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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

My Photo
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.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Reforming Higher Education: The Zahid Nordin Report

Reforming Higher Education:

Critique of the Zahid Nordin Report

Langkah-langkah Ke Arah Kecemerlangan

(Steps Towards Excellence)

(First of Two parts)

With the recent release of Education Blueprint 2006-2010, Malaysians forget that the government had earlier commissioned a similar report on reforming higher education.

On January 17th 2005, the first Minister of Higher Education Shafie Salleh set up a commission to make Malaysia the “center of educational excellence.” The twelve-member committee, chaired by Zahid Nordin, a former Director General of the Ministry of Education, submitted its report six months later, and it remained in the minister’s drawer for nearly a year. It was only released after Shafie was later booted out following his public quarrel with one of the Vice-Chancellors.

There was no active academic or scientist on the committee except for Universiti Putra’s economist Noor Alam Hussein. There was Khoo Kay Kim, but he is a long retired history professor. There were four Vice-Chancellors, four civil servants (including the chairman), and two representatives from the private sector on the committee.

The committee did not do wide research as evidenced by the papers it cited. It did not examine the large and very successful public university systems in California, Virginia, and others. The members looked at individual campuses but not the system as a whole. Nor did the committee study more recent efforts at reforming higher education in Britain and US. In particular, the committee did not examine the very useful National Science Foundation Report on revamping undergraduate science education in America, and the equally comprehensive Allison Wolf report on Higher Education in Britain. The committee did look at reforms in New Zealand, not a particularly relevant example for Malaysia.

The report wasted valuable space (nearly 100 out of its 306 pages) in listing universities, acronyms, and individuals who submitted their views. Thsse readily available information does not add to the report. It would have been more useful to have a small print appendix summarizing the pertinent views of the respondents. There were only six pages of bibliography, and they were in large prints and double spacing between entries. The actual number of references cited was very limited, and most of them were local government publications. The committees’ intellectual horizon was not very wide.

I will not comment on the writing skills or editorial competence of those responsible for writing this report. Instead, I will focus on its content (or what I think the report is trying to say!)

There is no clarification of what that oft-cited phrase “center of educational excellence” means in practical terms. We are all for “excellence” and for being “the best.” Vague terms have vague meanings, and unless there is greater specificity in the stated goals and objectives, they are less likely to be achieved. You cannot reach your destination unless you know where you are going. Unless you know where you are headed, any road would take you there, and that would be no achievement.

Here is my operational definition of what a great university is. It must first be a great Malaysian university. Meaning, it must meet the needs of the nation and be the university of first choice for our students (and their parents), scholars, intellectuals and scientists. Equally, its graduates must be the first choice for our employers.

Before Harvard became the great university that it is today, it was first a good university to meet the needs of the “White Anglo Saxon Protestants” of its founders. Then it became the institution of choice for WASPs in the region, later for all Americans in New England; much later, for all Americans nationwide, and now the world.

Once our universities become the first choice for Malaysian students, academics and employers, then others in the region would treat our universities likewise. From there, it would be the continent, and then globally. Only then would our universities have achieved excellence, if not greatness.

I will critique the following nine recommendations of the committee. The first half of my essay will deal with the first two, the rest in the second.

  • Clear definition of terms
  • The 100,000 PhDs project
  • University autonomy
  • Moratorium on new and branch campuses
  • Rationalizing role of private sector
  • ICT on campus
  • Liberalizing undergraduate curriculum
  • Faculty Development
  • Preparing Students for Admission

Lack of Definition of Terms and Missions:

There is no clear definition of and mission for universities, university colleges, polytechnic, and community colleges.

We should emulate California’s widely praised tiered system, with the University of California (UC) system (with its nine independent campuses) at the top, being research universities that offer doctoral, professional and wide breath of undergraduate programs. The next tier is the 23-campus California State University (CSU) system offering only Bachelors and limited Masters, but no professional or doctoral programs. Then there are the community colleges that offer diploma and sub-degree programs only.

Despite the three distinct systems, there are mechanisms enabling students to transfer from one system to the other.

The UC takes the top 1/8 of students, the CSU the top third, and the community colleges, any high school graduate.

Our universities should offer UC-like programs: range of undergraduate as well as doctoral and professional (like medicine and law) degrees. Next would be “University Colleges” (equivalent of CSU), offering only bachelors and some limited masters program. The polytechnic and community colleges would offer diploma and sub degree courses only.

Private institutions must also follow this stratified definition. For Monash University in Malaysia to maintain its label of “university,” it must offer a breath of undergraduate as well as professional and doctoral programs. Give these private universities a phase-in period of 5-10 years to accomplish this mission. If they do not offer professional and doctoral programs within that time, they will lose their university status and be termed “university colleges.”

Similarly with public universities, if within ten years its faculty does not produce scholarly output and academic programs worthy of a full university, then it should be classified as a university college. Half of the current public universities like Universiti Utara and Tun Razak University should more accurately be called university colleges.

These small and limited institutions currently labeled as universities may want to focus on teaching rather than research, and thus voluntarily opt for the university college designation and be spared the added complexities of running graduate and professional schools. In America, there are many degree-granting colleges (Amherst, Williams) that have excellent academic reputations far surpassing many full-fledged universities. Labels should not be an indicator of quality, only the breadth of academic offerings.

The committee suggests (Recommendation 4.2) that the five leading public universities (UM, UKM, UPM, USM and UTM) be designated research universities and be the foci for centers of excellence. I am against such targeting. Instead, specify the criteria (percent of graduate students, number of graduate degrees awarded, etc.) then let any university that meets those criteria be so designated. Malaysia does not have to reinvent the wheel. It could adopt the standards developed by the American Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

I would remove the matrikulasi program away from the universities and put it either at community colleges (preferably) or university colleges (less preferable). Best of all would be to get rid of matrikulasi and re-institute Sixth Form.

Having such a tiered system would best reconcile the seemingly incompatible twin goals of excellence (which necessarily must be elitist in nature) versus democratization of higher education.

Project My Brain 15 – 100,000PhDs in 15 Years

The goal of 100,000 PhDs in 15 years (Recommendation 130) is too ambitious! I would concentrate instead on producing PhDs in the key and desperately needed disciplines like sciences, technology, English, and economics. If we do not specify this, the temptation towards the end when the goal is not reached would be to produce a glut of Malay and Islamic Studies PhDs just to get the numbers. If today we have unemployable bachelors degree holders, a decade hence it will be unemployable PhDs.

The market for PhDs is limited. Aim for a more modest and achievable 25,000 target, but concentrate on the critical subjects mentioned above, and fund them well. Encourage local fresh PhDs to pursue post doc abroad to “round up” their experience.

These doctoral candidates could pursue their studies locally or abroad. There is considerable merit in supporting and expanding graduate programs on local campuses, as that would enhance their overall academic quality including and especially the undergraduate studies.

In addition, I would encourage freshly minted PhDs to undertake post-doctoral experiences abroad. Far too often they are recruited directly to the faculty when they have not yet quite absorb the research “bug,” skills, or culture. Once they become faculty members, the local academic culture is such that they become less amenable to being mentored by their senior colleagues.

Sending local PhDs abroad would be a good way to assess the quality of our graduate programs. If our local PhDs could secure post-doctoral appointments at leading institutions abroad, that would be a good indicator of the quality of our programs.

Next: The Rest of the Recommendations


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