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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, March 04, 2009

Towards A Competitive Malaysia # 94

Chapter 13: Deteriorating Institutions


Reforming Higher Education

As discussed in Chapter 6, the liberalization of higher education was not the consequence of a brilliant strategy rather that events had overtaken the regulators.

Private sector ingenuity had successfully exploited a loophole in the then existing laws prohibiting private degree-granting institutions. They did this by having “twinning” programs with foreign universities. Students would spend their first two years locally and then go abroad to the parent campus of their affiliated universities to finish their studies. The program was wildly successful. It was only a matter of time when these local programs would be extended so students need to go abroad only for a semester or two, and eventually for only a few days, just enough time to participate in the graduation ceremony.

Anticipating that eventuality, the government was forced to liberalize the system. As usual, there was not much thought behind it. Within the first two years, the government approved no less than six hundred institutions! Many were operated by scam artists, experts at inducing the rich but not so bright to part with their hard-earned cash. Corruption must have been a major factor, for the Minister of Education at the time, Najib Razak, was able to run a well-financed and successful campaign for the UMNO leadership.

Nonetheless there were a few respectable institutions like Monash University and the University of Nottingham that responded. Their success in turn spurred or forced local public universities to make the necessary reforms. The expanded use of English was one such consequence. Local employers (except the government) were favoring graduates of private universities, a severe embarrassment for the government and a bitter disappointment for those mostly Bumiputra graduates of public universities.

These private universities are more tolerated than welcomed. As such their full potential to benefit the nation has yet to be fully maximized. There are many barriers put in their way by officialdom, like being subjected to selective accreditation and difficulties securing visas for their foreign lecturers.

The industry too cannot escape blame for it has not done much to rid itself of the black sheep amongst its members. The leading private universities should take the leadership and form their own organization with strict criteria for membership. The standards should reflect academic as well as financial criteria, a synthesis of both the American Universities Association and Moody, as it were. The government should encourage such self-regulations. Institutions meeting those stringent criteria should be rewarded with ease of recruiting foreign lecturers, reduced or no taxes, guaranteed loans for capital expansion, and government scholarships and loans for their students. That last move would enable more Bumiputras to attend these good private universities.

In return for direct and indirect governmental support, these private institutions must agree to certain basic and sensible rules, one being that the domestic enrollment must reflect the general society. This would enhance the learning environment as well as prevent the dangerous racial segregation that we see today. The other is that all students must take a year of Malay unless they have graduated from national schools (which have Malay as the language of instruction). Once the nation has a critical mass of these international schools and foreign universities, it would effect changes to the system. That would be the surest and only way to force reform upon the system.

Meanwhile attempts at reform of public universities involve nothing more than tinkering at the edges, the latest being the Zahid Noordin Report, “Steps Towards Excellence.”13 It was submitted to the minister in charge on July 2005, and made public ten months later. Meanwhile the minister had been fired. There was no reason for the delay except that it reflected the usual lack of a sense of urgency as well as the penchant for secretiveness among civil servants.

The committee was heavy on administrative people; there was only one academic, a retired professor. The committee did not do wide research as evidenced by the papers it cited. It did not examine the large and successful public university systems of California, Virginia, and the Mid Western states. The committee members looked at individual campuses but not the system as a whole. Nor did the committee examine more recent efforts at reforming higher education in Britain and US. In particular, it did not examine the very useful National Science Foundation Report on revamping undergraduate science education.

The committee failed to define clearly the missions of the various tertiary institutions. Elsewhere I recommended that Malaysia follows the California tiered model. At the top is the University of California (UC) system, consisting of nine research universities offering doctoral, professional, and a wide variety of undergraduate programs. Next is the 23-campus California State University (CSU) system, offering only Bachelors and limited Masters, but no professional or doctoral degrees. Then there are the community colleges that offer technical as well as diploma and Associate degree programs. Despite the distinct systems, there are mechanisms enabling students to transfer from one to the other. The UC takes the top 1/8 of high school graduates, CSU the top third, while the community colleges take in everyone.

Malaysia could have a similar tiered system, with the full university offering UC-like programs: a breadth of undergraduate studies as well as doctoral and professional degrees. Next would be the University Colleges (equivalent of CSU), offering only bachelors and some limited masters programs. The polytechnics and community colleges should offer diploma-level courses only.

Private institutions should also follow this criterion. 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 them a phase-in period of 5–10 years. If they do not offer professional and doctoral programs within that time, they will lose their university status and be termed “University College.” Similar rules should apply to public universities. If within ten years its academic faculty does not produce scholarly output and academic programs worthy of a full research university, then it should be rightly called a university college. Half of the current public universities should more accurately be called university colleges.

The university colleges should focus primarily on teaching rather than research, and spare themselves the added burden and complexities of running graduate and professional programs. America has many excellent degree-granting colleges (Amherst, Williams) whose academic quality and reputations far surpass many full-fledged universities.

I would remove matrikulasi programs from universities and put them either at community colleges (preferable) or university colleges. It is a waste of expensive resources of a research university to offer matrikulasi.

The committee targeted a goal of 100,000 PhDs in ten years. This too is ambitious and a recipe for failure. I would focus on a much lower figure and concentrate on the sciences, technology, English, economics, and other desperately needed disciplines. Unless focused, there would the temptation at the end should the goal not be reachable, to produce a glut of Malay and Islamic Studies PhDs. If today there are 80,000 unemployable bachelor’s degree holders, ten years hence it will be unemployable PhDs in Malay and Islamic Studies.

The report recommended greater academic autonomy. There should be total autonomy to include budgetary and management. As Azmi Sharom, a law professor at the University of Malaya, rightly observed in his open letter to the new Minister of Higher Education Datuk Mustapa, “If you love your universities, you must set them free.”15

Universities should manage themselves independent of the ministry. They should get a global budget based on the number of defined goals, like the number of students and programs. There could be differential funding based on the number of Bumiputra students in the sciences, and other selected criteria.

How the university would spend its money should be up to its management and governing board. Likewise, the board would hire and fire the VCs, deans, and departmental heads.

In addition to the global operating budget, there should be a separate capital one for new programs and expansions. The minister exerts control only at the macro level through the budget process. That would be much more effective. If a university were to deviate from government policy, it would risk jeopardizing its funding. The government could further exert control by not reappointing the board members and or putting in individuals who share the government’s view. The level of autonomy would be less for university colleges, and even less for community colleges.

The ministry would manage common administrative programs like staff pensions and central processing of students. Each university should however select its own students, faculty, and staff.

The committee recommended no new campuses be built until the present mess is cleared up. It then diluted its message by recommending that the Maritime Institute in Malacca be upgraded to a university and a Palm Oil University be set up! There is a difference between a university and a trade or technical school, and between a university and a research institute. A Palm Oil University sounds very much like a “souped up” trade school rather than an academic institution.

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 run the institution. The same applies to branch campuses. Discontinue and convert them into independent universities or colleges. That would ease the administrative burden.

While there should be close collaborations between universities and research institutes like PORIM (Palm Oil) and RRI (Rubber), nonetheless their mission should remain separate. Their PhD researchers could however be appointed as adjunct professors so they could supervise students and undertake part-time teaching. If you convert research institutions like PORIM into universities, you risk destroying their research capabilities, as their personnel would be overburdened with teaching.

Similar adjunct appointments could also be given to private professionals like lawyers, physicians, and accountants. That would augment the teaching staff and give the curriculum a much-needed practical relevance.

Likewise, the mission of the Maritime Institute is to produce professional captains and seamen, not the academic study of the ocean. If you want to award degrees for such programs, make it into a university college, not a research university. The report devotes over 18 pages to details of ICT on campus. This is a rapidly changing field, and the committee members lack technical expertise in the area. Why not have fully “wired campuses” and put the contract out to open bidding. Let the professionals in the private sector solve the problems of security, redundancy, and others. The committee should have recommended that faculty members get free laptops with wireless access. If the university were to buy them in bulk, it would be very cheap (under US$500.00 each).

“Wiring” the campuses should be the highest priority. Once students have broadband, they could access the world’s libraries. They could attend virtual lectures at leading universities. MIT is putting its entire course materials on-line and free! Better yet, give every student a laptop. Of course to benefit from that, the students must be conversant in English, but more on that later.

The undergraduate curriculum must be liberalized. The committee suggests students be well versed in at least three languages. Again, that is too ambitious, although many non-Malay students are already trilingual (mother tongue, Malay, and English). I would be happy if our students are bilingual in Malay and English. Broad-based liberal education means that students must be exposed to the sciences and mathematics as well as the social sciences and humanities. There is no need to make Islam Hadhari compulsory; Malaysians already have enough religious instructions in schools.

The committee has no clear faculty development strategy. Universities should strive for all it faculty members to have terminal qualifications; university colleges should aim for at least half. For faculty development, all deans and department heads should seek out their top graduates and coach them to sit for the American Graduate Records Examination and apply for graduate schools abroad. The committee did not address the important aspect of matriculating students. There is much debate on the quality and unfairness of the present matrikulasi versus Sixth Form. This issue is made worse by the fact that the former is essentially for Bumiputras. I would re-institute Sixth Form with its separate entrance examination early in the year so the results would be known by December, with the successful students continuing their studies right away the following January.

The committee took less than six months to complete its work, and the ministry took nearly a year to digest its recommendations. I see nothing in the committee’s recommendations that would give me reasons to be optimistic.


Next: The Civil Service

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