Saturday, November 29, 2008

Universiti Rakyat

Recently, Kedah's GERAKAN Youth has come out with a proposal to create a free university that is open to all Malaysians, regardless of race. It received some attention when the Minister of Higher Education, Khaled Nordin, responded to this proposal with some disdain. I shall comment on the proposal to set up a Universiti Rakyat and then I'll talk about the Minister's response.

This concept of a free university was first proposed by Kedah GERAKAN Youth Chief, Tan Keng Liang. The aims of this university are the following (I lifted this from the facebook group - Universiti Rakyat):

This proposed University is a free university for all Malaysians regardless of race and entrace shall be based on merits. The selection of lecturers in this university shall also be based on merits and without any form of quota. In line with the reduction of the subsidy of petrol and diesel in Malaysia, it is hope that the Malaysian government can use part of the savings from the reduction of the subsidy to establish this University for all Malaysians. This proposal is:-

1. in line with the Malaysia's government effort to promote the development of Human Capital and to exploit the potential of all Malaysian youth;

2. able to give all Malaysian a chance to further their education and expand their capabilities; and

3. able to assist the Malaysian youth to compete with the youth in other countries.

To support this proposal, please sign up at the online petition at

Every Malaysian can do their part for the future of all Malaysians.

There are three basic distinguishing aspects of this university - that it is a public university, that entry is based on meritocracy and that it is free. I agree with the first two aspects while I disagree with the third.

I think that the concept of a public university that bucks the trend in terms of entry 'quotas' would be a good test case of what such a university would look like as opposed to the current public universities - which still have implicit 'quotas' even though the entry process now is supposed to be based on meritocracy (ask anyone who has compared the syllabus and exams of those doing STPM and those doing Matriculation).

Of course, the performance of such a university vis-a-vis other public universities is dependent on other factors in addition to the composition of the students including facilities, resources, faculty, etc...

What I don't agree with is the "FREE" component. Running a university is a very expensive endeavor. I think that we've actually been too aggressive in the expansion of our public universities so much so that I doubt whether we have sufficient resources to teach in and manage all these new public universities that have been popping up left and right. I would prefer that the MOHE moves away in the long term from fully funding all the public universities and allow these universities to pay for part of their runnings costs by either charging slightly higher fees and / or raising money to be put into endowments which can go into the running of a university. Universities worldwide are starting to feel the pinch of increasing costs and competition and if our public universities want to be competitive, they have to find ways of raising more revenue to provide better pay for higher performing faculty and to give them the resources they need to do serious research. As such, I don't think that the model of a "FREE" university works. It just cannot provide the kinds of facilities and faculty that would make this university a half decent one.

Now, let me talk about the minister's response.

This is what he said in a statement published by Berita Harian:

1. cadangan Pemuda Parti Gerakan Negeri Kedah untuk menubuhkan Universiti Rakyat ‘adalah tidak masuk akal dan tidak wajar kerana akademik tidak boleh berkait dengan mana-mana parti politik di negara ini’;

2. “kerajaan memerintah sekarang sudah merangkumi kombinasi pelbagai parti politik, justeru, tidak perlu untuk setiap parti politik di negara ini menubuhkan universiti khas”; dan

3. “kebebasan akademik perlu dipelihara dan tidak boleh dikaitkan dengan agenda politik”.

This is Keng Liang's response (again, lifted from Facebook):

Isu Pertama

Cadangan “Universiti Rakyat” oleh Pemuda Parti Gerakan Negeri Kedah tersebut merupakan suatu cadangan pembentukan universiti percuma bagi semua rakyat Malaysia yang akan ditubuhkan dan ditadbir oleh kerajaan Malaysia dan bukan oleh mana-mana badan politik di negara kita.

Isu Kedua

Seperti yang telah dinyatakan, universiti tersebut akan ditubuh dan ditadbir oleh kerajaan Malaysia bagi semua rakyat Malaysia. Ia bukan suatu universiti khas oleh mana-mana badan politik negara kita.

Isu Ketiga

Pembentukan Universiti Rakyat tidak akan menjejaskan sistem pengajian negara kita yang sedia ada tetapi akan memberi lebih peluang untuk rakyat Malaysia untuk memasuki universiti tempatan “berdasarkan merit”. Rakyat Malaysia tidak wajib untuk memasuki universiti ini tetapi sebagai suatu peluang alternatif untuk mereka. Oleh yang demikian, kebebasan akademik negara kita tidak terjejas.

Keng Liang is spot on in terms of his replies. His proposal is not to set up a GERAKAN Universiti Rakyat. His proposal is to set up a taxpayer's funded public university.

But there's a reason as to why the minister associated this proposal with a political party wanting to have its own university. The reason is that GERAKAN was given a license to operate its own university - Wawasan Open University. I won't comment on the Wawasan Open University since I was working in a GERAKAN linked think tank while this university was being set up (no, I didn't give any input on the establishment of this university). As such, it was instinctive for the Minister to associate a call to set up a university by a political party to equate this with a political party wanting its 'own' university.

I think Keng Liang's proposal is motivated by good intentions. The current system is unfair in that it pushes out a lot of non-Malays who would otherwise have qualified to attend the public universities. But many non-Malays also voluntarily 'opt-out' of the public university system since there are now many alternatives in private colleges (even though it comes at a higher cost).

My preference would be to focus on improving the quality of our public universities and perhaps improving the entry process into our public universities rather than setting up a new university that is free and meritocratic.

In any case, the possibility of such a university being established by the government is almost nil.

Gender imbalance

The issue of gender imbalance in our public universities is an issue which I've been tracking for some time. I suspect that it is a problem which cuts across racial lines but is especially serious among Malays, all the more because they comprise the majority of the population and those entering public universities. It is a complex problem which has many root causes and it should not be 'solved' by the implementation of a gender quota in our public universities. Thankfully, the Deputy Minister for Higher Education, Idris Haron, has resisted this temptation.

This is one issue which has flown under the radar for some time. We've talked about the unemployability of some of our graduates, the poor quality of our universities and schools but we seldom discuss the fact that the proportion of guys who drop out of school at various stages is consistently higher than the proportion of girls.

People drop out of school for all sorts of reasons and at all levels. While we have compulsory education at the Primary level, there is still a small % of kids who don't go to school because of poverty and accessibility issue. I don't have easy access to the statistics but I'm guessing that the dropping out is most pronounced during important 'transition' years - from Primary 6 to Form 1, from Form 3 to Form 4, and from SPM onwards. My guess is that it is these years that the proportion of guys dropping out of school outstrips that of girls.

While not everyone is meant to go to college, in my opinion at least, I think it's worrying when kids start dropping out of school in large numbers. This problem takes a worrying turn when there is a growing gender imbalance in the drop out rates.

I think can of a few socio-economic problems that may be associated with this phenomenon (or will be):

- Rise in crime rates because of the lack of economic opportunities for the guys who have dropped out of school
- Frustrated guys who will be more easily mobilized by unscrupulous parties to blame their economic woes and lack of educational opportunities on 'others'
- Some of these guys may have problems getting married, especially when it is likely that more and more girls will have degrees.

I don't think there are any easy solutions to this problem. My sense is that no one has really taken a serious look into the causes of these problems. There may be causes which are shared across the different communities in Malaysia such as poverty and urbanization. But there may be others that are shared by certain communities in certain areas e.g. children of Indian plantation workers, Malay students who are sent to different states after primary school who get frustrated with the education process and drop out, Chinese gangs which influence Chinese guys to leave school early and pursue a more 'lucrative' career opportunity.

I think Khairy Jamaluddin was right to ask the Deputy Minister of Higher Education for the gender breakdown of those in our public universities. He's probably seen his fair share of Malay guys getting into trouble because of the lack of educational opportunities e.g. the Mat Rempits. But this is problem which affects all communities and even though the number of Malay male dropouts may be higher than that of other communities, surely something must be done to address this problem for all the different communities involved. (After all, an unemployed Form 3 dropout who wants to rob someone will not differentiate between a Malay, Chinese or an Indian)

A good place to start would be to try to understand the different causes underlying this problem.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Rafiah fights back!

I was quite surprised to read Malaysiakini's exclusive two part interview with Rafiah Salim and how frank she was when she was interviewed. You can read the reports here and here. She certainly pulled no punches including a classic 'thing between the legs' line that may have been the highlight of the interview. I'll share some of my thoughts in regard to her tenure and the manner in which she was let go.

When she was first appointed as UM's VC in August 2006, both Tony and I said positive things about her initially. She hit the right notes and said some progressive things in regard to raising the quality of academic at UM.

Then came the 'silencing' of Azmi Sharom, who was initially asked to stop writing his Star column. That decision was later changed to not writing anything about UM in that column.

I also didn't like how she was trying to play up the appointment of Jeff Sachs as the Ungku Aziz chair of poverty studies because I knew that he wouldn't have time to contribute effectively in that role.

In 2007, she came up with a list of excuses to explain why UM fell further (from 192 to 246) in the THES rankings.

Tony has called for her to be replaced when her contract was ending and I think there were good reasons to look for a new VC who is more academically qualified and can take UM forward in terms of its academic standing.

My evaluation of Rafiah's 2 year tenure at UM is mixed at best. I think she tried to emphasize increasing the academic output among academics at UM but she was much more skeptical in regard to opening up academic and student freedoms there.

For an alternative view of Rafiah's tenure, please read Tempinis excellent post here on why Rafiah should have stayed on at UM.

My sense is that she tried her best to implement positive changes at UM but came up against forces that were too great for her to control. She probably had to face many dinosaur academics within UM who probably had never published any articles in peer reviewed journals of standing in their whole academic career, much less the 2 articles per year which Rafiah asked for. She probably had to face political pressures from BN politicians who saw UM as their 'tool' to be controlled and manipulated to serve their own ends.

I also think that she was disadvantaged in what was already an unenviable job in that:

1) She does not have a PhD. While Tempinis is 100% correct in saying that one does not need to have a PhD to run a university effectively, I think that the faculty at UM may have taken her calls to publish more seriously if she herself was a recognized academic with a good publication record. I can half imagine the cynical mocking tones among UM academics discussing the 2 articles per year requirement Rafiah put forward - 'Want us to publish? Maybe she should try publishing articles herself to see how easy it is to get published in peer reviewed journals'

2) She comes across as being too abrasive. This was quite apparent during the Mkini interview. A VC operating in an environment like the UM needs to be able to use the carrot as well as the stick approach. He or she must not only have the academic qualifications and the administrative skills, but also the social skills to be able to cajole when necessary and threaten when necessary. I suspect that Rafiah perhaps was too abrasive for the liking of the staff and faculty at UM.

3) She may not have wanted to 'curry favor' with the politicians. I'm guessing here but she does come across as someone who is less willing to 'play politics' compared to her predecessor Hashim Yaacob. She certainly was not afraid to come out swinging after her contract was terminated. Perhaps this put her in bad standing with her political masters which would have had a trickle down effect to the rest of the faculty. After all, why listen to the threats of a VC who would be leaving soon?

4) Her gender. I'm not sure how much to make of this. I think that regardless of her gender, the job of the VC was going to be a tough one. The dinosaurs there would have rebelled against anyone who wanted them to publish 2 articles a year in peer reviewed journals. But I won't totally discount this factor. It may have been the fact that she was a woman that made some of the faculty and perhaps her political masters less inclined to listen to her. But I do think that it was not gender alone. It was interesting to hear her say that her initial contract was only for 2 years while the new VC's contract is for 3 years. I'm not sure to what extent this is true but it's worth finding out. Of course, the new VC, Dr. Ghauth Jasmon, has much more experience in running universities (he help set up MMU) and is more academically qualified compared to Rafiah which may be reasons given as to why he's been awarded a 3 year contract.

I applaud Rafiah's courage in coming out to say the things which she has said. It certainly takes some courage. After all, she could have kept her mouth shut and try to lobby for some other positions in GLCs after she retires.

But at the same time, I do think that it was time for her to be replaced. I think the new VC has more of the necessary attributes to bring about positive changes to UM. But he'll be up against many of the same forces Rafiah faced - dinosaur academics, political interference, funding challenges, pressures to allow more academic and student freedoms, etc... I wish him well.

P.S. One of the first pieces of 'advice' I would give to Dr. Jasmon is to read the measurements in the THES rankings very carefully. That way, he can avoid making some of the same mistakes made by his predecessors. For example, Rafiah probably should not have tried to take credit for 'improving' UM's ranking from 246 to 230. After the top 100 schools, the differentiation in terms of scores between the rest of the schools is miniscule at best. A measurement error could easily push the ranking of a school from 250 to 210 or from 250 to 290.

Secondly, I would 'advise' him to stay as far away from these rankings as possible. Play down expectations by saying that UM is in no position to compete with the top universities in the world. Instead say that UM is trying to consolidate its academic resources in specific areas and trying to slowly but surely increase the % of PhD holders among its faculty as well as their publication records. This way, he can divorce himself somewhat from the vagaries of the THES ranking system.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Not a fake degree but...

It was reported that Deputy House Speaker Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar came out to vehemently deny that his Doctorate in Business Administration (DBA) was from a certain American Northeastate University, supposedly a fake degree mill. Instead, he told Malaysiakini that his DBA was obtained from the Southern California University for Professional Studies in 2005. While this school is not a fake degree mill, it's not exactly a stellar academic institution either.

The Southern California University for Professional Studies (not exactly a name which inspires confidence, is it?) is now called the California Southern University. It also happens to be an online university which offers doctorate programs in business, psychology, criminal justice, and law.

Now, I've never been a big fan of online universities when it comes to doctorate programs. Frankly, I don't see how someone who is working part time can find the time to read up on the relevant literature in a specific field and then gather the necessary data and information and research to write one's thesis. Most of my colleagues take about 2.5 years to finish their coursework and another 3.5 years to write up their thesis. I'm hoping to finish in 5 years total. I don't really see how one can come up with a PhD thesis that's worth the paper its written on by doing a part time online degree.

Furthermore, how many regular hours of supervision can one get from an online doctorate program? How many credible and recognized academic advisers would be advising PhD programs for an online university?

According to a wikipedia entry, Cal Southern is an unaccredited university which means that any degree from Cal Southern is probably not recognized by other private universities in the US. Which means that if one got a DBA from this university, one couldn't even apply for a teaching position in any major US university.

In other words, I suspect that the Deputy Speaker probably found an easy way to obtain a DBA from this particular dodgy online university.

What really amazed me and my wife was the fact that he could so confidently and proudly clarify that he got his DBA from a university called the Southern California University for Professional Studies. Frankly, I would be ashamed to say that I got a doctorate from a university with a name like this and one which is unaccredited at that. Unless he really doesn't know that the online outfit from which he obtained his DBA from is actually a dodgy outfit.

Wonder what his thesis was about?

P.S. Don't confuse Cal Southern with the University of Southern California (USC) which is a legit research university with a great football team!

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

25,000 laptops for students in Terengganu

I had a chuckle when I first read this newspaper report. Apparently the Terengganu state government wants to give out 25,000 laptops to Primary 5 students to replace their heavy textbooks. This is another example of a policy decision that was poorly conceived and will probably be poorly implemented as well.

I think that the idea of giving away free laptops to students is a bad idea in principle especially if they are conventional laptops. (I'm a little bit more agnostic about the 100 dollar laptops which are being promoted by OLPC) I think it diverts attention from other bigger problems which kids in rural and poorer schools face which is the lack of resources, poor infrastructure and poor teaching. There is no guarantee that having a laptop will improve the quality of teaching or learning or if it will help in reducing the digital divide between kids in urban and rural schools.

But this specific idea in Terengganu seems even more ill-conceived. For example, these laptops are supposed to replace the heavy textbooks which these students are now carrying around. But there is no guarantee that the 'format' in which these textbooks appear in soft copy will be conducive for learning or teaching. One reason why books have not gone extinct despite the increasing prevalence of PCs is that the PC screen is not conducive for reading. Granted, Primary 5 or 6 textbooks are not novels but I think some of the same principles apply. You cannot just transfer a textbook wholesale from hard copy to soft copy. There needs to be quite a bit of customization in terms of interface and graphics and user friendliness before this can be done. Frankly, I don't trust that the Terengganu government has done their due diligence and confirmed that the DBP has the capability to do this for ALL their textbooks.

Furthermore, I wonder if these guys have thought about how these kids are going to recharge the laptop batteries. Unless these laptops can be 'handcranked' (some versions of the 100 dollar laptops I've seen on TV are recharged in this way), I can easily forsee a situation when kids are queuing up behind limited 'pluck points' to get their laptops charged in between periods.

What about when these laptops start acting up? Or require fixing or repairing? Will the state education department also come up with the funds to do this? I can easily forsee a situation whereby these laptops breakdown for a variety of reasons and teachers are finding a queue of students who want their laptops to be repaired.

To make matters worse, the state Education, Higher Education, Human Resource, Science and Technology committee chairman Ahmad Razif Abdul Rahman wants to set up a factory with Intel in Terengganu to start producing laptops and expect to produce 10,000 units a month. Now, I'm a bit disconnected with the corporate world but if I'm not mistaken, Intel produces processor chips and not laptops. So unless this is part of the larger One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) initiative, which Intel has signed up for, who is going to produce these laptops? Surely not Intel. Is the Terengganu state government going to own and manage this company or factory?

The same exco chairman predicts that in 3 or 4 years, all the kids in primary school in Terengganu will be using laptops instead of textbooks.

Here's my prediction. The laptops won't be given out in April because of technical delays. The DBP has not gotten the materials ready yet. The laptops are given out in July instead (or maybe August or September or later). Teachers are finding that they cannot teach their students because the batteries on the laptops run out after 2 hours and there are not enough power sockets in the schools to recharge these laptops in a timely fashion. Laptops start breaking down after 3 months. The teachers get frustrated and call for the students to go back to using textbooks. 6 months to 1 year after the laptops are given out, the state government abandons its plan and goes back to the drawing board citing technical difficulties. The cost to the taxpayer? RM30 to RM50 million.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Short post on the new UM VC

Short post from SK Thew, a former MMU student, on the new UM VC. Sounds positive.

Tony Pua arrested and put in jail

Normally, we don't cover issues which are explicitly political in this blog. I bent this rule when I asked our readers to support Tony in the March GE (Note that I asked our readers to support Tony but not necessarily his party or the opposition). This time I have to bend the rules again since this concerns Tony himself. He's been arrested and put in jail after participating in a peaceful anti-ISA gathering in PJ. You can read more about it here. Good news is that he's physically ok. Let's hope that he will be released soon so that he can continue to raise issues of importance including issues to do with education in this country in parliament.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

New UM VC appointed

Hot off the press - Dr. Ghauth Jasmon has been picked as the latest VC of UM. According to the bio page of Unity College International, where he is the current CEO, "Prof Ghauth Jasmon graduated with a First Class Honours Degree in Electrical Engineering in 1979 and the PhD degree in Power Systems Engineering in 1982 from the University of London." Before his current appointment at UCI, he was the president of MMU.

My first thoughts on this appointment is to wonder if the Minister of Higher Education, Khaled Nordin, actually went through a VC selection committee, something which Tok Pa, the former Minister had promised, was to be a permanent committee. Tony has blogged extensively on this issue before including here and here. If this committee was tasked with the job of searching for a replacement for Rafiah Salim, it must have done its work very quietly since we never heard about its work anywhere. My suspicion is that they were probably not consulted at all, if such a committee still exists. This sets a bad precedent for future VC appointments under the current Minister of Higher Education since there is no guarantee that the candidate eventually selected would have gone through a thorough screening process.

This being said, at least the new appointee, Dr. Ghauth Jasmon, has more academic and administrative experience compared to Rafiah Salim. He was fast tracked to become the head of the Electrical Engineering department only 4 years after he obtained his PhD from UOL. He made professor 10 years after he obtained his PhD. He was appointed Deputy VC in 1995, 12 years after he obtained his PhD. (All this was at UM) Clearly a fast riser.

I'm not sure when he was appointed president of MMU but he started working there in 1997 and stepped down in 2007. During this time, he seemed to have overseen a rapid increase in the number of students as well as the building of infrastructure there.

He has both experience in the private as well as public university setting. He knows UM well since he taught there for more than 15 years. He oversaw the establishment and growth of MMU, one of the better homegrown private universities in Malaysia, in my humble opinion. Utilizing these skills, he might be a good candidate to oversee some positive changes at UM.

One possible knock on him is that I couldn't find many publications attributed to him when I did a quick search on google scholar. Perhaps some of our readers who are Electrical Engineers can do a better search on him and enlighten us as to his academic record. I also hope that our readers who graduated from MMU can enlighten us as to his record as President of MMU. From a few blog posts I've read, he seems to be someone who is 'on-the-ball' and pretty responsive to the demands on students.

We'll be keeping an eye out on him I'm sure. And I'm sure that Tony will weigh in on his own thoughts on this appointment as well.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Should Rosmah quit?

Three Pakatan youth leaders representing the three Pakatan parties in power in the Selangor state government have asked for Datin Rosmah Mansor, the wife of soon to be Prime Minister, Najib Tun Razak to quit her position as the Chancellor of the University Industry of Selangor (UNISEL). The same Youth leaders have also called for her to be replaced if she doesn't step down. It seems that the Selangor MB, Khalid Ibrahim, will stick with Rosmah as the chancellor of UNISEL, at least for now.

Is this a fair demand on the part of the Pakatan youth leaders in Selangor? They have said that she is 'academically and morally unfit' for the position of the chancellor of UNISEL.

According to the Unisel website, Rosmah obtained a bachelors degree in Anthropology and Sociology in Universiti Malaya. She then enrolled in a post-graduate programme at Louisiana State University, USA and graduated with a Master of Science majoring in Sociology and Agriculture Extension.

First of all, we have to note that the position of a chancellor and of the pro-chancellors are actually honorary positions. They don't actually have responsibilities in running a university. They are largely symbolic positions. For example, the current chancellor of UM is Sultan Azlan Shah of Perak. The current chancellor of Cambridge University is the Duke of Edinburgh, husband of Queen Elizabeth II. Hence, you don't really need the proper academic requirements to be a chancellor.

As for the question of being 'morally unfit', I'll leave that for our readers to judge.

This being said, I find it difficult to defend Rosmah's appointment as the chancellor of any public university, federal or state. I am generally against active politicians or their spouses being appointed as chancellors or pro-chancellors of any university or college, public or private. There is always the possibility of a conflict of interest and abuse of power on the part of these politicians. I would have less of a problem with retired politicians taking up these positions on the condition that they have to have a record of distinguished public service. Musa Hitam, for example, is someone whom I think would make a decent chancellor. It is very hard to make the argument that Rosmah Mansor has a history of public service that would entitle her to such an appointment.

A final note concerns the administrative structure of UNISEL itself. Unlike the other public universities, it is unclear who the CEO of UNISEL is. Usually, the VC is the de factor chancellor of a university, the person who runs the university. Surprisingly, UNISEL does not have a VC. Its website does not even list a person who holds the equivalent of the VC position. This is very worrying in that any university should have a clearly identifiable CEO, preferably someone with an academic background. The chancellor, Rosmah Mansor in this case, is clearly unqualified to run the university and it is very unlikely that she actually has administrative duties in her position as the chancellor beyond some high level oversight or supervisory role.

If I were dispensing advice, I would ask Rosmah to quite and if she doesn't, the Selangor MB should replace her with someone who is more qualified, perhaps a distinguished retired academic or politician or someone else with a record of distinguished service, perhaps a retired civil servant.