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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

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Location: Morgan Hill, California, United States

Malaysian-born Bakri Musa writes frequently on issues affecting his native land. His essays have appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, Asiaweek, International Herald Tribune, Education Quarterly, SIngapore's Straits Times, and The New Straits Times. His commentary has aired on National Public Radio's Marketplace. His regular column Seeing It My Way appears in Malaysiakini. Bakri is also a regular contributor to th eSun (Malaysia). He has previously written "The Malay Dilemma Revisited: Race Dynamics in Modern Malaysia" as well as "Malaysia in the Era of Globalization," "An Education System Worthy of Malaysia," "Seeing Malaysia My Way," and "With Love, From Malaysia." Bakri's day job (and frequently night time too!) is as a surgeon in private practice in Silicon Valley, California. He and his wife Karen live on a ranch in Morgan Hill. This website is updated twice a week on Sundays and Wednesdays at 5 PM California time.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

An Education System Worthy of Malaysia #31

Chapter 5: A Look At Other Systems

Next: American Universities


American universities are just as varied. They vary in their requirements for admission and graduation, academic and social ambience, and also most importantly, in academic reputation. The crowd attracted to and accepted by Harvard is very different from those of Podunk State. But what is important is that both institutions serve the nation well.

American universities are either public or private. As education is state responsibility, the federal government does not operate any university except for service academies like West Point and Annapolis. Public universities are mostly state institutions although there are a few operated by municipalities (Pittsburgh and Cincinnati). The private ones are typically set up as not-for-profit bodies (Harvard and Stanford), or by religious organizations (Georgetown and Notre Dame).

There are some for profit (proprietary) institutions (University of Phoenix); few are of superior quality. This is worth mentioning because in Malaysia all private colleges and universities are profit-making entities. There is no exemplary model for Malaysia to follow.

In terms of funding, there is little difference between public and private universities as both receive substantial public funds. The private Caltech gets nearly half its revenue from government sources in the form of research grants and consultancy fees, while public UCLA gets only 27 percent of its funding from the state government. This is important for Malaysia to note.

The fees for public institutions are as expected highly subsidized and affordable. The junior colleges are practically free. The fee differential between private and public universities can be as high as ten fold. Students attending private institutions are treated no differently from those attending public ones with regards to government study loans and scholarships.

There is a definite class system in American higher education. This fact is not well appreciated by foreigners especially those from the Third World who think that a degree is a degree. In the marketplace, those parchment papers command different premiums depending on the institution issuing them.

Of the over 3,000 degree-granting institutions, only about 300 (less than 10 percent) can be considered competitive. That is, they do not admit everyone who applies. The rest will admit anyone with a high school diploma, and who can afford the fees. The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching classifies American universities as follows: doctoral universities (offering up to doctoral degrees); masters’ institutions; baccalaureate colleges; junior colleges (offering only Associate degree); and specialized institutions (Julliard School of Music and California Institute of Technology). By this classification, Harvard is lumped together with Idaho State University (ISU). While people at ISU may be flattered by this categorization, consumers (that is, would be students) are not much helped. Under the old Carnegie classification, Harvard is classified as Research University I (offering more than 50 doctorates per year) and ISU, Research University II.

This class system is best demonstrated in California where the top 12.5 percent of high school students are eligible for the elite University of California (UC) System with its nine campuses, while the top third qualify for the CSU System with its 22 campuses. The junior colleges admit everyone including those over 18 who do not have high school diplomas.

An outstanding feature of American undergraduate education is its broad-based liberal curriculum. Regardless of their ultimate career goals, students have to take a year of English, mathematics, laboratory science, foreign language, and the humanities. The first two years (freshman and sophomore) are spent fulfilling these “general ed” requirements. Only in the last two years (junior and senior) do the students concentrate on their majors.

American universities, especially the top ones, also have incredibly diverse student body. This is by design. Harvard has no difficulty filling its slots with Americans, yet it actively seeks bright young students worldwide. It is this diversity that gives American campuses their intellectual spark.

Top American colleges in addition have freshman seminars, where first year students gather in small groups under a professor, with the emphasis on oral communication and class participation. Students also have to enroll in writing classes. At a quality school a student typically writes dozens of term papers in addition to the senior thesis.

It usually takes four years to complete the baccalaureate program, although students who enter with advanced standing and who take summer courses could accelerate their studies. Conversely, students could take a more leisurely pace or skip a year or two. Many, especially the talented, are doing exactly that – for travel, preparing for the Olympics, writing a novel, or even starting a business. Some like Bill Gates and Tiger Woods became so successful that they never returned to complete their degree.

Another innovation at many American universities is the year off campus where students can study at an approved foreign university and have the academic credits transferred back to his home campus.

It is this liberal and flexible education that gives American graduates an edge in the marketplace. It is also the reason why the best and brightest from around the globe compete vigorously to enter the system.

Next: The Canadian System

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