Thursday, April 05, 2007

More on MUST

Malaysia University of Science & Technology (MUST) continues to create controversy in the country. I've blogged about it not too long ago as a RM100 million fiasco, especially with regards to its supposed tie-up with Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). More recently, MUST is still regarded as a "success" by the Minister of Higher Education, Datuk Mustapa Mohamed, which left our Parliamentary Opposition Leader, Sdr Lim Kit Siang speechless.

Well I've received a letter from K, who's a rare graduate of MUST, to provide us all a better picture of the university.

"I just stumbled upon your blog entry "RM100 million MUST Fiasco" from December 2006. I'm writing to you now to give you a better understanding of MUST. I'm actually a graduate from MUST, who enrolled in 2004. I was in the third batch of students for MUST, although I was the pioneer batch for my particular department. As far as I know, there were 3 departments in 2002, 5 in 2003 and 7 in 2004. I was also the final batch of students to receive the full scholarship given by the Ehsan Foundation, which includes a RM60,000 waiver for school fees and a monthly stipend of RM1300 (for my 18 months of full-time study). For the 2002 batch, the intake was roughly about 40+ students, the 2003 batch about 80-100, and my batch about 100-120. The drop-out rate was pretty high, especially for certain departments such as Biotechnology, who will lose about half of its students within one semester (the workload is quite brutal, and the syllabus is very engineering-based, which can be quite hard for students that do not have the appropriate background). During the first 3 batches, all students that were accepted into MUST automatically received the scholarship waiver and the monthly stipend. FYI, each intake consisted of about 98% Malaysian Chinese, with a few Malay and Indian students.

I was previously an engineering graduate from UPM, and had never experienced the US style of education. The facilities in MUST were first class, even though we were in Kelana Square. We occupied about 6 floors. Each department had its own set of labs, either computer labs or science labs. The faculty staff was excellent and mostly had gained their postgraduate degrees in esteemed universities, such as Cambridge, Harvard, MIT, etc. Most faculty were expatriates, but not Caucasian. We had faculty from India, Bangladesh, China, Thailand, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Indonesia, etc. My own Head of Department was from Harvard, and even though he was young, the manner in which in he taught us were far and beyond any lecturer I've ever met in UPM. We had to earn our degrees by taking about 9 subjects and doing a research thesis. Besides the full-time faculty, we also had adjunct faculty (local lecturers) that taught in specialty subjects. I
would just say the adjunct faculty’s style of teaching is what I'm accustomed to when I was an undergraduate in UPM.

Our coursework revolved mainly around assignments. Each subject required a term paper, which had to be carefully researched. In my first semester, a few students were accused of extreme plagiarism, which included myself. At that time, I was struggling so much with the workload that I didn't bother to research properly. The faculty allowed us to rewrite the assignment, but told us to write down our own opinions instead of someone else's. From that time onwards, it was not unusual to find students spending up to 12 hours a day in the university, sometimes even more. I have lost count of the days I slept in my lab simply because I had to use the Internet facilities for research (I don't have broadband access at home). Our information had to be backed up by reliable sources, which usually consists of journal articles and books (Internet websites are not considered a reliable source), which explains the long hours on the Internet. Needless to say, I have never worked harder in my life, not even when I was working.

Our syllabus was based on subjects taught in MIT, although some were not even offered in MIT. For some subjects, we had to watch the video lectures that had been taped in MIT, and for most subjects, we were doing almost the same assignments and tutorials given in MIT. All assignments were posted online, and we had to submit it online. Our assignments would be corrected in soft copy and e-mailed to us. Each term paper had to be presented in a professional manner and marks will be given for presentation. Since attendance for lectures also accounted for a small portion of a grade, my faculty stated that students who asked more questions during lectures would be given higher marks and those that didn’t ask any were not given any marks at all (It’s quite impossible to skip classes when there’s only 7 students in a class, so 100% attendance is not a big deal)

After my first year, MUST decided to withdraw the scholarship program. That's when the intake numbers fell drastically. By this time, the first batch of students had had their convocation and all students had been dismayed when we were informed that our degrees would not be endorsed by MIT. So without the MIT endorsement and scholarship program, the university had difficulty recruiting students that were willing to take a RM60,000 loan. All the problems regarding the withdrawal of the scholarship scheme, the refusal to lower the fees, and the subsequent reduction in intake, I personally blame on the university management. Not the admin, and certainly not the teaching staff.

Another issue that has yet to be resolved is the convocation for MUST graduates. Only the 2002 batch has had their convocation (in 2004). In that convocation, only 28 ppl received their scrolls, as the rest of the batch had yet to complete their thesis. Five Cabinet Ministers attended the convocation that day, which is the highest number of Cabinet Ministers I ever got to see at one time. Since 2004, there has yet to be a convocation for the remaining graduates of the 2002 batch, and the graduates of the 2003 and 2004 batches. Personally, I am not optimistic that a convocation will be held anytime soon.

There were only 40 students for the 2005 intake, which then dwindled to less than 20. There were only 4 students for the 2006 intake, all for the IT Dept. A lot of the international faculty has left, and a lot more will leave when their contracts expire this year. It's just sad that such a university with so much potential, with such great facilities and faculty, will be remembered as a "failure". Perhaps you might think that RM100 million was wasted on so few ppl, but then again, how many Malaysians actually have the opportunity to receive such education? I feel privileged that I received the scholarship, and even though my Masters cert does not have the endorsement from MIT, I feel that I have received an education of world-class quality.

Hope you have a better view of the whole MUST issue now."

Thank you K for leaving us a little wiser. The ministry should certainly pay heed to hear from its graduates and faculty.


Anonymous said...

This sound like many govt project - spend a bunch of money, look good but the poor planning and follow through everything fell apart.

Bukit Jalil looked good too when the build it. Putrajaya apartment also looked good until they nearly fell down!!!

I think most of us are happy for K and those that had the opportunity to experience the program. But the point should be that there was never a chance this was going to work. Other than a personal growth for the likes of K, will it really even benefit the likes of K that much over the long-run given the investment?

You can't keep messing up and expect real things to happen...

Anonymous said...

It emphasises the point once more that we should forget about First World facilities before we even developed our Third World mentalities and intellectual ability. We really do have to start from the primary school level.

Anonymous said...

I think the writer highlighted some very important points.

1. The standard of our local faculties.
2. The standard of our local university facilities.
3. The standard of our local graduates.

Point 3 largely dependent on the earlier two points, and if you read another letter posted by LKS, you will understand why the country is heading to dumpsite. The effects, i would darely say, is exponential.

The system in MUST is not special and extreme for most countries. Our nearest neighbour, Singapore has been practising these kind of "extremes" all this while. A research or term paper with substantial references and supports is a norm there. It is not just a matter of memory, but how you implement what you learnt. Our local universities have failed in promoting this.

Which is why, Malaysia will never go anywhere in the future. Thanks to the bunch of "work with me, not for me" leaders.

Anonymous said...


Check out this hilarious letter by Professor Kangkung...

junhoe said...

I'm a final year undergraduate student at UKM, and there are times like these I'm proud of my uni (as much as can the context of local public unis).

Most faculties in UKM (Science & Technology, Social Science, Engineering etc) requires final year students to come up with a dissertation paper (Latihan Ilmiah). It's a 2-semester subject, kinda like a amateur thesis. Working on one is a huge learning experience.

We have to do labwork, discuss with our lecturers, and yes, look up references - journals and articles. I'm lucky as I get wireless access in my hostel (more than half the colleges in UKM are equipped with Internet access; still insufficient but it's a first step). And these dissertation is no laughing matter, it's a one of two requirements to graduate. For our two departments - there are two requirement to graduate - a. Industrial training for 8 months, b. Come up with a dissertation.

I know some of my friends doing Biology in UM is given a choice of them - most choose industrial training which is easier. So it's no suprise that some undergrads from UM/UPM comes out "surprised" about researching journals/articles.

Anonymous said...

jonoave, please don't make people laugh at you. A dissertation is the basic of graduation. Unless you are comparing with local universities, it is not something that you can be proud off. Please go out and see the world before you blindly protecting the local folks.

coleong said...

Thanks K for providing such a detail insight of the MUST system. Again, to me, it seems that the academic staff is doing an excellent job in improving the quality of the student. As pointed out, the program fail due to 2 major reasons :

1) Fail to get endorsement from MIT
2) Withdrawal of the scholarship

From this experience, we can learn a few hard lesson about the education and general perception of people in Malaysia :

1) Most people/parents judge the degree base mainly on the name of university which offers it, i.e. MIT/Cambridge/Oxford is the best of the world in EVERY degree they offered and their graduate is the best regardless of how the structure of the course/degree was being conducted. Fact, not all the courses offer by these universities are best in the world. Some other less well-known universities might offer the same quality or even better than these so-called top universities.

2) Then, there is also a perception that any degree from overseas is better than local degree. Just like the Chinese saying “the moon is bigger in the foreign land”. This could explain why parents are more willing to spend $60k or even double that amount by sending their children to any overseas university (including the so-call dubious university) rather than spending it on MUST which offer a genuine degree with good academic staff. Of course, one could always argue that MUST is less established (in term of their name) as it’s a new university and people might not have confident about their degree. Which is the major factors ? You decide.

3) Given the fact that 98% of the students are non-Malay and half of them fail, suggests that the problem is not due to any racial factor which many people in this blog and elsewhere believe that non-Malay are better than Malay (which I think is totally nonsense). When high quality/passing mark is applied, all of us fail suggesting that there is a general weakness inherited in our education rooting from the primary and secondary school. Spoon-feeding might be part of the reason. But I think an even bigger issue is the syllabus in our school. It is too shallow compared to other country. Assuming MUST is applying a general tertiary education standard same as the first world countries, our student just couldn’t follow it suggesting there is a big gap between our local secondary education and international tertiary education standard. Therefore, it’s no surprise for such a high drop-out rate.

4) The fact that the student is given high mark for asking question suggesting that the mentality of our students is still not inquisitive in their subject. What will happen if there is no bonus mark given ? Will our students just take whatever the lecturer said and regurgitate the facts during the exam ? We all used to this culture and I’m not surprise that this will happen. Are the students asking question for the mark or for their inquisitive mind ? I bet that the first is true. Remember, you’re the student. You’ve the rights to ask whatever you’re not sure to your lecturer. After all, you pay for it. You don’t need a lecturer to teach you all the facts as you can learn it from text book. But you need someone to talk to when you’re stuck, do not understand or seek for further knowledge. Unfortunately, our culture trained us and taught us that we should be moderate, not to be stand out of the crowd. If no one ask question, keep quiet or else you’ll be mark as weirdo or etc. This mentality has to change. You ask for your own sake. If you prepare your subject well before class, you’ll sure to have question to discuss about. I’m glad that the staff in IMU encourage their student to do so even though the method they use (by giving bonus mark) is kind of deviated from the original idea of inquisition but still it’s a good try to change our long persisted mentality. You’ll never seen this in public Uni (for example UPM) as the lecturer prefer not to be challenged/asked. That kind of bring me to point (5) about the mentality and practice of the staff in public universities.

5) We all hear about the less qualified people being recruited to be lecturer or Prof in local universities. I do not agree. In fact, I think they are more than qualified to teach our students. Why ? Because you just need someone who can read from the text book to teach. You don’t need a PhD to do that and yet our university’s lecturers are mostly PhD graduates. My point is, our learning environment is not challenging enough. Lecturer teach from the text book, students keep writing their note and regurgitate it out during exam. Lecturer going home happy with their salary, student happy getting their degree, everyone is happy. Isn’t it perfect ? A perfect system indeed to culture an incurious mind and the “take and go” mentality. Without a challenging and competitive setting, you don’t need to have a great educator to teach our universities. It’s just waste of money. That kind of tell you why all these unqualified lecturers are till sitting there because they are, in fact, qualify for their job at this point as they are not being challenged by students or scholars who dare to ask them challenging questions. Remember, no question is a big question ?!?!....

6) My final point. Are we ready to accept high quality tertiary education ? Unfortunately, based on the MUST experience, I don’t think we’re ready. It is not only impossible but improbable to have a dramatic change in our education system. Imagine, if our public university apply the high standard as MUST which I think is probably the average standard worldwide, half of our students will drop out. It’ll be a national disaster not only to our national image but also to our country’s social economy. The reason for the success of the NUS-MIT alliance program is because they are very selective about their candidates. Only a few get the offer. If you offer it to anyone, it will end up like MUST as well, high drop-out rate.

In summary, I think MUST is probably too far ahead of its time. Our nation just not ready for it. It takes time to change. No need to be pessimistic about. We must accept the fact that we’re third world country and there is room for improvement. However, we can’t accept any reason not to improve if we know where the weakness it. This is the most scary part about the current status. If the staff in our local universities are unwilling to admit the weakness and improve themselves or seek for better candidate, we’re in big problem. Already, we’ve seen the attitude of the some staff not only not to improve themselves but try to suppress other talented people from surpassing them. To me, this is very dangerous. The whole system could be dragged down by certain or a few people for their own interest. Unfortunately, I can’t provide any good answer as to how to go about the issue. Perhaps, we could start from improving your own mentality before trying to improve others. Go beyond the syllabus and always seek to be the best. Even if you can’t change the system for its betterment, you can always do something to improve yourself. If everyone can do that, we don’t have to depend solely on our national education system anymore and achieve whatever we dream of in a global setting. Remember, it’s all depends on our mind. We’re part of the system. If we do not change, nothing is going to change. Just my opinion.

junhoe said...

Anon: 12:31:00 AM

Yes, I'm aware that a dissertation is required for a degree. If you noticed in K's entry, he was suprised that Internet websites aren't considered reliable and he has to spend long hours looking up journals. For an engineering graduate, shouldn't this be already a norm? Unless his uni didn't enforce a strict dissertation requirement. Which I pointed out that some unis don't, as compared to mine. I'm almost close to finishing my disertation now, and I too spend many hours looking up journals. Yes, local unis do leave a lot to be desired, but in this context, I'm glad mine didn't slack off. Apologies if this wasn't clear from the beginning.

As for MUST, K's experience there sounds very encouraging while it lasted. I would have loved to study in a more stimulating environment. Too bad it's going downhill without proper planning and foresight.

coleong said...

It depends on the courses. Some courses in UPM required external internship and dissertation to graduate. In my year, we even sign up for an optional internal internship which we spent full-time in a lab doing research. It is good that UKM still maintain the final year dissertation practice which I think is a very good learning experience. That where you start to learn to be independent on doing things yourself and seek for answer. Good luck for your dissertation. Do you have to defend your thesis or viva voce as well ? It will be another very good challenging experience ;)

Anonymous said...

An insightful letter from K, thanks.

Unfortunate, from my experience teaching as a tutor in a local private university, Malaysian students are just not ready for any sort of standards to be enforced in the system. Students are of poor quality, lack the drive to study and are all extremely well versed in the copy and paste culture.

If the marking schemes were strictly enforced and lecturers choose not to close one eye, more than 50% of the students will never even graduate.

All hail the great Malaysian education system.

Anonymous said...


It makes me laff,,,just to see how many are easily ' convinced' by just ONE subjective statement from ONE MUST student!

Come on...go and do a deep study before hastily reaching conclusions!

I personally have talk to many MUST students and they beg to differ in their opinion


Anonymous said...

If you know so much about MUST. Why don't you share with us some of your facts and let us know what is happening instead of being sarcastic.

Anonymous said...

In response to:

"Anonymous said...

... have talk to many MUST students and they beg to differ in their opinion

maybe those were the half who flunked out. :-)

Anonymous said...

In response to:

"Anonymous said...

... have talk to many MUST students and they beg to differ in their opinion"

Why don't you ask them to post their comments here for us to read?

Anonymous said...

I agree, why not you explain to us what actually those MUST students told you. Love to hear it.

Tha Student.

Anonymous said...

Hi. It's "K". And I'm a "she", not a "he"... :-) I wish to clarify some things that I had not written clearly. They are:

1. Not half of MUST students flunk. What I had meant to say is that half of the Biotechnology students will give up either within the first semester or after the first semester. There used to be a running joke in MUST that when the main Biotech faculty returned to Taiwan (the faculty was Taiwanese, trained in MIT, and would spend 2 weeks in M'sia and 2 weeks in Taiwan and so forth), at least one student would drop out. So by the end of the first semester, only half would remain. (Our contract stated that if you drop out of your own will, you must repay the scholarship, so if you dropped out in the middle of the semester, you're legally obligated to repay RM10,000. Note: I'm not sure whether this is enforced). 95% of the other students from the other departments would pass, although it might take longer than the original 18 months. So the overall passing rate would be closer to 90%.

2. I earned my engineering degree in 3 yrs, at a time when the government thought it was wise to shorten degrees to 3 yrs. I took 120 credits within 3 yrs, averaging about 20 academic credits per semester (does not include credits earned for industrial training). When I graduated, I had a CGPA of 3.67. My thesis only involved design work, where we had to design a complete chemical processing unit. Since design work usually requires industrial information, my thesis involved more on researching patents and industrial catalogues rather than scientific journals. I would also like to defend some parts of the education system in UPM. In my case, my entire degree was conducted in English, which turned out to be a bonus when we look for work and employers demand a good command of English. As far as I know, only UM conduct their engineering programs in English as well. I'm not sure about USM and the newer college universities though (I'm only considering local government
universities here).

3. The maximum marks given for asking questions is 5%, since that was the portion allocated for attendance. My faculty had been really irritated with the Malaysian reticence of asking questions, so he just stated one day that students asking more questions would get the 5%, and those that didn't will get less. I actually doubt whether he really enforced his idea, it was to "force" the students to ask more questions.

Sorry, but I gotta go. But it's true that I'm only giving the perspective of my department in MUST. Students from the other departments might not be so positive in their reviews, depending on their whole experience.


Anonymous said...

Hi, I'm another student from MUST. i agree with what K had clarified in this blog. frankly speaking, i did learn a lot from my master degree and it really means a lot to me. same as K, this is the 1st time i had put so much effort in my studies.

i had started working for 1 year ++, my good friend (ex-MUST student too) and i still keep telling each other that although working life is tough, but MUST study life is tougher.

i was one of the student from 2003 batch and there's only 2 students dropped out (total is 22 students) from my department. without the help and encouragement from my lecturers, coursemates and friends at the MUST, the completion of coursework and thesis would not have been possible.

it's not easy for a typical Malaysian student to adapt to a research-based university. many of the students always complain about the research and learning style because most of them really didn't expect that the life will be so tough in MUST. they gave up their work for the scholarship and studies.

we can't deny that we are very disappointed when we realised that we can't have a graduation ceremony and the scroll that we got is not really what we expected. i do understand the difficulties that had faced by MUST and agree that if there's a better planning, MUST should be another established university in 10 years time. what a pity that, we still didn't hear any good news.

finally i'm still appreaciate for the opportunity and financial support given to me to earn this degree. i really enjoy the challenging study life and explore a lot of new knowledge and learning styles in MUST. i sincerely hope that the government will have a good planning for this university. i really like this university and hope that it will not disappear.

Anonymous said...

Just tell me one....only one single project which the govt did which is and was successful?

Anonymous said...

Have anyone bothered to ask about the quality of Education in Technology Park Academy Malaysia?

Was the Technology Park initially created to become a University or a R&D centre??

xenobiologista said...

Good to hear from the 2 MUST alumna. It's nice to know that even though this effort was abortive, it was good for some students.

Yes, we (Malaysia) suck, but the suckyness isn't irreversible.

Anonymous said...

The hypothesis is very simple:

If the two MUST graduates think highly of MUST education quality, how come MIT and most of the lecturers 'abandoned MUST'?

Is it not the rats which always leave the ship before it sinks? Cos the rats have detected water coming into the ship...but the MUST graduates dont...

Anonymous said...

Hi all,

I am a graduate from MUST as well (received my cert but still waiting for my convo) and I was from the 2nd batch of students, a year ahead of K.

I would agree with K & the other fellow graduate on their opinion on MUST. MUST has an excellent environment to study in. With the low density of students, we have the luxury of using the top class facilities with pleasure. This, you can't find in other places. And most lecturers are young and vibrant ones, not those pensioners or are waiting to pension.

With regards to the hypothesis above, please allow me to comment on it.

MIT & the lecturers left for a single reason; there was no direction from the management. As there were no students around, there is no reason why the faculty has to stay and waste their life taking salary blindly. We have been there and we know the lecturers are really dedicated. But if the management isn't going to do anything about it, I wouldn't want to graduate from Harvard, MIT or Cambridge (and mind you, most of them do graduate from there!) and just wait for the management to take some action.

In short, MUST education quality has nothing to do with MIT & lecturers abandoning the place. The syllabus comes from MIT & the lecturers are the ones handling the courses, so if there is any problem with the education quality, they are the ones responsible. But that's not the case, it's MUST management that is killing the academy.

This comment might be late, but MUST have changed their management and let's see how it goes. Word has got it that their are reviving and planning undergraduate studies.

Let's hope for the best, it can't be any worse already.