Sunday, December 03, 2006

Postgrad Scholarships Only to Top Universities

In a surprising but welcomed move by the Ministry of Higher Education, Datuk Mustapa Mohamed announced that "the Government will only sponsor post-graduates for top prestigious schools abroad under a plan to produce quality professionals and to raise the standard of university lecturers."

Even the universities which undergraduates are being set to are also being reviewed, although the Minister did highlight that the rule will be more strictly enforced for postgraduates programmes.

As far as I'm concerned, this is an excellent move, if implemented accordingly. The next thing which is necessary, to encourage transparency and some form of consistency, is for the Ministry to announce the Universities which are pre-approved for specific postgraduate programmes.

A good mechanism which will take away "arbitrary" decisions by the often bungling Ministry officials, is to rely on certain set international benchmarks. For example, these top universities can be defined as universities which are recognised as the Top 50 in either the Times Higher Education Supplement (THES) or the Shanghai JiaoTung University global university rankings table. These tables are not perfect, but they will certainly be a lot more objective than any list compiled by the local officials.

I can imagine however, the level of resistance to this policy which may come from vested interest parties, particularly those local academics who are unable to secure places in these instutions. The backlash may happen if the new ruling results in severely dampening the government's efforts to increase the number of PhD holders in the local universities.

I, and I'm certain my blog partner, Kian Ming, will implore Datuk Mustapa to stick to his guns and avoid pursuing a short-term and detrimental policy of increasing the quantity of PhD academics at the expense of quality.


Anonymous said...

Dear Tony,

I am not fully agreed with this idea. Top universities may not necessarily have prestigious schools. Some of the Ph.D program offered in US do not make it to the THES top 200 list, but the programs offered are accredited by the professional body

Anonymous said...

You can send our top post graduates to the most advanced universities, by the time they come back they will be overcomed by our 'academic climate' thriving in our local universities that thrives on mediocrity
just a waste of money! If you dont believe ask Ah Piau or learnt from history

Kian Ming said...

I think that the intentions of this policy are well-founded. You certainly don't want our hard earned tax-payers money to be spent on sending a student to the University of the Channel Isles in the UK or the University of South Beach, Miami in the US (both made up names). Where I'd worry is in the implementation of such as scheme. The knowledge of our administrators in terms of which universities are good as which are not, leaves much to be desired.

For example, this Bernama article ( discusses the same issue but describes the selection of universities as "Ivy League". Those familiar with the US education system will know that the "Ivy league" is actually a sports league comprising of the following schools (Brown, Cornell, Columbia, Dartmouth, Harvard, Princeton, Yale and UPenn). No doubt these are all excellent schools but MIT, Stanford and Duke are all top 10 schools which are not in the Ivies.

There are also many excellent state schools in the US such as U of Michigan, UNC-Chapel Hill and University of Wisconsin-Madison but are not presitigous or well-known in Malaysia or anywhere outside the US. (with the exception of Michael Jordan fans)

I would argue very strongly for the Ministry to implement different criteria for undergrad and post-grad scholarships.

The undergrad list should be a little easier to come up with compared to the postgrad list. Like Tony said in the post, we could use school rankings but instead of using the THES or the Shanghai Jiatong world list of universities, I would recommend the use of rankings within each of these countries (where available). THES publishes such a ranking system for UK schools and the US News and World report also publishes such as ranking for US schools. Instead of saying that one can only apply to top 10 schools in the UK or US, I would say that the MOHE should use some sort of % criteria to reflect the fact that the US has more good universities (in absolute terms) compared to the UK. So, something like top 20 in the UK or top 50 in the US would be acceptable.

For postgrad courses, I would also suggest the use of domestic rankings but in the fields of study in which the student plans to go into. For example, one might restrict the list to the top 30 schools in the biomedical engineering field or the top 30 schools in economics. For countries where no such data is available, MOHE should compile a list based on the consensus views of experts in the field.

For both the undergrad and postgrad scholarships, there should be some sort of appeals system set up such that those who want to apply to schools outside these lists can present their arguments for their choice. It's harder to justify this at the undergrad level (since you can study economics from world class professors in many good universities) but it's more probable at the postgrad level. There might be a certain department in a school that is not so prestigious overall but which has an excellent research program in a specific area of interest that coincides with that student's. Or there might be a certain professor which the student wants to work with in a particular university that is not that highly ranked.

Finally, while I think we shouldn't compromise on standards, I'm not sure if Tok Pa fully realizes how hard it is to get into a top 10 school in the US or the UK especially at the post grad level. I applied to top schools such as Harvard, Yale and Princeton but probably lost out to American applicants who understood the application process better. The acceptance rate for applications at the postgrad level for most programs in top schools is something like 5%.

If Tok Pa really understood this, he would allow for some leeway so that sponsored Malaysian students can get into PhD programs in good schools (such as Manchester in the UK or UNC-Chapel Hill in the US) but not necessarily 'prestigious' in the same way that most Malaysians think about US or UK universities. Not everyone can get into a Cambridge or Oxford or Harvard or Yale. Not even among the British or American citizens.

Anonymous said...

These are all very good comments, Kian Ming. I agree that the best post-grad schools have to be determined field by field, maybe even sub-field by sub-field, as there are some otherwise not-so-great universities that are top-notch in niche areas.

One question I would like to raise, which struck me when I met some of Singapore's A-star scholars, is whether it is necessary to have post-grad scholarships in all fields, especially science- and technology-related fields.

The reason I ask this is because, as many Malaysians may not know, getting into a top science or engineering programme in the US generally means 100% sponsorship plus a stipend from your university (or rather your research advisor) for the duration of the course. In other words, it's like a job. In the social sciences and humanities, funding is a little harder to come by. E.g. a history Ph.D. typically takes 7-10 years but funding is only guaranteed for five, and only at the very top institutions. Also, generally speaking, it is much more difficult to get into an arts Ph.D. programme than a science one.

All this is to say that I assume that we would like more people to go overseas and be trained in S&E related fields (as opposed to Russian history or musicology, though 'some of my very best friends are Slavicists...' :-P ), and post-grad funding is generally quite good in those fields, so why offer scholarships? Shouldn't we rather spend more effort (a) raising awareness about the opportunities, and (b) helping/preparing our undergrads better to apply for post-grad studies abroad? (OK, one answer is that we can't bond people if we don't give them scholarships, but are we shooting ourselves in the foot by not giving people leeway to do postodocs etc. before coming back? I've seen this happen with students from some other countries...)

In line with one of Kian Ming's comments, one 'problem' with this approach perhaps is that I'm not sure what the perception is abroad of the undergrad training at our universities, even the older ones. My guess is that UM, UKM etc. are not on the radar screen.

I did undergrad here and am now in a postgrad programme and I certainly felt that applying the second time around was *very* much easier because my undergrad institution was a known quantity to the graduate schools I was applying to. When I was applying for undergrad, I felt that I had a lot of explaining to do. (Where on earth is SMJK Ayer Tawar - we've never had students from there before. Why does it have a 50% dropout rate - does that mean you're a lousy student even though you're always close to the top of your form? etc.) And the on the SMJK Ayer Tawar side, there were issues associated with teachers not being familiar with the applications process. (You really need reference letters? Yes, they are really important. Umm...OK, OK, to write ah?) At college, I realised that people from certain schools in Singapore, the UWCs etc. did not have similar issues with their application.

Similarly, students from National Taiwan University, Technion, IIT etc. may have an advantage over equally bright students from UM, USM etc. at the moment because those places are known quantities to Harvard, Stanford etc. and the people there are familiar with the application process. We should think a bit about how to remedy this. It will also be for our own good as in the process we may figure out ways to improve the undergrad education at our public universities.

Anonymous said...

Oops, the last comment was by me. I accidentally entered the word verification instead. Charis.

Anonymous said...

I believe that this topic necessitates a clear demarcation of fields of study...While art-based students may benefit from an intellectually-competent environment in those Ivy leagues schools, the same cannot be said for science-based students... An MIT or Caltech science graduate returning as an academic in a local university will find him/herself stifled by the lack of technical as well as pertinent human resources (i.e. competent peers). In Caltech of MIT, students are exposed to a myriad of up-to-date, hi-tech, multi-disiplinary courses such as bioengineering, nanotechnology, tissue engineering etc whereas in Malaysia, the focus will always be on agricultural products and their derivatives...(i.e. palm oil). Therefore, it is a rather superfluous notion to send science-based students to those schools in the first place...These graduates would rather work as a high-paying researcher in developed countries than plying their trades as a low-paying academic in local universities..

These are just my two cents, anyway...

Anonymous said...

Tok Pa mentioned that the scholarships will only be awarded to students gaining admittance to an Ivy League. I highly doubt that he knows the meaning of Ivy League, I just assume that he thinks the phrase includes all the top universities in the world.

Anyway, back to the topic. I agree that this is a good policy if implemented and should apply to the JPA scholarships for undergraduate studies as well. Many JPA scholars who are SPM high achievers end up to be average students in pre-u while many other students with slightly flawed SPM results end up to be the ones who receive offers from the world's top universities.

Speaking of my own experience, I graduated with straight As for my SPM but with 2 A2s. I applied for 8 or 7 scholarships but was rejected by all. I persevered and eventually I was offered a place for Engineering by Cambridge. I repeated the dreaded scholarship application process once more but was not even called up for interviews. I followed up with them on my application but was told that my application was unsuccessful. I didn't attend Cambridge eventually.

I also have friends who are JPA scholars with offers from Cambridge but have to appeal numerous times to JPA as their scholarships are initially for Australia or NZ. One is successful in her appeal but JPA only agrees to sponsor her last two years of tuition fees. Her family has to pay for her boarding expenses and the tuition fee for the other two years. Another person that I know (he is a regular commentator in this blog) graduated from Cornell and had an offer from Stanford for his masters but failed to get any sponsorship from JPA. JPA reasoned with him that his GPA was below the required level by JPA. He didn't attend as well. Sad but true..

Golf Afflicted said...

I'm certain that if Tok Pa did indeed mention "Ivy League" as reported in Bernama, he would've meant Ivy-League "equivalents", rather than just the few Ivies.

In this case, it'll be silly to nitpick, and he deserves the benefit of the doubt for the above.

Anonymous said...

Dear Ah Piau,

University Malaya will still keep on harping doing biodiversity when all the other universities in the west are closing down their zoology and botany courses.

Chen Chow said...

Actually, this policy of going to top universities have been done for some time, although the implementation is often not perfect. During my time, JPA only allowed students to enter the top 10 universities in US for undergrad based on each major (according to Gourman Report). While the report is not a very good benchmark, it is a benchmark.

Then from this year onwards, JPA's US program is based on transfer program, i.e. students would spend 2 years in US only, except for students who are able to get into the following 18 universities:- Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Cornell, Columbia, Dartmouth, Pennsylvania, Brown, Berkeley, Caltech, Carnegie Mellon, John Hopkins, MIT, Michigan, Northwestern, Rice, Stanford, and Washington (Seattle). These students would get to spend 4 years in US.

While the list of top universities by JPA is debatable, it is still a good step forward in ensuring that our taxpayers' money is utilized. Students who get into these top universities would spend 4 years there, whereas the rest would spend 2 years in US.

Anonymous said...

Our officials do not "bungle" when they make these types of decisions. They make the decisions in a studied manner. Problem is, they studied the wrong issues. Either they are consciously forwarding their own agenda, or just do not have the intellectual ability to do a proper evaluation between institutions whose standards are too far advanced beyond these officials' intellectual horizon. An example of the first point is that I would not expect them to follow the THES or any other report that puts our universities so low on the list, simply because to do that would mean the recognition of the veracity of those reports, and that would in turn mean acknowledging that our universities have indeed hit rock bottom. We are all still in denial, aren't we?

The bigger issue seems to miss our ministers again. The pre-occupation with graduate qualities and now post-graduate qualities are quick fixes proposed to turn the public gaze away from the fundamental and critical flaw in our education system, that is, the primary level education standards, the need to cultivate thinking in education and not just rote.

A student trained in rote-learning can never do well at graduate or post-graduate levels, short of just meaninglessly securing that piece of paper.

I suppose someone will tell me that I am talking about the wrong ministry, but this fact of having 2 separate ministries for education continues to puzzle me. It seems the 2 ministries are so disjointed that the head and the tail do not know what each needs or what the other is doing. So, instead of our government focussing all its scarce resources to right the years of wrong primary education policy that forms the bedrock for the entire nation, we spent time and money on quick fixes and dwell on issues like the ones in this post. We end up with the situation of the tail wagging the dog.

Kian Ming said...

I'd like to highlight a point which Charis brought up and which I failed to take into account in my earlier post. Applicants who are successful in getting into a PhD program in a top university in the US are usually fully funded by the university. If these applicants are fully funded by the university, why would they want to take up the Malaysian government scholarship, especially if it is only for 3 to 3 1/2 years (while it takes upwards of 5 years to finish a PhD in the US)?

I think that Tok Pa is probably unaware of this. He might have studied his Masters in Boston University but he was sponsored by the Malaysian government and didn't have to think about applying for a PhD program to a top university.

Anonymous said...

I graduated from a top 10 university in the UK, which is also listed in the THES top 200. But I now work in a UK university which is not in the THES top 200. Since moving, my personal experience has been positive. I am supervising quite a large number of Ph.D. students at the moment. In the UK, Ph.Ds from any university is treated equally due to the way the Ph.D. is examined, i.e. by an external examiner (who chair's the session) and internal faculty. The ultimate decision on the award is left to the external examiner. Do correct me if I'm wrong but I have been told that in the US and Canada the thesis defence is conducted by internal faculty members.

I've frequently found it difficult to obtain Malaysian Ph.D. students because the Malaysian government has for a long time only allowed sponsored students to attend selected universities, due to a misguided understanding of the situation. Somehow or rather my publication track record and the track record of my group do not count.

Anonymous said...

I think the criteria shows that the authorities have different priorities.

First, the sponsorship goes mainly to government officials and university lecturers.

The idea is for a higher percentage of local university lecturers to have phds.

Since the they cannot judge which is good and which is not good, the blanket top 50 seems to be a reasonable guard against mediocrity.

That is the least they could do. It is definately better than nothing at all.

One further step is perhaps to pay those who come from a higher ranking university more or to give them an easier access to grants.

Anonymous said...

If we want to compare which universities are better, or between USA and British universities, the more proper guideline is number of nobel prize winners over a country population.
In this case Britain has a higher ratio of nobel prize winners ratio, indicating the high quality research

True to the mark Britain does not have that much money, research equiptments in the labs, but they use more quality brain!

Anonymous said...

I won't argue with using the Nobel Prize as a metric of high quality brains etc., but take a look at:

and look especially at the 'last fifteen years' statistics.


coleong said...

It's no doubt that the quality of the university/school is important in determining the candidate for the postgrad scholarship. At the same time, the quality of the candidate is equally important as well. We certainly don't want to spend hundred thousand ringgit to send someone to Cambridge/Harvard and ended up with nothing because of the student fail to achieve the standard set by those universities.

On a separate note, if I’m not mistaken, a similar scholarship scheme had been in place for quite some times (in 1990s) in the public universities. Only different is that, the overseas scholarship is managed by the individual university and the candidate is normally bonded to serve the university after graduated. This scheme was later frozen because of the economy down turn. Certainly, I’m glad that the government has revived this oversea scholarship to our excellent student to pursue their dreams. Of course this will not end all the issues we have in regard to the quality of the education in Malaysia, but I think it’s a good step forward.

eljay said...

I am surprise to come across this column when i am searching for scholarships.

I had actually received an offer from the university of cambridge for the course of LLM. However,i have yet to receive any scholarships from any bodies.

I had applied to JPA for the post grad scholarship but i was informed that i am supposed to make the application within one year after i finished my undergraduate studies. ( I was previously a JPA scholar for my first degree.)

However, I am wondering whether there are any alternative channels for post grad scholarship application from JPA for those who was offered a place in an ivy league univeresity.

Pursuant to the statement made to the media by government officers that scholarships will be offered to those being offered a place in an ivy league university, I am wondering the extent of sincerity and authenticity of the statement made. Was it a mere smokescreen to appease public's dissent over the selection criteria for JPA overseas scholarship?