Saturday, October 07, 2006

The Vice-Chancellors Speak

Ah... a return to sanity at last. After the ludicrous antics of former vice-chancellor of Universiti Malaya (UM) over the past 2 years, at least today we have one who isn't shying away from the ugly truth. As reported in the Bernama report:
"We came out with our new mission which was launched yesterday and in our new mission statement we have actually dropped the adjective 'premier'.

"We are very realistic people really. Also we don't want to keep on believing and living in past glories, we would like to build from where we are now towards the future," she told a press conference here Friday.
And as reported separate in Malaysiakini:
Rafiah added that UM has already taken steps to improve itself even before the authoritative survey was released. In the past few months, she said, the university had started improvisation works on planning, strategising and implementing key performance indexes at every level within the university. The latter has never been done before.

The key performance indexes which UM aspires to do well in cover more than the six criteria stipulated in the Times survey.
It is hence heartening to hear that the new vice-chancellor appears to be taking certain concrete steps towards rebuilding UM. It might be a slow and painful process, given the nature in which we tend to reform our institutions, but at least it may be moving in the right direction.

However, the vice-chancellors of the four universities cited in the Times Higher Education Supplement (THES) world rankings table also stated that they were limited by government policies and national interests. As published in the Sun, they joint statement declared that:
"Public universities may not be able to increase their international students because of government policies but we certainly can do a lot to improve the performance on the other four criteria."

[Datuk Rafiah Salim] also alluded to the fact that it was difficult to attract foreign lecturers with the government's current payscale for lecturers.
Which brings me to the next issue. For readers of The Sun, there was a Conversations piece published last Thursday (but somehow, not yet available online) an extensive interview conducted with Datuk Mustapa Mohamed (Tok Pa), our Minister of Higher Education. The article was entitled "Enhancing quality at our universities". For those who missed it, I don't think you missed much. I dare say, for somebody who follows Tok Pa's statement and speeches closely, this was one of the more uninspiring ones.

The Sun journalist, Husna Yusop, asked the Minister "What radical changes [was he] looking into?" He replied as follows:
The PM has spoken of revolutionising education. Nothing short of a revolution is required. So we are taking the cue from that. The changes will be in the curriculum, in better achieving the objectives of the soft skills module, in respect of closer academic-industry collaboration, improvements in the quality of lecturers and better governance... We have to make sure our graduates have the skills that will enable them to do well in the job market, which is becoming increasingly globalised.
I must apologise if I'm a little daft here. None of the measures mentioned above are "revolutionary" measures. They are all incremental steps and measure taken to tinker with the existing awkward system. For example, when asked how was he going to improve the quality of lecturers, to get the best brains for the universities, things are still pretty much framed around the existing structures.
... there is a perceived lack of a good career path, lack of research funds and some might not be happy with governance issues in the universities... I am happy the government has agreed to do a number of things. One is faster promotion for academics, within the civil service structure of course...

We are still talking to the Public Services Department (PSD) about the starting salary for lecturers with PhDs and we hope by the end of this year, this will be finalised...
To be fair, the above are positive baby steps. But they are certainly not revolutionary, and will not bring the necessary substantive jump in standards over a short period of time. And given the global competitive environment where everyone wants to improve their quality, reputation and rankings, would our baby steps be sufficient?

What then can be considered revolutionary? Well, for one, on the same issue above, this blogger has proposed that the university academia be de-linked from the civil service entirely. That will be revolutionary. No longer will the universities have to depend on the bureaucratic PSD for issues such as pay-scale and promotions. After all, what does PSD know about the academia anyway. And which self-respecting Harvard academic would want to come to Malaysia and join our impeccable civil service?

I'd like to call on Tok Pa to take Pak Lah's words as a blanket approval to truly revolutionise our higher education system. We really need brave steps to move forward and to have any significant impact on the global rankings. Be brave and bold.


Blueheeler - the hound who sniffs out fishy news said...

I was also surprised that UM VC accepted the ranking, as I blogged a prediction that she would again contest its validity.

Acceptance of 'fault' is step (1). Step (2) is retification. This time next year, I'll be watching UM's ranking closely.

Chen Chow said...

One thing is that Datuk Rafiah's initiatives might not be factored into this year's ranking, as I'm sure THES has done its survey and analysis over a period of several months, and hence, the data might have already been gathered, even before Datuk Rafiah is appointed the new VC of UM.

I would say that the most constructive way for all of us here to do would be to think of how we can all help to improve our IPTAs. Could the alumni of such IPTAs go back to provide much help to the universities? Sponsoring more initiatives? Providing lectures to students? Guiding and mentoring some students? providing greater linkage between industries and universities?

How about general Malaysians? What can all of us do? May be some of those who are recruiting could spend time to go to our campuses, not just to recruit, but to help share with those who are 1st/2nd/3rd year, to guide them to prepare them~!

Anonymous said...

Practise true meritocracy and fair play irrespective of race, religion, gender and the quality will improve overnight.

I am often bemused when I see that 'low' pay is thrusted around as one main reason why we cannot add to the quality of education. What are the numbers, the evidence for labelling the pay 'low'?

Besides why attract foreign lecturers when we should be attracting the best Malaysians who flourish overseas? But I have digressed.

Often people are not familiar with an academic career. One needs to spend many years completing a PhD, then spend time in postdoctoral positions to enhance research and teaching skills before taking up a junior lecturer's position. Except for certain countries, e.g. Singapore (else why would anyone want to go to such a cramp, stifling land?), all these positions all other the world pay relatively low compared to other non-research based industry jobs.

The unique case with academics though is that they are allowed to perform consultancy work with third parties (this would be almost impossible for industry for confidentiality reasons). This is where the good ones, both technically and in soft people skills, will do well to supplement their income. This is also where the term 'industry collaboration' comes to life which will set the academics up either
with further personal income or research grants, the latter being more important.

Another unique characteristic of academics is that monetary incentive is often not the main thrust for the career (there must, of course, be a limit to this). The rewards of the work are reflected either via scientific recognition, e.g. elected
for various Science Academies (US, China etc or Royal Society/RAE in the UK) or appreciation by students and future mature members of society.

I apologise for this long comment, but I refer back to the first paragraph as the single most important factor for the betterment of society, irrespective of where we are or what we do. Higher rankings would naturally follow suit and society will benefit. A win-win virtuous cycle.

Anonymous said...

I agree, in most countries the salary for a lecturer even a professor is not relatively high, but there are other perks that come with the job. And these are perhaps what the minister should look into.

Anonymous said...

Why no comments from Hashim Yaacob about the latest UM performance?

Anonymous said...

Practice true meritocracy no doubt will change everything. But that problem in our society has rooted strongly, after years of "divide and conquer" by the "cunning" government. They do whatever they can, without thinking the effects in the future at all, as long as they remain as the ruling government.

So that's what and who we are today; identifying each other according to races and religions, certain group gets priority in everything they do, no right and freedom of speech, deterioration of unversities standards, brain drain, and basically anything you can think of.

It is sad that after almost 50 years, we may have improve physically but mentally, it is at least the same 50 years ago or even worse. If this structure of governance continues, we will be just like Indonesia soon.

Are the politicians bold enough to make radical changes? Can they do it without the word "races and religions" in their mind, but for MALAYSIANS as a whole? Can they not think about their own benefits?

All these have to start at the very basic level, primary or even nursery. I would suggest that they remove NEP with immediate effect and stop living in a fantasy world that Malays need to be protected until they are ready to face the world. They won't be ready forever if you protect them and keep them within your fingers! There are plenty of analogies and i don't think it is necessary to say them here.

Go back to the root of problems and everything will be better. The cause is obvious!!

Political crime watcher....

Anonymous said...

I agree that pay is probably not the most important thing for academics, and that 'higher level' satisfaction figures more, like academic recognition etc (think Maslow's hierarchy of needs).

Still, if our unis offer RM5k for a lecturer (e.g.) and they want to attract someone who's already making US$5k... it's going to take some convincing, no?

Anonymous said...

Hashim yaacob is too stunned to see how under his management he has successfully brought down university malaya to its knees and academic disrepute.
So he is concentrating his career with his wayang kulit and silly sandiwaras...
Actually he is hiding on the top of a small hill where the precilical building of the Dental faculty is situated ( I thought he is a clinician, why is he there on the preclinical block?)
Maybe he is hiding from the public! His fancy dark sunglasses is not big enough to hide his face!

Anonymous said...

I'm sure many of my university mates are aware of our university ranking (UM). I always hear about their sacarstic remarks about how they feel that the VC has been doing and what they think her response will be towards this issue.

I'm really happy to read about what she has said, and being realistic about the whole situation.

We all should give her a chance to let her do what she intends to do. Afterall, she was only appointed this year and I believe that she will make the changes that we all would like to see.

Anonymous said...

Just to add to contributors's comment above.

Academic salary are indeed low - even Oxford lecturer has a starting pay of just around £26k (this is £1500 per month in a place where a 1 bed flat cost £600 to rent and the median income is £20k).

So, RM5k leceturer actually compared favourable to the Oxford lecturer as Malaysian median income is probably in the 2k+ range a a flat cost far leass the 35% of the post tax salary to rent)

As an expat (ok, I am not a lecturer), I consider factors other than RM ( in fact selling the house that I have now will keep me going for a good while in Malaysia), security, potential of my contribution benefiting the future generation, my child's future and chances etc, security etc. Those who consider RM only probably should not in the educational sector anyway.

Regconition is the first step to a cure... good luck to Rafiah and I hope the political leadership supports her.

Anonymous said...

The years that I spent with UM working are filled with more bitter memories than sweet ones.

When I first started here, I was given a contract.Untill today I can't figure out why it took so long for the management to give me a permanent position.In the end after 6 years and a better offer, I left.

If I was not performing perhaps my contract after 1 year should not be renewed.

Another thing is that the management is not sensitive to the needs of the lower ranked staff.All they care is that they have their fat paycheck at the end of the month.

When there are grants given to the respective faculties, red tape prevents the budget from being fully utilised.When I was at UM, there was a surplus of RM105,000.00 grant NOT spent after the financial year.

How are we to compete with other universities when given the oppurtunity and funds and yet we do not utilise it?.

Anonymous said...

I think its the common perception that with a few new VCs and Mustapha in place, the rot in university education can be stopped. However, no one is deluded to believe that even with these earnest at least unidiotic people there is any chance of global competitiveness.

This is Malaysia in reality, our controlled press and media may trump this and that but the fact of the matter is, we can be NOT bad but Not good. In other words, mediocrity is our hall mark and will be for generations to come. It is our national shame and perhaps our personal saviour (who says progress is always good for the human soul???). However eventually it will come to roost and rob our souls too, it may take a long time because we are blessed with many things among them a fundamental generous and kind people. The danger is that we take it for granted and exploit that to make us worst than the enemies we hate. In the end we may end up hating ourselves and each others. That would be the crime of our mediocrity.

Anonymous said...

Dear Anon ( Contract lecturer for 6 years)

The story has not changed much in UM since you left. Lots of lecturers are still under contract.

You see, the beautiful thing about being a contract lecturer, you have to do EVERYTHING the management ask you to do. Once you are permanent, they cant bully you.

You are lucky you did managed to leave UM :-)). If not you would still be a contract lecturer until you retire!

Whether they want you to be permanent depends on how well you get along with certain people....

Ask Bill board Hashim...he is a wizard for helping his cronies