All of our universities which are "ranked" have fallen in positions. Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) fell to 309th from 185th in 2006, Universiti Malaya (UM) to 246th (192) and Universiti Sains Malaysia to 307th (277)
One point however, sticks out. In a press conference yesterday held by some of the local vice-chancellors, the denial syndrome, a disease which has enveloped our academia has clearly not been cured since the days of Kapten Datuk Professor Dr Hashim Yaakob.
The vice-chancellors, including Datuk Rafiah Salim, of UM, gave several excuses for the dismal performance by Malaysian universities.
Firstly, they blamed the "change" in methodology for the drastic fall in rankings. It sounded as if the methodology was specifically tweaked to disadvantage Malaysian universities when in fact, it was tweaked to ensure greater transparency and accuracy.
As highlighted in the main THES rankings report:
In addition, we have strengthened our safeguards against individuals voting for their own university in the peer review part of the analysis." This improvement in methodology is certainly fair as it prevents the bias to vote for one's own institution.And the result of the above change in methodology, as specifically highlighted in the full THES report, was the corresponding decline in Malaysian universities rankings!
But we suspect that some Malaysian and Singaporean institutions have lost out because of our increased rigour over voting for one’s own university, and there are no Malaysian universities in this top 200.This clearly indicates that Malaysian universities were ranked better in previous years in part due to Malaysian academicians ranking their own universities highly when completing the survey! That's academic honesty for you, a la Malaysia.
Secondly, what was disgraceful, was Datuk Rafiah's attempts to de-sensitise Malaysia's dismal performance by arguing that Singapore suffered the same fate as well:
"Even the National University of Singapore (NUS) has dropped to the 33rd spot when it was always within the top 10."Here, she is wrong on 2 counts. Firstly, NUS was and has never been a Top 10 ranked university. Last year, it was ranked 19th, falling 14 places to 33rd currently. It was ranked 22nd in 2005. Hence Datuk Rafiah Salim is guilty of citing wrong figures to prove her point, with the unintended consequence of epitomising the general quality of local research.
On the second count, NUS remains well within the Top 50 of the world and has not fluctuated more than 14 places over the past 4 years while UM tanked year after year! I don't know how Datuk Rafiah equated UM's plight to NUS's.
Then Datuk Rafiah complained that "The way [she] look at it, smaller countries like Malaysia are bound to lose out as THES has introduced new criteria which is peer review and has changed the citation and list of publications."
Again, it's a case of self-pity which will not take Malaysian academic standards anywhere. Singapore is some 480 times smaller than Malaysia in terms of land area and 6 times smaller in terms of population. That didn't seem to stop them from having 2 universities ranked within the Top 100. Other developing countries such as South Africa, Mexico, Taiwan and Brazil also has universities ranked within the Top 200.
Finally, she asked for more money.
If we want to compete with some of the top universities in the world, first we have to be in the same league. Right now, we are not. One way to overcome that is through adequate funding.No, Datuk Rafiah, the first thing to do isn't asking for new funding. Giving lots of money to half-baked researchers and academics isn't going to improve the quality of the universities by very much. It's not too dissimilar to the Government's effort of launching our so-called "space programme" by paying the taxi fare for a Malaysian to go to space. Or for that matter, more money could just mean more funds for the academically meaningless pursuit of worthless coloured medals.
The first things to do, has to be the following (in simple terms, as elaborated in other blog posts):
- Recruit the best lecturers and academicians from Malaysia and all over the world, instead of focusing on race, nationality and patronage.
- Enrol the best students qualified for each faculty, instead of the current ambiguous and seemingly random university and course allocation.
- Practice transparency in all aspects of the academia, from recruitment to promotions of academics, as well as setting clearly defined minimum entry requirements into every course and publishing such data post every enrolment cycle.
Without the required political will, Malaysian universities will be doomed to further demise particularly if we are preoccupied with treating the superficial symtoms such as recruiting more foreign students from 3rd world countries, instead of tackling the core issues.
I was happy to provide Datuk Rafiah Salim the benefit of the doubt when she was first appointed as UM's vice-chancellor as blogged here. However, her recent statements, her immature treatment of Dr Azmi Sharom plus her outburst at the recently concluded student leaders' meet certainly lowered my confidence in her ability to turn things around. For someone who claimed that raising UM's ranking on THES is one of her 3 core tasks, she definitely appears to be failing her own benchmarks, and failing badly at that.
Footnote: Let me emphasize that it gives me no pleasure to find Malaysian universities dropping out of the Top 200 list. I certainly wish that we have representation among the Top 50 universities, and that'll be something I'll be extremely proud of. But the state of affairs of our higher education requires a "extreme makeover", and demands the harshest of constructive criticisms. Molly-coddling the issues as our government has done over the past decades will not miraculously result in our problems fade away.