Monday, November 19, 2007

More on Malaysian Higher Education

The standards of our universities are of greatest concern to all Malaysians who care for the country. And certainly, Datuk Zaid Ibrahim, arguably the most respected amongst the UMNO Ministers and MPs, despair at the state of "continued decline of Malaysian universities in the world rankings" as per his recent published letter in

He's probably even less optimistic about its future than I am, if I were to take his comments at face value:
Even Indonesian and Thai universities appear to have faired much better than the universities here in Malaysia, once the pride of this region. By this time next year, we may have to resign ourselves to having all these universities out of the first 500.
He blames the current predicament on several factors.

1. The English Medium
Thirty years of trying to re-engineer the educational medium of instruction has brought us to this. Almost every major textbook, citation and publication is in English.

The minister must be pragmatic and muster the administrative and political will to enforce the usage of English if we are not to be left behind by countries like Laos, Vietnam and Indonesia. Even newsreaders from China today appear to be able to present news better than our local newsreaders.
2. Student quality
The minister may be stuck with the quota system for his own political survival, but surely he can help improve standards here by trying to keep at least good bumiputera students at our universities. Currently, the good ones are shipped off to very expensive overseas universities and the less capable ones are placed in local universities. Common sense indicates that this is a recipe for disaster in terms of trying to maintain or improve the standards of our local universities.
3. Appointment of lecturers
For far too long, the minister has been giving independence to our local universities to choose their lecturers. This policy must change. The dismal standards may require the ministry to step in directly to ensure that good lecturers are appointed.
4. Publications
The ministry must set up its own audit team to ensure continuous publications. Without this most important criteria, Malaysian universities cannot hope to climb the ladder again and may be stuck in the doldrums for years to come.

The publication culture even in an established university like Universiti Malaya is surprisingly absent. Publications are what make a university and this is seriously lacking in our universities. The minister must again ensure that those lecturers who publish are rewarded and not cold-storaged for being “too clever”.
Of the four points, I'm in total agreement with point (4) on publications. A university that doesn't publish, or one that only writes to lifestyle magazines, make sensationalist claims to local newspapers without peer review or prefers to take part in dog and pony shows in Europe to collect coloured medals doesn't deserve recognition, and is certainly not worth its salt. Without the necessary academic rigour, we become just a degree manufacturing facility without intellectual depth.

I'm in semi-agreement with points (1) and (3). I believe English is of prime importance but I'm not sure if it'll change the standards to drastically at our universities. The university academics will probably argue that because it's not their mother tongue, the standards will drop further after the switch to an English discourse. All hell will of course, break loose at the UMNO General Assembly. While I certainly hope that the standards of English will improve tremendously in the near term, I actually think that there are several other key policies which the Government can undertake to arrest the decline in standards.

With regards to point (3) where it was suggested that lecturers be appointed centrally by the Ministry of Higher Education (MOHE) - I would agree with the diagnosis that the culture of recruitment of quality lecturers at our local universities are abhorrent, but placing the recruitment process in the hands of the clueless civil servants at the MOHE, will certainly not change things too much.

I would start where I have always proposed vigourously - that is to open the selection and applications of Vice-Chancellors and senior academics to local universities. Have the resumes vetted by an independent senior panel, not inclined to sway to political pressures. Of course, once the "best" is selected, give them the necessary hand to overhaul the university administration to improve standards.

Finally, I'm disagreeable to the suggestion that scholars should not be sent overseas but instead retained in the local universities. I certainly believe that deserving students must be given scholarships to pursue their further education at the top universities overseas. However, the practice of sending mediocre students to 3rd rate universities overseas must be stopped for it's just a waste of the county's precious resources.

I am of the opinion that the standards of the local universities will improve significantly should there be the practice of enrolling the best students for each faculty and university, even without taking into consideration the "better" students who have been given scholarships to go overseas. Currently, it isn't transparent how students are allocated to the respective subjects and universities. There appears to be an unhealthy hidden hand behind the scenes in the above process.

Enrolling the best students for each university and course would also mean that the Government must scrap the unequal entry requirements for Malaysian students i.e., via the matriculation or the STPM system. Hence, the standards at our local universities can easily improve even if the Government continues to send students overseas. They just need to make sure that the remaining cohort of students are given an equal footing to compete for excellence. ;-)


Anonymous said...

Trouble is Tok Pa is looking at the 'wrong end' to solve the problems of deteriorating standards in the Universities.
He goes for cheap and easy measure to " improve' the ranking of our universities by doing things without holistic studies. Everything he does is on 'piecemeal and ad hoc' basis to 'cure the 'symptom'

You cannot improve the ranking by merely;
Increasing the number of foreign lecturers
2 Increasing the number of foreign students
3 Marketing China to send their students her. Anyone can tell China is much better off than any of our universities. Cant you see that Tok Pa???
The first step is do the post mortem and identify the ' rot' No point advising him this cause I am very sure being a FIRST CLASS GRADUATE FROM MONASH he definitetely can see this!

If he is serious, Tok Pa knows what has to be done...but maybe is not keen in really trying to solve the problem ( only Tok Pa, God and UNMO might know the reason)

Has he the will and the power and the conscience to change the deteriorating system? Stop entertaining candidates like Bill Board Hashim for VC's post! Get a true blue academic for the VC post and not half cooked candidates with Masters degrees!

Make it mandatory for professors to publish certain amount of papers in respected peer reviewed international journals. Stop giving leeways for in house journals or from India and Pakistan and considering them as 'international journals' Dont recognise proceedings, and local or even regional conferences. STOP THE ROT NOW! BEFORE THE ROT BECOMES LIKE CANCER GROWS

Anonymous said...

~Make it mandatory for professors to publish certain amount of papers in respected peer reviewed international journals. Stop giving leeways for in house journals or from India and Pakistan and considering them as 'international journals' Dont recognise proceedings, and local or even regional conferences.~

Yes, I totally agree with you. With publication come citation & peer review. Today Captain Hashim wrote in utusan that he never 'invited' to be a THES peer reviewer. I would like to laugh loud to him hehe, itsn't it tells everybody that Prof Hashim Yacob the UM ex-VC is a political professor hahahahaha funny but true. He have just taken off his own pant in front of Malaysian academic community hehehehe. By the way, any Indian, Pakistan, or even Indonesian journal can be regarded as an International Journal so long as they appear in ISI Thompson citation list. (ISI = Institute for Scientific Information)

Anonymous said...

I agree that the change of our education system to BM is partly to be blamed. Because it really discourages faculty members from English-speaking countries to come for short teaching appointment.
The present hiring procedure is OK and in line with the common practice in Western countries, where Dept Head, Dean, and VC/Provost have to give approval. In the US, the selection starts with the dept faculty members who have to give approval. The problem is that in Malaysia, these administrators use the wrong or mediocre criteria in the appointment.
So, the change should start, first and foremost, in the administration, starting from the VC and down.
The next big problem is the performance of the faculty members in publications and research. What are they going to do with those who don't perform? Fire them? That would not be acceptable to UMNO and the govt because most of them are Bumis. You cannot put them aside and just hire new lecturers because you would be bloating the staff number. So, the removal of these non-performers has to be done by attrition. That would take some time but the hiring of more promising lecturers on meritocracy to replace those being retired should start now.

Shawn Tan said...

I believe that the randomness in getting university placements can be eradicated by automation. It will also save time and money, not to mention heart-aches. I get the sense that our university application process seems to obey the second law of thermodynamics.

Hiring academics is one thing. Motivating them is another. It doesn't quite make sense when publishing papers is given the same number of brownie points as joining the national day parade. This will totally discourage the person from doing research.

One strength that we have in Malaysia is infrastructure and funding. I don't know the exact numbers, but I get the impression that our government splashes out a lot of money and most of the money ends up being spent on buying equipment and building labs. We need to put it to good use.

Fundamentally, the only way to fix the problem at the universities is through "people". Put the best people at the helm, give them the best material to work with, and you will get the best results. However, this means that results will take time.

Even if the government revamps the whole university environment tomorrow, it will still take 10-15 year or more for the first batch of students to make their way up to being PI themselves.

Anonymous said...

why are we even bother about such a rotten country? rather than talking here, doing nothing except typing, would it be better if we change the ministers? education related issues are not to be manned by politicians! politicians, as far as we know, only serve themselves.

we should instead push for a change in the cabinet, whereby education related ministries be headed by academicians. they will only deal directly to his majesty and not umno. Hishammudin and Mustapha should be removed.

Anonymous said...

Quickly, two comments on publication.

1. 'Requiring' publication is not the answer to having more and better research. It's not as if the lecturers are sitting around not publishing when they could do it as easily as sneezing. Firstly, to publish you need facilities. From my brief investigations into this (searching library catalogues) and also from hearsay most of our university libraries are appallingly equipped, particularly with respect to journal subscriptions. How to ask people to publish in journals that the uni doesn't even subscribe to? C'est un peu ridicule. Secondly, you need to hire people who have been trained to do research. It's no longer something that one can do sitting in a patent office if one simply tries hard enough although for certain exceptionally talented people it might still be possible.

Think about it this way: 'requiring publication' without trained people and proper infrastructure is like hiring someone who has no experience in car repair, giving them an RM10 budget and saying 'You have to build a Proton Saga from scratch or else you will be sacked.'

2. Research alone does not make a university great. Often it comes at the expense of teaching, which as a developing country I am not sure we can afford. I know that right now citations are what all the rankings are looking at, but we have to decide what is important to us. If teaching is important, it has to be supported as well.

Anonymous said...

I heard rumours that certain local universities are still having problem defining and differentiating between " ACADEMIC" AND " SCHOLARLY" JOURNALS

What a crap!
And stranger still the Academic staff associations are rather keeping quiet on this issue of producing high quality research papers! Perhaps they too are gaining something by these mediocrity tests!

Anonymous said...


Please read on NST letters to editor comment by a certain professor in USM regarding the THES ranking. Wat a laugh!!!

Anonymous said...

Alot of good comments here, at least there are people that still care about Malaysia's state of education. In spite of all the talk and rhetorics, nothing is going to happen. University rankings will continue to decline, Rising racial tensions, Malaysia becomes another Indonesia, the Chinese emigrate, everyone is happy.

Anonymous said...

Well, I guess the USM professor is calling for a larger "lawatan sambil belajar" expenditure for the next year. All the more reason to get a new set of golf clubs. Mesti gaya depan Mat salleh.

Anonymous said...

I want to challenge Mustapha to direct all professors in IPTAs to list out all their peer reviewed publications in respected international journals in the local newspapers! Only with that move will the universities be transparent and the public will be quiet on this never ending issues of THES ranking.

hehe...I bet you all the minister will not dare nor will be most of the professors

Anonymous said...

That USM professor claimed in his letter at NST that there are millions of universities in the world. US has about 5000 universities and colleges. I still cannot come up with a million.

Anonymous said...

There is a 'joke' going around within the academic circles of local universities. If the person is a head of department or a dean of faculty, or even a Deputy vice chancellor or someone holding a head of a unit, you can bet he will be a professor the next year or so!!
Sure enough, by next exercise that person will be a professor!

The other joke is "how far is the person from the Vc's or TNC's armpit!

Its all the king's men getting the post

Anonymous said...

That just reflect the type of "quality' and 'logic' proudly exhibited by the USM professor exhibited by most of our 'professors'

They dare say almost anything but not their research publications

Anonymous said...

"Anonymous 11/21/2007 11:41:00 AM
That USM professor claimed in his letter at NST that there are millions of universities in the world. US has about 5000 universities and colleges. I still cannot come up with a million."

Let me declare first of all that I have not read that letter to NST and, going by what I am going to write here, neither will I be bothered to read it.

If you google "world population", you will see that world population is estimated at 6,602,244,175 as at July 2007.

We know for a fact that about 50% of the world's population are in China and India. That leaves about, say, 3.6 billion. It is fair, I think, to also say that the total number of universities in India and China put together is less than 10,000.

Assuming for the moment that our dear professor says that there are 1 million unis, instead of "millions" (unlike him, I am not able to count to large numbers). That should leave 990,000 unis for the remaining population of 3.6 billion.

It is fair to assume that, for every student in ANY school, there is one adult (taking into account grandparents as well as parents) supporting him/her (never mind that there are usually 2 parents in single-child families).

We can quite safely conclude, therefore, that 50% of the remaining 3.6 billion, ie, 1.8 billion, are of schooling age, ie, between 3 to 23 years old.

Let us say the population is evenly disributed among those ages (which is actually unlikely, if one were to see that, even in our context, the number of students in each year exceed that in the previous same years, plus dropouts, etc, but never mind)

1.8 billion divided by 21 (being 23-3, but inclusive, my dear professor) give you about, say, 85 million. Counting university studies at 4 years for everyone (never mind those certificate or diploma courses), we should then have 85 x 4 = 340 million in our 990,000 unis.

That gives you 350 students in each university in all its faculties!!!

But our dear professor (no less a qualification and title) says there are "millions" of unis. So we can conservatively assumed that although he is using the plural, he meant only 2 million. Therefore if we divide 340 million potential undergraduate in our 1,990,000 unis outside of India and China (which is a fair assumption, since even the US has only 5,000 unis), then our professor, no doubt from extensive and learned research, is telling us that the average population among all the universities in the world is 170 students per university!!! In all its faculties, mind you.

The point is, if a local professor of our top, excellent university can fail to do such a simple "research" and calculation as I just did over lunch, is there any hope left for the rest of our academia? Is it then fair to expect these types to then do such research of a standard that is remotely publishable in any recognised publication?

It is sickening, isnt it, considering that in the course of my deductions, I have try to give our dear professor so much benefit of the doubt, yet arriving at an impression of the sheer lack of depth in his thinking process.

To the other contributor who lamented about the lack of journals in our unis, why so surprised? Answer is so simple, isnt it? If one cannot understand English, what is the use of having foreign journals sitting around as mere decorations? Please someone tell me that our national language is so advance that we could have purchased world-class journals in Bahasa.

Anonymous said...

Addendum - BTW, if we look into Wikipedia (doesn't take a minute, dear professor), we see that there are 192 member countries of the United Nations. Assuming our professor meant to say that there are 2 million universities in the world, our learned chappie is telling us that there is an average of at least 10,000 universities in each country!!!

Never has there been a greater revelation since the last of the holy religious books.

Given that revelation, and the fact that we have less than 20, it looks like we are lesser than a Third World country. I suppose, in the final analysis, that is what our professor is trying to tell us. Apologies for not grasping that point earlier.

Anonymous said...

I can see with my magic periscope or Laksamana Do Re Mi magic telescope that the poor professor is shivering in his pants and blushing like crazy.

My advice to the professor is its better to keep quiet at least people will still be guessing whether you are smart or not!

Anonymous said...

Hi, mind to share the NST link of the letter? TQ

Anonymous said...

Either the professor has no concept of numbers or he meant to include all schools, kindergarten to universities. Even then, they don't reach a million.
This is pathetic.
We are stooping so low that our graduates have to compare with kindergarten kids to say we are still good.

Anonymous said...

From hearsay we have loads of new machines and new buildings, but these are so unused that others had to be PAID to use them. Perhaps you can comment on this?


Anonymous said...

Anonymous, my contacts and experience are very limited, so I'd be curious to hear this hearsay. ;-) In other words: I'm not qualified to comment but want to hear your comments.

I'll say though that having watched the situation for a short time from afar I've come to the conclusion that we have (much) more than enough money for research infrastructure (if the political will is there) and the much larger problem will be persuading good people to come (and that includes students as well as as more senior researchers). So in other words it would not surprise me if what you say is true --- even if only locally. I haven't heard or seen it but would be interested to know what you know if only because I'm always keen to know of PAR 124A lock-ins or dil fridges in working order that are just lying around somewhere... :-P

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Our universities do not have research discipline and good research ethics.
It is very difficult to see our staff being very aggressive in doing their works. Most time they are buzy chatting, making noise in the corridors. In fact its difficult even to see them except when they got classes


Do you know how hard is it for a student to see their academic adviser? Or to see their lecturer?

Anonymous said...

Tony, on pt 3.

Singapore sends it's brightest to the world's best Universities too. It's own Universities faced the same situation of having only mostly second or third rate local Singaporean talents. But NUS is not the world's top Universities, top 3 or 5 in Asia all the time.

My teachers went to visit them once. We asked them innocently how they did it. The answer was a little crytic, but now I understand they were being polite and not wanting to compare or say things about our system. The said "we stick to our national pledge".

I think I know which part he was refering to. "Regardless of race, language or religion."

Yes, we cannot do that immediately in Malaysia. I disagree with removing all help for Malays immediately. BUT there has to be a deadline, fixed, unmoving, non-negotiable. And a timetable on phrase by pharse removing of priviledges. This shows the maturing of the race. A milestone of excellence. Only then the Malays will take the chance to really move up and be on par with the Singapore Malays. It is sad that our Malays lose to Singapore Malays. Very sad.

Back on pt 3.

NUS now takes in 20% foreigners. That, as I last checked is the highest foreign number in the world! And last year, from all those who apply to NUS in my school, only 3A1B in A levels can get in! With so strong foreigners cometing against their 2nd and 3rd rate talents, making them even more competitive, the results are scary. And from what I check with my students, what we consider top Malaysian talents (unwanted by you know who) who go to NUS, some of them also lose to these 2nd and 3rd rate Singaporean talents! How to compete with their top tier!

It is time we realise, we have been really clawling. This is a very sad thing to happen.

Anonymous said...

I absolutely agree with Zaid Ibrahim's point #2.

The university will never be a great one without exceptional students. Perhaps the few cream of the crop may be given scholarships to further their studies overseas.

My explanation is that: with 2nd/3rd/4th/etc tier students here in local university, some are bound to pursue a PhD locally. Then they are absorbed back into the university to teach/research. Imagine these low quality lecturers feeding this never ending cycle. I witness it first hand in my programme in UKM. I am at the verge of strangling my newbie lecturers - totally and absolutely not suitable for research and teaching at any level.

Also, I found that so many bright students that went overseas for their tertiary studies return to Malaysia. Happens to Malays, Chinese and Indians. Seriously, methinks it's really a great lost that so much money spent on students who don't intend to repay the nation.
Might as well keep these 1st tier students here, so that they can push the university to achieve more.

Simple logics - garbage in garbage out.
You feed good students into into the system, you get good lecturers/researchers, which produce good work and more good students. Rinse-wash-repeat. (It may not be that simple, but that's the basic idea)
You feed crap into the system, 10 years later students like me suffer.

Anonymous said...

I was tempted to write what i think "should-be-done" to improve the ranking of our universities. But ranking is only the by-product of being a good university. Forget about being world class for a second. It is easy to see why our universities are declining in relative terms; and not difficult to put together a framework that can help us get back on track. But all these would not be meaningful unless we hear from the ministers and the top mgmt of the unis that they will make ammend. But why should they? The system says there is no need for them to change, so why should they??

Anonymous said...

I think imyuanwu missed a point.

As I read the post from the teacher, I come to understand that what he/she means is, let the Universities compete for the top students. Only then, will they improve.

If they have it all easy, you put in top students with tidak apa University management and lecturers, you will still churn out rubbish.

Anonymous said...

Abraham Lincoln once said:

"To know a man's character, give him power"

Now we know what Tok Pa's character really is. God save us!!!