Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Interesting Jots by Josh

Josh Hong has been a Malaysiakini columnist for some time now as well as an activist in Malaysia and a good friend of mine. His recent column in Malaysiakini on education had some interesting points on the state of higher education in Malaysia which I thought are worthwile to highlight here.

First of all, he reminds us of the dangers of 'playing up' one's ranking in the THES when it is favorable and raising doubt about the same ranking's methodology when one's own position is in freefall.

"After all, there were no grumbling voices when UM was erroneously placed at 89 in the THES global rankings two years back, a mistake that THES readily admitted later. Instead, self-congratulatory banners were everywhere in the campus. I now wonder where have all the banners gone. Anyone can see we are a lousy loser."

He also points to some of the weaknesses in the THES rankings, which in my opinion are quite valid.

"The THES global rankings is not without its problems. For instance, among the top 200 universities, those from the English-speaking countries make up 105 (excluding the French-speaking Université de MontréalUniversity of Canada), a result of the fact that the survey draws heavily from universities and institutes that use English as research language."

"Philip Campbell, editor-in-chief of Nature, UK’s authoritative science weekly, once remarked that the best research in Germany takes place outside of university system, such as the science-based Max Planck Institutes, and the majority of the research reports are only available in German, a core reason why only a handful of German universities are considered for world rankings of any kind."

But even the normally staid Germans are reacting to global trends in higher education, as pointed out in this article sent to me by Charis Quay, a physics doctorate student in Stanford.

Josh also brings in his own UK experience (he was a Chevening Masters student in SOAS, if memory serves) by showing the difficulty of comparing SOAS with Imperial College.

"And one will find if difficult to understand why the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), a purely arts-based college, and the Imperial College, a world-renowned science and technology institute, have both made it to the top 200 list despite that they are poles apart on their fields of specialty. Perhaps a faculty-to-faculty comparison would be a more scientific and reliable methodology in this regard."

But it's some of his insights in regards to proposals to improve Malaysia's own higher education system that drew my attention. He points out, for example, that meritocracy is not the panacea that many think that it is:

"Meritocracy is a noble idea, but far from a panacea nonetheless. Otherwise we cannot explain why thousands of universities worldwide that recruit students on meritocratic basis are still facing the daunting task of narrowing the vast discrepancies in performance vis a vis Yale, Harvard, Cambridge, Oxford etc.."

Certainly, meritocracy by itself cannot solve the woes of higher education in Malaysia, whether one is refering to meritocracy in terms of hiring and promotion practices among lecturers or in terms of entry requirements into out local universities. Other issues such as funding, salaries, research budgets, creating a research based environment and providing the necessary incentives, political interference (or the lack thereof) are important as well. But certainly, one would not argue against the implementation of more meritocratic practices in Malaysian universities as a first step (or one of the first steps) towards improving our universities. It would certainly make it more attractive for good Malaysian researchers who are trained overseas to come back to our local universities as well as to retain good lecturers who are currently teaching in our local universities.

(Incidentally, the idea that the top universities in the US and the UK practice absolute meritocracy is a myth. Sometimes family lineage, ability for parents to make generous donations, minority considerations (read: African American and Hispanic), all count to different extents. The UK government also makes it a point to force Oxford and Cambridge to fulfill a certain 'quota' of students who are from a working class background)

Josh also 'half-rightly' points out that the lack of research in public universities are not directly connected to racial policies:

"Furthermore, the lack of research interest at tertiary level in this country has little to do with the currently raced-based quota system. One only has to look at the private colleges and institutes that have mushroomed over the last two decades. Free of the curse of the quota system they may be, their interest in academic research is anything but desirable. Many see them as a fast-track to career success rather than a place in which they can devote themselves to lifelong knowledge conservation, development and research."

Josh is absolutely right to call out the lack of a research culture among our private institutions of higher learning. The profit motive reigns supreme there. I say only 'half-right' because I think that there is potential for 3 or 4 good private research universities to develop (with the proper incentives and leadership) out of the current crop which we have (MMU is probably the leading example). I also only say 'half-right' because for those academics who don't see an administrative path for career advancement for whatever reasons (racial policies, differences of political opinion), they usually have to resort to taking a more research based path to 'force the hand' of the administration to promote them (read: Terence Gomez, Mustafa Anuar, KS Jomo, Zaharom Nain, Franis Loh, Azmi Sharom, P Ramasamy).

Finally, he points to the mentality of those who run the universities and their political bosses as a major stumbling block towards improving higher education in our country:

"The crux of the problem in Malaysia’s higher education lies in the fact that the government simply does not know why and whom is it for. Typical of a development-minded politician in other third-world countries, our government officials only want the universities to serve the development agenda of the nation and to pursue economic returns at all costs."

I think that the government and certainly, the current Minister of Higher Education, Tok Pa, realizes that the current status quo in our public universities cannot go on. He wants to see substantive change in the system but is also constrained by political realities.

It's encouraging to know there are many others out there like Josh and some of our readers who share similar thoughts as myself and Tony in regards to the state of higher education in Malaysia. It's also encouraging that people like Josh have good and valuable insights to contribute to this important debate. If only some of the policymakers will sit up and take note.


Anonymous said...

So this post is saying that it takes a multitude of factors to make a great research university. Yes but there is element of luck too. If you look at the history of best universities, it takes a consistent set of policies for a long time before it becomes a great universities and if you examine their history, they are marked by participation in great events. For example, MIT was not really recognized as a top institution until the World Warr II when the defense budget allocated huge amount of money to research which MIT was able to take advantage off. Stanford U was not well-known until the advent of computer technology and rise of Silicon Valley and venture capital. Harvard itself rose above Yale because of the rise of its link to many Presidential and other political alumnis.

For many years NUS was a good teaching university but its recognition in recent years has basically because of government allocation of research funds. Yet it has produced mostly contributary research and unremarkable practical research result.

Research is about believing in a culture and takes a lots of lots of money and resources and who will reap the benefit is not certain. So long as we are preoccupied with who gets what, it will still be a long road before we begin to travel in it.

Anonymous said...

If we are talking about doing "Micky Mouse" quality research, then it has no impact and just a waste of time.

If we are talking about publishing research papers that are "in house faculty or department" research journals is similarly a waste of time. Respectability in publications in the top end world class journals should be the objective. Regional proceedings and non reputable journals should not be taken at all into considerations for promotions.

One of the biggest sickness in our academic universities is that those who are not DIRECTLY involved in the research but somehow cajoled their way in the authors of the papers should be censured . This is a common syndrome,,,ask our famous Billboard Hashim to clarify this

Anonymous said...

Black Mojo,

From baby to adult = crawling to running. (Adult over 40 must be careful cannot run very fast one - sakit jantung)

So for academician, I think its ok to start with small scale research, publish in house journal etc present paper locally. (make you comfortable with the environment), BUT the uni must recognised their efforts. Upon promotion they cannot crawl but to walk and jog. This time, medium scale reseach, publish in house and also reputable local journals. Present papers locally and interationally. Start to write text book and supervised post grad.

Another promotion, cannot jog anymore. U must run and run. Must lead a reseach team, publish locally and internationally plus high end journals etc. Write refference books.

When u got another promotion, run faster. Become mentor to the juniors. Teach them to do research, write and publish. Lead research team.

Black Mojo, only my 2 cents.