study oversea, these students, with their talents and expansive tuition fee sponsored by Malaysia, are helping oversea universities, instead of our very own local universities, to raise their quality and world ranking.

So next time, when u see a UK or Australia university ranked in top 200 of whatever education report, be proud and know that they achieve it with contribution from Malaysia.

Anonymous said...

I thought they always put some binding on those students with scholarship? In fact a lot of the Malay students will come back get married and get a simple life. They would either get a civil servant post which basically do nothing everyday or they would get some post in the oil and gas industry. Rumor has it that they refuse to stay oversea is because the lack of 'benefits'. What say you people?


Anonymous said...

A university cannot have all academic staff with PhD (i.e., 100%) lah.

Many academic staff in its professional faculties do not have PhD.

For example, academic staff of Medical and Dental Faculties - their Dr. is due to their undergraduate degrees (like MBBS or MD, which sounds great), not PhD. They have their basic professional degrees and then fellowships and/or masters.

Some may have the real MD (based on research and thesis, not course work and exams) or PhD.

Hashim Y does not have PhD. Many deans of our medical faculties do not have PhD.

One of the lady candidates for the UM VC post does not have PhD.

Bigjoe99 said...

Given that UM has fallen in rank to 47 in Asia Pacific now, I think aiming for two in the top 20 is still a very ambitious goal. But it provides a benchmark for where we are heading. Most people must understand that we are only beginning to see investments in universities in most Asia Pacific countries. India, Thailand, Vietnam, Philippines have only just started to reinvest after years of neglect. Some of these are going to make it to the top 50 in the world especially from India and China. I would argue more from Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong and even Taiwan will also make it to the top 50.

So being lumped into the top 20 Asia Pacific is no small feat. Given the current malaise in administration, I don't think they will make it. It would already be a good thing if they maintain their current standing frankly, a feat not necessarily maintainable.

Anonymous said...

Listen! Semua bolih!
We are sending our FIRST men to outer space soon!
(As passengers who pay aboard the Russian rockets) hehe