Monday, March 2, 2015

‘World class’ and Malaysia’s Higher Education – PenDaPaT - The Malaysian Insider

PenDaPaT is a registered national society made up of concerned citizens on higher education in Malaysia. We take this opportunity to express our humble thoughts and views about the ongoing debate of whether Malaysia’s higher education is ‘world class’.
We are of the opinion that there are elements in Malaysia’s higher education that can be considered as ‘world class’, but at the same time, we also wish to point out rooms for improvement.
However, there is first a need to consider carefully what we mean by ‘world class’. We believe it is important to recognise and acknowledge that university rankings are merely a benchmark. They are by no means a yardstick of quality. A lot of universities around the world are doing well in whatever they are entrusted by their societies, and this may not always translate into positions on the university rankings.
For example, Sharif University of Technology in Iran has successfully produced their own ‘home-made’ satellite – ‘Sharif-Sat’ – that is about to be launched into space, and its undergraduate programme has been acknowledged by the global engineering fraternity as ‘world class’. Yet, this university was not even ranked among the Top100 in any global university rankings.
On that note, we believe that there are elements in Malaysian universities that are ‘world class’. The Minister of Education is right to point out, for example Universiti Sains Malaysia is highly ranked in environmental sciences and chemical engineering, and Universiti Putra Malaysia in agricultural sciences. Even in younger universities like Universiti Malaysia Terengganu, there are academics who have managed to publish their work in top tier journals like Nature, and the university is developing a niche in marine science.
Malaysia’s strength in Islamic Banking and the recognition given to four professors in Malaysian public universities by Thomson Reuters ‘World’s Most Influential Scientific Minds 2014’ are accolades given by international bodies.
While we may ‘condemn’ the performance of Malaysian universities for not attaining high positions in university rankings, it is essential to point out that these accolades and global recognitions given to our departments and academics were also from the international bodies that contributed to the data used in the tabulation of rankings.
Apart from rankings, the ‘world class’ debate also involved international student enrolment. Malaysia is ranked 9th most preferred international education destination, even ahead of our down southneighbour, and the five prominent factors influencing international students’ choices to select Malaysia were outlined by international researchers commissioned by UNESCO to provide an independent and objective assessment about our higher education. Indeed the report and statistics by UNESCO indicated we are a preferred destination globally, and many of our foreign students andacademics have returned to their home countries and served in many distinguished capacities.
However, care should be taken to suggest that we are ‘world class’ through these numbers and statistics, or having full time students from developed countries studying in Malaysia.
Instead we should utilise the significant population of international students by making our programmes and universities even more international. This will benefit not only the international students and our universities, but importantly, providing international exposure to Malaysian students studying in our local universities. It is through international exposure and the widening of our students’ worldview that will make Malaysia’s higher education truly ‘world class’.
The debate of ‘world class’ has, inadvertently, also brought up the concern of graduate employability. We would like to take this opportunity to highlight another slippery slope in linking graduate employability to higher education, and specifically pointing the fingers at our universities.
As rightly pointed out by Mr Hafidz Baharom in an article published in the Malaysian Insider, the blame about unemployable graduates is on the students themselves for not mastering the English language and having sucky attitudes. We cannot expect universities and academics to do wonders in transforming students to become employable within three to four years, but instead we are optimistic that the Education Blueprint and upcoming Higher Education Blueprint should address this issue by taking into account the continuum of education from cradle to career.
More importantly, we believe that graduate unemployment and job mismatch are symptoms of a larger structural problem in Malaysia, as well as many countries globally. The Arab Spring began in Tunisia partly because of graduate unemployment. Even in developed countries in Europe and the United Kingdom, unemployment, underemployment and job mismatch among graduates are real issues of concern to policymakers and economic planners.
Pragmatically, it is important to recognise that graduate unemployment and job mismatch can be considered as the implications of rapid growth in higher education that was not accompanied by a parallel pace of structural changes in the economy and labour market. Hence, we caution the tendency of linking employability directly with the debate about ‘world class’ education.
Renowned experts in higher education – Philip Altbach and Jamil Salmi – in their book "The Road to Academic Excellence" outlined three essential criteria of a ‘world class’ university: concentration of talent, favourable governance and abundant resources.
Instead of using university rankings to argue about ‘world class’ university, these criteria are better positioned to help us reflect critically on Malaysian universities, specifically their strengths and rooms for improvement. For instance, we do have globally recognised professors who have contributed to their respective disciplines, as well as talents among our students to compete internationally; but it is important that we do not lose sight of the needs to have a ‘concentration’ of talents that will elevate the quality of our universities.
Attracting, nurturing and retaining talents must continue and intensify. Likewise, although eight public universities have been granted autonomy by the Ministry of Education, much more work is needed to develop supportive regulatory frameworks that promote autonomy and academic freedom.
Furthermore, while some of our departments and professors have carried out research work that is recognised internationally; it is important to acknowledge that funding for research has come predominantly from the State. Continuous funding from the State and other sources is crucial for our universities to move forward. 
We believe that for Malaysia’s higher education and our universities to become ‘world class’, we should put aside political differences and rhetoric. Importantly, we should all come together to contribute constructively in transforming our universities to become a pride of every Malaysian.
This was written by Dato’ Morshidi Sirat and Wan Chang Da on behalf of Pertubuhan Pembangunan Penyelidikan dan Dasar Pendidikan Tinggi Malaysia (PenDaPaT).
* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insider.
This article was taken from The Malaysian Insider

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