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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.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Improve Quality of Varsity Courses

Improve Quality of Varsity Courses

Op-Ed Piece, The New Straits Times, December 14, 1996

[This the last of three essays I wrote nearly a decade ago on the state of our universities. MBM]

Malaysia should critically examine its system of higher education and make its universities more responsive to the needs of the country.

Consider these facts: Less than 10 percent of Malaysian secondary school students go on to local universities. This is impressive when compared to Zaire, but not so great when compared to South Korea or Taiwan. Some 50,000 Malaysians study abroad, costing the country over RM2.5 billion annually, and aggravating the trade deficit. Most importantly, private employers rate local graduates unfavorably.
In response, private colleges are mushrooming. They are, however, unlikely to lead Malaysia to academic excellence. Their primary mission is to serve as feeder schools to their parent campuses abroad.

Recent changes as converting our public universities into corporate entities (“corporatization”), the setting up of private universities, the reduction in the undergraduate years from four to three, and the suggestion of tax breaks for foreign lecturers are ad hoc responses to immediate needs and demands. They are not well thought out solutions nor are they the result of any strategic planning.
Consider corporatization. In theory it would liberate public universities from the control of the Treasury and the Ministry of Education. In reality, the local academic community, long used to the control and command milieu of the civil service (and have themselves developed similar mentality) greets such policies with considerable anxiety. To ensure successful privatization, the government must appoint to the governing boards of these universities distinguished Malaysians from the private sector. By private sector, I do not mean such quasi-public bodies as Pernas or Petronas. I doubt whether the present cadre of university administrators, unguided, could perform under the competitive private sector environment.

These new board members from the private sector would help the administrators adjust to the new reality. Unfortunately at present, university boards are made up of mostly civil servants and politicians.
We have misguidedly granted charters for private universities to Petronas, Tenaga Nasional, and Telekom Malaysia. These companies lack experience or expertise in academic matters. It would be much cheaper and far more effective for them to support and expand existing universities rather than setting up one of their own. Besides, Tenaga Nasional would serve the country best by assuring us of no further blackouts rather than producing scholars and PhDs. There is no model anywhere of a private company successfully running a quality university. The operative word here is “quality.”

A better approach would have been for the private and public sectors to band together and provide generous endowments to leading Western institutions to establish a university here. Recent discussions between the Prime Minister and officials of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on setting up the Malaysian University of Science and Technology, is a step in the right direction. The private sector should strongly support such a venture. Alternatively, simply hire the best brains from the West to augment the academic resources of existing universities.
Malaysia is equally misguided in reducing the undergraduate years to three. I cannot see how this would improve the already poor perception employers have of local graduates. True, at many elite American universities there is a trend towards graduating in three instead of the traditional four years. They do this by admitting students with “advanced placement,” that is, students who have taken college level courses during their high school, and not by reducing or diluting the curriculum.
In the past, Malaysia had similar “super fresh” students who were admitted directly into second-year of university, based on their superior performance at the Higher School Certificate examination.

American colleges are also expanding their inter-session or summer schools so students could accelerate their studies. Malaysian universities should similarly offer courses year round, thus making maximal use of their facilities, and also enabling their students to graduate earlier.

The problem of productivity of Malaysian universities cannot be solved without improving the schools. At present, large numbers of students are admitted to the matrikulasi and pra programs at these universities. Malaysian universities are wasting their expensive physical and academic resources doing something that could be done far more cheaply at high school. Whatever the initial rationale for establishing these programs, Malaysia should now critically evaluate them with a view of eliminating them. Schools must be improved so students could take college-level courses and become “super fresh” matriculants, and thus graduate sooner.

Many Malaysian universities also have diploma programs. While this represented the best and optimal use of scant resources during the early days following independence, it is now time to transfer these programs to technical colleges.

Universities should concentrate on doing what other institutions cannot do, that is education at the undergraduate, graduate, and professional levels.
The quality of the undergraduate programs must also be improved. It is widely acknowledged that graduates of Malaysian universities have limited English proficiency. To remedy this, make English compulsory for the first two years. Local students are also noted for being passive and compliant in classes. To encourage active class participation and to sharpen their verbal skills, have small group seminars. Such seminars consisting of about 15 students are widely used at leading American campuses, with the students graded on their class participation.

Malaysia cannot improve the caliber of its universities if they fail to attract the best brains. Our universities must pay competitive salaries to attract talent. The recent policy of giving tax relief to foreign lecturers is also counterproductive as it unfairly penalizes local citizens. This is no way to attract bright Malaysians currently abroad to return to teach. This tax policy would have unintended consequences. Under this scheme, an American professor, because of the peculiarities of the United States tax laws, would end up paying more to Washington, D.C. than to our Treasury! This policy achieves nothing more than the transfer of payments from the Malaysian Treasury to foreign tax coffers.

At present, non-academic matters (hostels, quarters and car loans) consume an inordinate amount of time and resource of Malaysian universities. Contract out these activities. Many American colleges use private companies to manage these non-academic activities. Marriott, the huge food service company that caters for airlines, feeds many a college student. Malaysian universities could also lease land to developers to build apartments and dormitories, and have them manage the facilities under the familiar BOT (build, operate and transfer) concept. In this way non-academic activities become sources of revenue and not as now, a burden.
Universities could then focus solely on academic matters. In the budgeting for a new university in Malaysia, the top items of expenditures are invariably administrative salaries, hostels, vice chancellors residence, etc. At the bottom, almost as an afterthought, are funds for libraries and laboratories.

Often there is just sufficient money for the buildings, and faculty members would have to beg for equipment, supplies, and teaching assistants. And before existing programs are running smoothly, the administrators are busy planning branch campuses and new courses. Malaysia is rushing to build new universities without pausing to learn from each experience. Consequently, we repeat the same mistakes.
While precious funds are being poured into these new facilities, existing campuses struggle with libraries that have not expanded, laboratories not updated, and, astounding in this “high tech” age of computers, of students still having to queue to register for classes instead of doing it on-line. Each new campus cannibalizes resources and personnel from already strapped existing institutions.

Resource-rich California took a century to build its University of California system with its nine campuses. Moreover, one UC campus produces more graduates research than the entire universities in Malaysia.

Higher education is crucial to reaching Malaysia’s Vision 2020 goals. In order for its universities to make their fullest contribution, we must critically evaluate their strengths and weaknesses.


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