Friday, January 04, 2008

Bakri Musa on 'Yet another Report'

I reproduce Bakri Musa's excellent column on the latest MOHE sponsored World Bank report on higher education in Malaysia. While I'm less pessimistic about the value of such reports, I agree with many of the general points he raises.

Among the points he raises - the fact that less than half of faculty in Malaysian universities have PhDs compared to almost 100% in Canadian universities, the fact that we shouldn't be comparing ourselves with basket cases like Zimbabwe, the need for greater autonomy (especially from political interference) among the universities, the need to increases fees at public universities (and scholarships as well).

The only minor quibble I have with Bakri is that I think Chinese drop outs are as likely to become VCD sellers and car mechanics as they are to help out their parents in mom and pop retail and hawker stalls.

Higher education: Yet another report
M Bakri Musa | Dec 21, 07 12:19pm

It is a sure sign that local leaders are way over their heads (or refuse to make the tough decisions) when they start calling in expensive international consultants. This is the case with Higher Education Minister Mustapa Mohamad’s commissioning (together with the Economic Planning Unit of the Prime Minister’s Department) the World Bank that resulted in its report: Malaysia and the World Economy: Building a World-Class Higher Education System.

You can be certain that the report, 18 months in the making, was not cheap. That would be just the beginning. Consultants have a knack of making themselves indispensable, so expect even greater expenses when they are called in to help implement their recommendations.

Yet for all the expertise, wealth of data, and impressive comparative statistics presented in this 285-page report, its recommendations are nothing new or original. These include, among others, granting greater autonomy, meritocracy both in admitting students and recruiting faculty, rationalising the role of the private sector, and emphasis on science, technology, and research.

What we lack is the political will to make the tough necessary decisions to implement them. Unfortunately no foreign experts no matter how skillful their powers of persuasion are can help in this arena. My only hope is that as those recommendations now carry the World Bank’s imprimatur, the natives are more likely to listen.

World Bank’s Report

The Report is conveniently divided into two parts. The first addresses or “diagnoses” the various issues like governance and financing, quality matters, graduate unemployment, and the integration of universities with the national innovation system. It begins by “benchmarking” Malaysia against selected OECD and East Asian countries. No marks for guessing where we stand; we are not even in the same league. For example, less than half the faculty at the University of Malaya, supposedly the nation’s premier, has terminal qualifications as compared to over 98 percent at Canada’s McGill.

The only point I see in making such obviously glaring comparisons is to wake up our leaders who are smugly satisfied as they are forever comparing Malaysia with the likes of Zimbabwe.

The specific recommendations are in the second part of the report.

The Report rightly highlights the universal dilemma of quality versus quantity with the democratisation of higher education. One solution, which I recommend in my book An Education System Worthy of Malaysia would be to emulate California’s tiered model. Malaysia has adopted some aspects of this by designating selected institutions as “research universities.” Designating alone is not enough and would be counterproductive unless accompanied by other changes, like much greater autonomy and considerably increased funding.

The beauty of the Californian system is that there are enough commonalities and clearly defined channels to enable student to switch from one system to the other. This flexibility is necessary to accommodate changes in students’ plans.

Also notable with the Californian system is that each campus enjoys considerable autonomy, including choosing its own students and faculty. The central office serves only administrative functions like dealing with the legislature and managing the faculty’s pension plans.

In Malaysia, the ministry micromanages every campus, right down to choosing the color of the faculty lounge drapes. I wish the Report would emphasise this point. As University of Malaya Law Professor Azmi Sharom observed, if we really love our universities, we must free them. I would further suggest that Higher Education Minister Mustapa should listen more to professors like Azmi Sharom and less to Umno Youth leaders, or even World Bank’s experts.

Problems with International data

The report is inundated with cross-national statistics. While it is good to compare ourselves against others, we must first however be assured that we are using the same measuring stick. This is easier said than done.

Take the apparently straightforward data on years of schooling. This seemingly objective criterion is anything but. One does not have to be particularly perceptive to note that nine years of schooling in South Korea would produce a far superior graduate as compared to someone with many more years spent at an American inner city school. Likewise with comparing nominal figures on expenditures per student; a dollar at the University of Malaya would go a long way as compared to at the University of California.

If we are not careful we could be easily misled; we would then be better off without those statistics. At least a dead clock tells the right time twice a day; a malfunctioning clock never. Likewise with data; bad data is more damaging than no data. A bad compass is worse than no compass. With the latter you would not be misled, and you learn to use your senses.

Studies done on OECD countries indicate that it is not so much the years of schooling that matter with respect to labor productivity rather the workers’ actual language and mathematical skills. Harvard’s Robert Barro shows that it is not just any education system that enhances economic development rather one that emphasizes the sciences, technology and mathematics that is crucial.

This is clearly demonstrated in Malaysia. The government’s oft stated goal of 60:40 ratio favoring students in the science stream remains just that: a goal. More important than focusing on this thus far unattainable objective would be to raise the mathematical skills and science literacy of all our students. Most American universities require all their students to take a year of science and mathematics.

Malaysian data indicate that Malays have more years of schooling and fewer dropouts than non-Malays, in particular the Chinese. Yet the economic performance of Malays lags that of Chinese. The reason is obvious. The education of Malays is heavy on arts and religion; Chinese, science and technology. When Chinese students drop out, they work for their parents’ enterprises, be they mom-and-pop retail stores or roadside hawker stalls, where they learn important lessons of economics and life generally far more effectively than at school. Malay students would hang around waiting for government jobs. The only lesson they would learn in such an environment is that the world owes them a living.

There is however one comparative statistics worth noting: tuition fees differential between public and private institutions. In Malaysia it is about ten-fold whereas in America it is about a 3 to 5- fold difference. I would narrow this by increasing tuition at public universities, coupled with more generous students aid. This would generate more revenue as well as reduce the subsidy for rich students.

Timid report

The Report soft-pedals two separate but interrelated crucial issues: one, the dangerous racial segregation of educational institutions at all levels; and two, the intrusive as well as destructive role of politics, in particular language nationalism.

The Bank advocates the giving of scholarships for students to attend private institutions as one way of making them reflect the greater Malaysian society. I would go further and make it a condition for granting of permits. I agree with the Bank that we should treat private and pubic institutions equally with regard to awarding research funds and other grants. If these institutions are doing good research and performing useful societal functions, what difference does it make whether they are public or private?

Politics underlie most if not all the problems of our education system. While it is impossible to divorce politics (institutions ultimately must respond to the political realities) nonetheless once certain objectives are agreed upon by the body politic, then let the professionals take over in implementing them.

Take the teaching of science and mathematics in English and the general need to enhance the English proficiency of our students. This decision was made at the highest political level, yet at the slightest obstacle in implementing, an otherwise sensible policy was reversed. It is such a flip-flopping that is so destructive.

The World Bank should have been more forceful in presenting its recommendations and in highlighting what ails our education system. Had the Bank done so it would have encouraged the many voices for reform from within. That might just nudge these politicians and bureaucrats to take the necessary bold steps.


Fikri said...

"When Chinese students drop out, they work for their parents’ enterprises, be they mom-and-pop retail stores or roadside hawker stalls, where they learn important lessons of economics and life generally far more effectively than at school. Malay students would hang around waiting for government jobs. The only lesson they would learn in such an environment is that the world owes them a living."

This might be true for a fair number of people, but from personal experience, I see this being a result of the person itself. Essentially, if they are lazy, then they are lazy. Race, I feel, is probably a factor that is over relied upon to explain this.

Apart from that, I find myself agreeing with the rest of the analysis, especially with regards to the teaching of maths and science in English: "It is such flip flopping that is so destructive."

Couldn't put it better myself. Perhaps MOHE should just commission Bakri Musa to write his own report... :>

Anonymous said...

I think many of the Malays are just artificially placed/promoted to colleges and universities and kept there till they graduate, somehow. That'll explain their "more years of schooling and fewer dropouts than non-Malays".

Many non-malay students also take up part-time courses after "dropping-out", while working for a living; is this taken into consideration?

Anonymous said...

Enough reports! Tell me 3 things you are going to work on and show me quantifiable and justified results in a year. Else, get someone in here who can do the job right.

Anonymous said...

i'm not sure why taxpayers' money went towards this report. does it say anything which hasn't already been analyzed at mamak stalls and on this blog? our educational problems are political, and those policies aren't about to chnge.

the only nugget worth a sen is the observation about malay students having more years of education. standard govt propaganda fed to all govt scholars is that the malays need more aid because the chinese community in malaysia had formal education years before the malays. let's see what spin they can put on this info.

Anonymous said...

Zimbawee and Mugabe. I think this is a good role model. In a few years time, we will progress to the this level