Wednesday, February 21, 2007

The limitations of collaboration...

While I think it's good that the UK is keen on fostering stronger ties with Msia in the higher education sector, collaborations should not and cannot be one sided. Probably as important, is that collaborations should not and cannot be driven totally by governments, or in this case, Malaysia's government.

The Star's education supplement reported, over the weekend, on the visit by UK's Minister of State for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education Bill Rammell.

The highlight of his visit was the signing of a memorandum of understanding (MoU) to foster collaboration, partnership and exchanges in education between the UK and Malaysia. This MoU was co-signed by Higher Education Minister Datuk Mustapa Mohamed, whom Rammell also met with privately.

It was good to hear that Rammell hoped that the number of Chevening scholarships given to Malaysians would be doubled in the near future. I know that this scholarship has benefitted many Malaysians who would otherwise not have gotten the opportunity to do a Masters level degree in the UK.

It is sometimes easy to see that for many of these so called 'collaborations' to turn into a one sided deal, usually benefitting the UK counterparts more than the Malaysian counterparts.

For example, while twinning programs has opened up many opportunities for Malaysian students to obtain a UK degree at a reduced cost and / or not to leave the country at all, UK universities basically gives out these 'licenses' to print degrees at little expense to itself, in return for much needed revenue for themselves (which they cannot raise domestically from their British students).

Also, having Malaysian students do their PhDs in the UK gives them the exposure to more established research cultures but is a massive drain on government resources since many, if not most, of these students are government sponsored.

I think that there are two principles which the Malaysian government should keep in mind when thinking through these collaborations:

1) The UK government doesn't have as much 'coercive' power as the Malaysian government in higher education matters
2) Much good can come from private rather than government collaboration

Firstly, it is important for our government officials to keep in mind the fact that the UK government does not have the same kind of control over their universities compared to the situation in Malaysia. The 'coercive' power of the UK government over decisions such as university curriculum and the appointment of VCs or their equivalents are almost non-existent compared to their Malaysian counterparts. While they do have some budgetary oversight over the UK universities (school fees for UK students are subsidized by the government), this component is decreasing in its importance as school fees (or Top Up fees) increase for UK students and the % of fee paying students from abroad (mostly from Asia) increases.

So, for example, it is much harder for the UK government to implore its top universities (such as Oxford or Cambridge) to, for example, accept less than stellar PhD candidates from Malaysian universities or to offer subsidized school fees for these candidates. In Malaysia, it is much easier for the government to allocate funds to subsidize students from, let's say, the Middle East or Bosnia, and to ask our local universities to accept some of these students as PhD candidates even if their academic standards fall short.

The worst thing the Malaysian government can do is to throw money at these UK universities in the hope that some of this money would somehow 'rub off' on the Malaysian public universities. For example, making a 500RM million 'donation' to the University of Cambridge from government coffers would be a terrible misallocation of valueble public resources.

Secondly, the Malaysian government has to recognize that perhaps the best thing it can do is to empower private actors to collaborate and produce results instead of trying to 'drive' the results by itself.

For example, I happen to think that the decision by the Msian government to allow the University of Nottingham in Malaysia was a good one. In fact, it's probably better, in the long term, than having all these twinning programs because having a full fledged research university based in Malaysia has more potential to build up a research environment within the country and has more possibilities of 'leakage' or 'spinning off' into the local economy / education / research sectors.

So while having this long list of potential collaborations under the MOU might look good, the Ministry and Minister of Higher Education would do well to know the limitations of the UK government as well as its own limitations.

Forms of collaboration
- Exchange of educational staff, experts and students
- Encouraging students to study in the other country through providing more scholarships
- Developing bilateral programmes in technical, vocational and higher education fields
- Facilitating the training of educational administrators and teachers
- Studying opportunities for credit transfers between recognised institutions of higher learning in both countries and mutual recognition of academic, professional and vocational qualifications
- Exchange of educational materials as well as organising relevant exhibitions and seminars
- Providing mutual assistance in the fields of information and communications technology, language teaching, mathematics and science
- Exchange of ideas and experiences in educational policy between advisers, officials and legislators


Anonymous said...

Collaboration in education is only good if the parties involved is able to take advantage of it. In other words, the benefit don't just happen. How much each party gets actually depend on how well they can take advantage of it first.

When our education establishment have negligible originality and ideas, these collaboration end up being just tourism project instead, very expensive tourism projects at that.

Often than not those involved are so dependent on being told what to do that they end up doing exactly that rather than to address a specific issue or value add.

Anonymous said...

This blog is meant for people who desire to attend the best universities. To King Ming and Tony, the norm is Oxford and Cambridge. I will not be surprised if it is true that Tony and King Ming have been harboring discrimination against universities, which are less than their norm. The yearly intake of the elite universities is so small that most good students would not even bother to submit entry applications to them. Taking UK universities as an example, I am a lot more concerned with good universities such as Birmingham, Lancaster, Nottingham, Warvick, Bristol and the like. This blog also does not mention that no matter how good a university stands in its world ranking, admission to a professional body (such as the ACCA)is another key determinant affecting one's career. I am not sure that a student intending to be a chartered accountant would necessarily choose Cambridge as the starting point. I do admire a person with an Oxford degree, but if I tell all Malaysian STPM holders with straight As or GPA 4.0 to apply for admission to Oxford, more than 99% will be disappointed. May be, I for one should not have read this blog. I am sorry.

Who am I? said...

As always, the government always seem to rely on simply solutions to solve complicated problems that have yet to be addressed head on. Pumping money in schools and signing MoU(s) to improve standings of domestic research universities is certainly a sign of progress, but its effectiveness pretty much depends on the sequencing of reforms in the tertiary education sector.

I personally think that building up world-class research institutions is not the best idea, it might be actually "less bang for the buck" for Malaysia. The public in general often link good schools with research, but I shall show this is not necessarily the case. Good universities are ones that can churn out graduates who can solve problems and have the tenacity to strive for the best, above all else. It is better to send competent postgraduate candidates to other countries since it is more cost effective: given the little resources, it is best that we concentrate on the undergraduates, first.

Having the best researchers around in M'sian universities is not going to help much for a few reasons, but before I go ahead, my view is based on the assumption that we want to make more than a couple of universities into world class institutions:

1. Fact: It is pretty hard to derive large financial rewards from research in Malaysia given its small size and lack of attention from the world's biggest companies. A symbiotic relationship between the private sector and the public universities takes an awful lots of time to develop. Best research ideas do not necessarily result in incomes. A Professor in US can earn USD 20,000 per meeting (yes, just attending ONE meeting of the company) by being a technical advisor. Those however, are more of exceptions than the rule. Therefore, forging links with private sector should be for making the syllabus more relevant, and expect little $$$ from them.

2. The very best researchers don't teach that much, many have very few teaching commitments to the undergraduates. They concentrate on a couple dozen of postgrads, particularly the PhD candidates. This trend is prevalent across all the very best schools in the world, it's a fact, not an opinion.

3. Since best researchers don't teach that much, quality of a public university is not correlated that much with them. Not saying that they don't, but there are bigger issues to consider about. And frankly speaking, quality research matters much more to a postgrad than an undergrad.

4. Given that it is hard to derive money from the private sector, it would still depend on government stipends. Bills that would cap government expenditures on higher education (and education in general) need to be passed. The bills would be accompanied by yearly increments (reductions should be forbidden) to adjust for inflation and other forms of contingencies. This would at least help in forging a consistent government commitment over time, making comparisons across time easier too.

5. A taxation system that would fund the fees of students like the ones in Australia (HECS) so that higher fees can be tolerated as they are spread over a long period of time (to suit the fact that returns of education are spread across long period of times too). Last I heard, the M'sian government was considering this and i'm not sure about the implementation. Point is, students with brains should not suffer from financial disability.

6. Universities should be given a free reign in raising their own finances. Endowment funds can be expanded via aggressive fundraising. Firstly however, public universities should view themselves as providing a service to university pupils. If students can derive a lot of benefits from a local education, they are more likely to give back.

7. Related to above, students must be the utmost priority. In the US, one of the reasons some univs are so rich is because their dynamic students hit the jackpot and decided to give back. None of them became rich just by charging high fees (their expenditures are often sustained by their portfolio investments). That is why we don't hear much about a philantropist giving lots of money to schools that had no impact on their lives. (eg. George Lucas' $175million donation to USC Film School)

So, carrying out the above reforms first is needed before we concentrate on attracting world class researchers. The fact is that a teacher can still be superb even if she doesnt have much of a reputation in the research world. In the US, there are a bunch of 4-year liberal arts colleges who are not quite research institutions. Yet, they produce a lot students who manage to get into the best research institutions (examples: Amherst College and Swarthmore College that are remarkably rich in terms of wealth and quality).

Of course, there are alot more to be done like re-examining the effectiveness of racial quotas, improving the quality of instruction, etc. I just want to list out the point that it is still possible to have non-research orientated universities that can still do alot in producing generations of capable and innovative workforce, and it is generally cheaper to run them than research institutions.

Hence, global rankings of schools should not be used as a benchmark because they are usually 'research-intensive' schools. Instead, we should focus on schools like École Polytechnique, École Normale Supérieure (France), Williams College and Wellesley College(both Massachussetts, US). You probably wont hear much from them, but they are extremely good schools that are often considered to be in par with the Ivy-league.

If the government keeps resorting to single-handed approaches, the public might actually feel more helpless. If Malaysia can Boleh in many things, why should we depend on other countries so much and yet achieve little in the process? Ain't that de-moralizing ?!

Note: An institution is classified as an university because it offers PhD programs (but not always, as you should see). Thus, not offering PhD programs does not imply lack of quality in terms of instruction. So, the race towards achieving university (or university college) status is dubious in some sense, should be treated as a marketing ploy than an incentive to improve the quality of instruction, after all, colleges in Malaysia are mostly private. Bear in mind that Massachussetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is one of the best-est schools in the world in engineering and economics and it offers PhDs!

Also, I am by no means a specialist in education. So, if you think my suggestions are dumb, then I am guilty as charged. Constructive criticisms and disagreements are valued over agressive nodding of heads.

Have a nice day dudes~

Anonymous said...

Jien Sing,

You make excellent points. (Sorry, I guess I'm nodding my head.)

Most of the conversation on education in Malaysia both on this blog and elsewhere has centred around means of 'bettering' our national education system without giving any thought to what the ENDS are.

What I would like to see is more talk about issues like (1) What does our country need from its universities? (2) How can we get what we need given our limited resources? Thank you for getting the conversation started.

Some observations.

1. I agree with your basic point that focus on teaching usually competes with focus on research. I tried to say that on another thread but was not believed. (Some of the lecturers in our minor public universities are being asked to do impossible things like teach five courses per term and 'do research' whatever that means.)

2. Nevertheless, it does not have to be an either/or situation. Let's say we want to have the best universities we can get in terms of both research and teaching without going to the extreme of Harvard and Stanford, to attract good lecturers, there still have to be some avenues for research and doing new things. The satisfaction of teaching is often an attraction to the academic life, but the excitement of discovery (even if it's something small) and the opportunity to interact with bright minds across the university is also very important. Otherwise one might as well teach in a secondary school. In other words, I'm not sure it's really possible to have a good teaching institution at the tertiary level without also having some research going on. Can you think of any examples? (See my comment below on the best liberal arts colleges.)

3. Research also feeds into teaching as long as one is not doing excessive amounts of it (research that is). I was an undergraduate at one of these small colleges and had the opportunity to work in a lab for two years (and two summers). I felt that this really rounded out my education as a physicist - understanding old ideas is fine, but ultimately one's education as a physicist/whatever is not complete until one learns to solve real-life problems on the fly. Unlike those at large research universities (like the one I'm at now), undergraduates at small colleges don't have to compete with postgrads for their supervisor's attention and so have much more opportunity to get their hands dirty doing real lab work, albeit with a smaller budget, but at that level it doesn't really matter.

4. As you mentioned, there are lots of models we can look at besides those at the top of the US News 'Research I' universities ranking. In the US, we can look at top liberal arts colleges and perhaps 'Research II' universities.

5. The best 'liberal arts colleges' in the US are increasingly emphasising research. My sense is that new lecturers in the lab sciences are expected to teach 1-2 classes per term and publish a paper a year or so. (The relevant numbers are 0-1 and 'as many as humanly possible without killing yourself or your postgrad students' for research universities. :-P ) I feel like somewhere between this and perhaps what happens in second tier research universities is perhaps the 'happy medium' for our research universities. And from there we could go somewhere else in 20-30 years. (The LAC model is not 100% workable for Malaysia because we still need to have engineering and professional courses in our universities.)

Anonymous said...

Tangent...for those who are interested, I hear rumours that the fair this year will have a focus on liberal arts colleges.

Anonymous said...

Another thought on 'collaboration'. It seems to me (from one day's observation at one university) that there isn't much going on within our local universities as it is. There are inter-disciplinary 'centres' for this and that, but do people in these centres work together across labs on projects? Maybe the first step is start with working on our own culture of collaboration...?

Anonymous said...

JS has made some salient points, but I wish to comment on the "less bang for the buck" thing. Research is not meant for today - it is for tomorrow.

Today (just like the Japanese, Koreans, Taiwanese sometime in the past) we just follow what other more innovative nations tell us to do and we are cheap, good hands to execute the instructions. However we cannot continue to do this, because there are always cheaper nations around that can replace us.

Investing in research means we get up to date with the newest technology and once we start breaking and owning the frontiers we will reap the financial rewards. And this is what China is doing, and my goodness are they catching up pretty quickly.

You will need a vision and good leaders to execute this, and other Asian countries have done it, but that is another matter.