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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.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Yet Another Report on Reforming Higher Education

(First posted in Malaysiakini.com Dec 21, 2007)

It is a sure sign that local leaders are way over their heads (or refuse to make the tough decisions) when they start calling in expensive international consultants. This is the case with Higher Education Minister Mustapa Mohamad’s commissioning (together with the Economic Planning Unit of the Prime Minister’s Department) the World Bank that resulted in its report: Malaysia and the World Economy: Building a World-Class Higher Education System.

You can be certain that the report, 18 months in the making, was not cheap. That would be just the beginning. Consultants have a knack of making themselves indispensable, so expect even greater expenses when they are called in to help implement their recommendations.

Yet for all the expertise, wealth of data, and impressive comparative statistics presented in this 285-page report, its recommendations are nothing new or original. These include, among others, granting greater autonomy, meritocracy both in admitting students and recruiting faculty, rationalizing the role of the private sector, and emphasis on science, technology, and research.

What we lack is the political will to make the tough necessary decisions to implement them. Unfortunately no foreign experts no matter how skillful their powers of persuasion are can help in this arena. My only hope is that as those recommendations now carry the World Bank’s imprimatur, the natives are more likely to listen.


World Bank’s Report

The Report is conveniently divided into two parts. The first addresses or “diagnoses” the various issues like governance and financing, quality matters, graduate unemployment, and the integration of universities with the national innovation system. It begins by “benchmarking” Malaysia against selected OECD and East Asian countries. No marks for guessing where we stand; we are not even in the same league. For example, less than half the faculty at the University of Malaya, supposedly the nation’s premier, has terminal qualifications as compared to over 98 percent at Canada’s McGill.

The only point I see in making such obviously glaring comparisons is to wake up our leaders who are smugly satisfied as they are forever comparing Malaysia with the likes of Zimbabwe.

The specific recommendations are in the second part of the report.

The Report rightly highlights the universal dilemma of quality versus quantity with the democratization of higher education. One solution, which I recommend in my book An Education System Worthy of Malaysia would be to emulate California’s tiered model. Malaysia has adopted some aspects of this by designating selected institutions as “research universities.” Designating alone is not enough and would be counterproductive unless accompanied by other changes, like much greater autonomy and considerably increased funding.

The beauty of the California system is that there are enough commonalities and clearly defined channels to enable student to switch from one system to the other. This flexibility is necessary to accommodate changes in students’ plans.

Also notable with the California system is that each campus enjoys considerable autonomy, including choosing its own students and faculty. The central office serves only administrative functions like dealing with the legislature and managing the faculty’s pension plans.

In Malaysia, the ministry micromanages every campus, right down to choosing the color of the faculty lounge drapes. I wish the Report would emphasize this point. As University of Malaya Law Professor Azmi Sharom observed, if we really love our universities, we must free them. I would further suggest that Higher Education Minister Mustapa should listen more to professors like Azmi Sharom and less to UMNO Youth leaders, or even World Bank’s experts.

Problems with International Data

The report is inundated with cross-national statistics. While it is good to compare ourselves against others, we must first however be assured that we are using the same measuring stick. This is easier said than done.

Take the apparently straightforward data on years of schooling. This seemingly objective criterion is anything but. One does not have to be particularly perceptive to note that nine years of schooling in South Korea would produce a far superior graduate as compared to someone with many more years spent at an American inner city school. Likewise with comparing nominal figures on expenditures per student; a dollar at the University of Malaya would go a long way as compared to at the University of California.

If we are not careful we could be easily misled; we would then be better off without those statistics. At least a dead clock tells the right time twice a day; a malfunctioning clock never. Likewise with data; bad data is more damaging than no data. A bad compass is worse than no compass. With the latter you would not be misled, and you learn to use your senses.

Studies done on OECD countries indicate that it is not so much the years of schooling that matter with respect to labor productivity rather the workers’ actual language and mathematical skills. Harvard’s Robert Barro shows that it is not just any education system that enhances economic development rather one that emphasizes the sciences, technology and mathematics that is crucial.

This is clearly demonstrated in Malaysia. The government’s oft stated goal of 60:40 ratio favoring students in the science stream remains just that: a goal. More important than focusing on this thus far unattainable objective would be to raise the mathematical skills and science literacy of all our students. Most American universities require all their students to take a year of science and mathematics.

Malaysian data indicate that Malays have more years of schooling and fewer dropouts than non-Malays, in particular the Chinese. Yet the economic performance of Malays lags that of Chinese. The reason is obvious. The education of Malays is heavy on arts and religion; Chinese, science and technology. When Chinese students drop out, they work for their parents’ enterprises, be they mom-and-pop retail stores or roadside hawker stalls, where they learn important lessons of economics and life generally far more effectively than at school. Malay students would hang around waiting for government jobs. The only lesson they would learn in such an environment is that the world owes them a living.

There is however one comparative statistics worth noting: tuition fees differential between public and private institutions. In Malaysia it is about ten-fold whereas in America it is about a 3 to 5- fold difference. I would narrow this by increasing tuition at public universities, coupled with more generous students aid. This would generate more revenue as well as reduce the subsidy for rich students.

Timid Report

The Report soft-pedals two separate but interrelated crucial issues: one, the dangerous racial segregation of educational institutions at all levels; and two, the intrusive as well as destructive role of politics, in particular language nationalism.

The Bank advocates the giving of scholarships for students to attend private institutions as one way of making them reflect the greater Malaysian society. I would go further and make it a condition for granting of permits. I agree with the Bank that we should treat private and pubic institutions equally with regard to awarding research funds and other grants. If these institutions are doing good research and performing useful societal functions, what difference does it make whether they are public or private?

Politics underlie most if not all the problems of our education system. While it is impossible to divorce politics (institutions ultimately must respond to the political realities) nonetheless once certain objectives are agreed upon by the body politic, then let the professionals take over in implementing them.

Take the teaching of science and mathematics in English and the general need to enhance the English proficiency of our students. This decision was made at the highest political level, yet at the slightest obstacle in implementing, an otherwise sensible policy was reversed. It is such a flip-flopping that is so destructive.

The World Bank should have been more forceful in presenting its recommendations and in highlighting what ails our education system. Had the Bank done so it would have encouraged the many voices for reform from within. That might just nudge these politicians and bureaucrats to take the necessary bold steps.

1 Comments:

Blogger KoSong Cafe said...

The truth hurts but BN leaders continue to avoid facing it.

It is good to have Malay intellectuals criticising the system rather than the nons which might create sensitive issues.

Common sense tells us that it would be much cheaper to award scholarships to deserving students and with the right conditions attached to ensure their return, than to attract those with the right qualifications and experience with all kinds of offers without a system of excellence in the local institutions to enable them to continue their interest in research.

It seems the Koreans went out of their way to entice their countrymen to return or continue their research, even to the extent of setting up a research centre, if necessary, in the USA if the particular researcher prefers it!

8:08 PM  

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