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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, March 04, 2007

Reforming Higher Education - Zahid Nordin Report

Reforming Higher Education:

Critique of the Zahid Nordin Report

Langkah-langkah Ke Arah Kecemerlangan

(Steps Towards Excellence)

(Second of Two parts)

University Autonomy and Governance

Autonomy should extend beyond academic matters to the practical governance of our universities. The government should exert control only at the macro level and indirectly through the budget process and governing board. Universities should manage themselves independent of the ministry. They should get a global budget based on defined goals, like the number of students and programs, plus bonus funding as specific incentives like the number of Bumi students in the sciences and graduate studies or the number of new patents secured.

How the university spends its money is up to its VC and governing board. Likewise, the board hires and fires the VCs, deans and department heads.

The committee makes the sensible recommendation that the selection of VCs be made in an open manner and widely advertised to attract the best candidate (Recommendation #24). It does not specify whether that the post be advertised globally or only locally. The committee reaffirms the role of the minister in selecting the VC (9.2.9); this robs the entire meaning of autonomy. I am not opposed however to the minister having veto power. The committee further weakens its recommendation by making the initial appointment be for only two years! No serious academic would consider dislocating himself and his family for such a short initial contract.

I would make the VC a terminal appointment, meaning once appointed he or she would either retire, resign to pursue other goals, or be ousted for nonperformance. The present practice of short-term appointments of only a few years is destructive. They reduce the VCs to be seat warmers.

There is no need to change the University Act that says the minister shall appoint the VC in consultation with the governing board. It is enough for the minister to give due deference to the decision of the board, meaning, extend the meaning of the word “consultation.”

The VC is not the only critical academic intellectual leader; there are the deans, departmental heads, and institute directors. That these other positions are rotated (11.3.1) cannot be good for the university. The diligence in appointing a VC should also be given in appointing deans and the various heads.

In addition to a global operating budget, there should be a separate capital budget for developing new programs and fund expansions. The minister also controls this budget allocation, giving him yet another leverage over the university yet not micromanage it.

The level of autonomy would be less for university colleges, and even less for community colleges.

The ministry would be reduced to running common administrative chores like central application for students and the staff pension plans. Each university would select its own students and faculty, with the ministry setting only broad policies and goals.

Besides exerting controls through the budgetary process, the minister could also influence through appointments to the governing board. I would discourage appointing sultans to university boards. Malays are still feudal (even and especially highly educated one), and with sultans chairing meetings, no robust discussions could ever take place. Everyone would be excessively deferential.

Moratorium on New and Branch Campuses

I agree with the committee that no new (or even branch) campuses be built until we clear up the present mess. The committee however, dilutes its message by recommending that the present Maritime Institute in Melaka be upgraded to a university (Recommendation #68), and a Palm Oil University be set up!

There is a difference between a university and a trade school, and between a university and a research institute. A Palm Oil University sounds very much like a “souped up” trade school rather than a university. Tourism contributes more to the economy than palm oil, why not a Tourism University? Again, muddled thinking!

There should be enrollment limits per campus. Once it exceeds 25,000, there is a quantum leap in the complexities of managing it. Staff resources would be diverted just to running the institution.

The same applies to branch campuses. Discontinue them, and convert existing branch campuses into independent universities or university colleges, or even junior colleges.

The committee’s recommendation (#89) for having various Academies, including a super National Academy, is unwarranted. That would add another layer of costly administrative structure. We should be breaking down walls, not create new ones. If those academics and scientists working in the frontline feel that they need an academy, they would form one, as with the current Academy of Medicine. There is no need for a directive from the Ministry.

Rationalizing Role of Private Sector

The report does not rationalize the role of the private sector. Nor does it address the many glaring issues and unhealthy trends in our private colleges and universities like the dangerous racial and social segregation. The government could ameliorate this directly by giving grants based on the number of Bumi students these private institutions enroll (more if in the sciences), and indirectly by giving scholarships to poor Bumis who enroll.

If private universities have the same racial composition as public universities, then they both should get the same amount of funding. That should be an incentive for private institutions to attract Bumis.

I would encourage collaborations between universities and research institutes but their mission should remain separate and distinct. These PhD researchers at PORIM and RRI for example could be given adjunct academic positions by the universities so they can give lectures and take students to work in their labs. If you convert research institutions into universities (as recommended by the Report), you risk destroying their research mission and capabilities.

Similar adjunct appointments could also be given to private practice professionals (lawyers, physicians, business executives). This would augment the teaching staff and give the curriculum much-needed practical relevance.

Likewise, the mission of the Maritime Institute is to produce captains and seamen, not the academic study of the ocean. If you want to award degrees for such programs as is being done in the US, make the institution into a university college, not a university.

ICT on Campus

The report devotes over 18 pages to details of ICT. This is a rapidly changing field, and the committee lacks technical expertise in the area. Why not simply commit to have a fully “wired campus” and then put out the bids. Let the experts at IBM, Sun Microsystem and others solve the problems of security, redundancy, etc. Why duplicate or replicate what private industry already has on the market?

I would give all faculty members and students (to be included in their tuition fees) free laptops and wireless access. Through group purchasing, laptops (Wi Fi equipped) could be had for under RM 1,000. I would encourage professors to give their assignments, reading materials and notices on-line.

Once students have access to broadband, you have in effect given them entry into the world’s great libraries. There is no way for Malaysia to equip its libraries with all the journals and books, but by having broadband access, your students can get all the articles they want.

Additionally, many leading American universities including MIT and Yale are putting their lectures (video and audio) on the Web and available for free. There is nothing stopping an enterprising professor from Malaysia to arrange for his or her students to listen to these lectures and then have a weekly videoconference for questions and answers session with that Yale professor. That could be done cheaply over the Internet using existing technology (simple Web cameras and Skype phones).

To benefit from the Internet however, our students must be conversant in English, but more on that later.

Liberalize Undergraduate Curriculum

The undergraduate curriculum must be liberalized so students would get broad based education regardless of their ultimate career choices. The committee suggests students be well versed in three languages but does not address how to achieve that laudable goal. Besides, that objective is again overly ambitious, although many non-Malay students are already effectively trilingual (mother tongue, Malay, and English). I would be happy with the more modest and achievable goal of being bilingual, in Malay and English. To achieve this, I would make a pass in English (MUET) compulsory and emphasize the subject much earlier in our schools.

Broad-based liberal education means that all undergraduates should take a year of English, science and mathematics, and for science students, the humanities and social sciences.

Faculty Development

The Report does not address the crucial issue of faculty (academic staff) development. I suggest that universities should aim for all its faculty members to have doctoral or other terminal qualifications, while university colleges should aim for at least half. Additionally, those seeking appointments to universities must be top caliber PhDs, meaning they must have some post-doctoral experiences and published works. Appointments to university colleges need not have such rigorous qualifications. For community colleges, a masters degree should suffice.

All VCs, deans, and department heads should seek out their top graduates and give them extra coaching and tutorials to enable them to excel at the GRE for applying to graduate studies abroad especially in America. In particular these top students should be given extra classes in English. They will be the future faculty members, the university’s academic seeds.

Such a scheme would require active collaboration between JPA, MARA and other agencies to defer these students their bonds requirements while doing graduate work.

Preparing Students for Admission (Matriculation)

The committee did not address how to prepare students for university admission (matriculation). There is much debate on the quality and unfairness of matrikulasi versus Sixth Form, made worse by the fact that the former is essentially for Bumis. I would bring back Sixth Form but with a difference. The students would sit for more subjects (six instead of the present four, and eliminate the useless General Paper) along the International Baccalaureate pattern. IB has the correct balance between depth and breadth. Again, science students have to take an arts subject, and arts students have to take math and science, and all have to take English. The current STPM, like the GCE A level, lacks breadth.

Have the Sixth Form entrance examination early in the year so the results would be known by December, with students entering Sixth Form right away in January without wasting precious months waiting for their SPM results.

I would eliminate the religious stream’s STAM; again it is too narrow. Islamic Studies should be only one subject instead of the entire curriculum. These religious stream students would take only one subject in Islamic Studies, another in Arabic, and the rest be filled with mathematics, English and at least one science subject. This would broaden their intellect as well as options for further studies and employment. As he Islamic stream is made up of exclusively Malays, I would discourage indeed prohibit the taking of Islamic Studies with Malay Studies.


The release of the Zahid Nordin Report followed the typical Malaysian pattern: much initial hullabaloo and then just as quickly forgotten. The first Minister of Higher Education for no good reason kept it from the public for nearly a year. Today there is scant public discussion of the report. Presumably it is now filed somewhere and conveniently forgotten.

The new minister Dato Mustapa, after bravely releasing the report soon after his appointment, reverted to the usual Malaysian stance. He had two opportunities to stamp his mark, in the appointments of the new VCs for Universiti Malaya and Universiti Kebangsaan. In both instances he paid mere lip service to the need for wider consultation and opening up the talent pool. The vacancies were not widely advertised and he did not secure the services of a search firm.

This Zahid Nordin Report, like the later Education Blueprint 2006-1010, is not a serious attempt at remedying the undeniably horrible state of Malaysian education, rather more an attempt as being seen to be doing something. It is no different from all the other reports of the various committees and commissions of inquiry. This Abdullah Administration has yet to see a committee or commission it does not like.

I have long discovered this truism: The ability of a leader to execute things is inversely related to his penchant for establishing committees. And Abdullah Badawi just loves committees!


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