Friday, November 16, 2007

Higher Education Ministers' Reaction on Unis Ranking

Thanks to Education Malaysia highlighting of this Higher Education Minister's open letter response in The Star on 14th November 2007.

I would reproduce this letter in full below. I personally like the response from Tok Pa quite a lot. It is a good way to respond, bite the bullet and work hard to redeem the quality of our institution of higher learning.

Plan to shape varsities of world class

IT is that time of year again. The latest Times Higher Education Supplement - Quacquarelli-Symonds (THES-QS) World University Rankings were published on Nov 8 and, as in previous years, have drawn much attention in Malaysia.

More so perhaps, as the 2007 results do not include any Malaysian university in the list of top 200 universities.

As Ben Sowter, head of research at QS Quacquarelli Symonds Ltd, the British company that conducts the survey has said: “In many places our advice was taken and understood ? but in Malaysia, the reduced performance of Malaysian institutions became a source of great focus for both the media and politicians.”

The reaction this year is therefore inevitable as some have concluded that the performance of Malaysian universities has dropped further.

Some may also feel that the current rankings are the result of an egalitarian education policy. Still, massification of higher education was the right choice for a young, developing country that had to ensure its citizens access to education, and thus a brighter future.

Now, however, we have begun to direct our attention to enhancing the quality of our institutions and championing academic excellence.

As our Prime Minister has accurately pointed out, in order for Malaysia to become a hub of educational excellence, we need universities recognised as outstanding and of world-class quality.

The THES-QS rankings are based on six criteria: peer review (40%), citations per faculty (20%), student to faculty ratio (20%), recruiter review (10%), international faculty ratio (5%), and international students ratio (5%).

The citations per faculty criterion is particularly important as an increase in citations can lead to greater peer recognition and hence better peer review scores. These can also generate greater interest among scholars to teach at a given institution, thus raising international faculty ratio scores too.

I am, of course, concerned about the standing of our universities internationally.

Left unchecked, perceptions may form that our exclusion from the THES-QS top 200 reflects a low standard of education – even though Sowter goes on to report that “the drop (in rankings of Malaysian universities) is entirely attributable to the combination of methodological enhancements and improved response dynamics in the rankings themselves.”

Malaysia has made great strides in higher education but we have not yet produced world-class universities.

Malaysians therefore must gain an accurate sense of where we stand today, and the changes being driven by the Higher Education Ministry to bring us to the next level.

As I write this, I have just finished meeting with some Malaysians working and doing business in Vietnam. As with other such visits I have had elsewhere, I am reminded that Malaysians working abroad, most of whom have studied in our local universities, are able to do very well anywhere in the world.

Malaysian institutions have also begun to export our education abroad. This too is reflective of the advances we have made in the quality of our higher education.

So does this mean that we are doing all right and can ignore international university rankings?

No. We cannot be satisfied with present performance. As we are running, others may be running faster. The race is getting tougher and this notion must sink into all our institutions.

The ministry recognises that our universities are not yet world class, so there is still much to be done, and it must be done with the greatest possible sense of urgency.

While changes and improvements to education systems take time to mature, this does not mean that we can take our time to bring about change and improvement.

I am encouraged to note that in the last few years, vice-chancellors have come to accept international university rankings as important guides to performance and a gauge of their progress in building the human capital Malaysia needs to remain globally competitive.

Our universities must establish a strong academic reputation and the crux of the matter lies in having our academics recognised and cited as they publish their work in high-impact and refereed journals.

Four universities have been granted research university status to accelerate this. Universiti Malaya, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, Universiti Putra Malaysia and Universiti Sains Malaysia have been given additional funding and revised terms of governance so that they can pursue research excellence.

Vice-chancellors must therefore ensure that their institutions uphold the academic tradition to “publish or perish”.

The rationale for the apex university initiative is to strive for excellence. The apex university concept is not about declaring an existing university world class. Rather, it is about identifying one or two institutions with the greatest potential of reaching such levels, and focusing resources for them to compete with the best in the world, and hence be recognised as world class.

It is for this reason that the ministry has launched its National Higher Education Strategic Plan and the corresponding National Higher Education Action Plan 2007-2010. The action plan is an initiative in the pursuit of excellence while improving quality all round.

The success we have with these plans lies in the quality of our delivery, and the vice-chancellors must lead their institutions to play their part in translating the action plan into reality.

This has to be done quickly and effectively.

# Datuk Mustapa Mohamed is the Higher Education Minister.

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