Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Open Letter by Kian Ming to Tok Pa

Ong Kian Ming, co-blogger of Education Malaysia and a PhD student at Duke University has written an open letter to Tok Pa, our Minister of Higher Education in Education Malaysia and Malaysiakini on our Higher Education Policy and ways to improve our local institutions of higher learning.

I would say that Kian Ming has brought up a number of interesting and valuable points for our Ministry of Higher Education to act. I definitely concur with Kian Ming that Tok Pa has taken the right step to focus on improving the quality of our institutions of higher learning, rather than blaming the ranking methodology. That's definitely a step ahead, and hopefully, we can get all the institutions of higher learning to work hard towards improvement.

The full letter by Kian Ming can be read here in Education Malaysia or in Malaysiakini

I reproduce it below:-


Open letter to Tok Pa
Ong Kian Ming
Nov 27, 07

Dear Minister of Higher Education,

I was encouraged by your letter published in the Star on Nov 14, addressing the issue of our public universities falling out of THES top 200 list of universities in the world. I was encouraged because you did not dwell on the how changes in methodology used by QS, the company responsible for compiling the data, might have affected the ranking of Malaysian universities in the THES survey.

While understanding the technicalities of why our public universities have dropped off the top 200 list may be important to better understand the strengths and weaknesses of our public universities, I believe that from your many travels to top universities worldwide, you know that our public universities are very far from being anywhere close to the top 200 universities in the world, however measured.

I have also been encouraged by the way your ministry has been very focused in its approach to transform our public universities as specified by the National Higher Education Strategic Plan and the corresponding National Higher Education Action Plan 2007 - 2010. The goals set out in these plans are realistic and if achieved, will certainly make significant improvements to our public tertiary education system.

At the same time, I am aware that political considerations and restrictions can prevent even the best plans from being fulfilled and hinder a politician's ability to speak honestly. For example, you mentioned that: “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.”

Was the indiscriminate expansion of higher education necessary in the context of Malaysia? Is this not one of the reasons why there are currently a large number of unemployed and unemployable Malaysian graduates in the market, largely the result of them not being able to pick up the requisite skills to make themselves employable? Would an emphasis on vocational and technical education for those who are not academically-inclined have made more sense instead of pushing these students into courses which they have little interest in and is, at least, partly responsible for making some of them unemployable?

Was the practice of “awarding” and building universities in every state in Malaysia not a political tool for “rewarding” voters in these states? Did it not lead to quantity at the expense of decline in quality?

At the same time, I would guess that it was not possible for you to say that the “massification” of higher education in Malaysia went along with policies which prevented qualified Malaysian students from getting the courses of their choice.

This resulted in them leaving for universities overseas and less qualified candidates “flooding” the gates of our public universities. In addition, a large number of above average students were also awarded scholarships by the government and government-linked companies to study overseas, leaving our public universities almost denuded of top students.

I am also sure you realise that the “massification” of higher education in Malaysia not only decreased the quality of our students. The same phenomenon was taking place among the ranks of the faculty. Lecturers were promoted indiscriminately based on “know who” rather than “know how” and that promotion policies were also responsible for driving many qualified academics to universities overseas, leaving the ranks of many faculties relatively denuded.

The notion that a Malaysia public university can even be anywhere close to the top 200 universities in the world is somewhat laughable given that less than 50 percent of most faculties in our public universities have PhDs. While having a PhD is not necessarily a prerequisite for doing good research, it is an important indicator of proper training for good research, having worked and learned from experienced supervisors and completing a major piece of
research work.

Is it so surprising that our public universities have low peer review and citation scores when many members of the faculty are not trained to publish and produce cutting-edge research? When this is combined with a culture which does not reward publications and punish non-publication, it is no surprise that our faculty has and will continue to score low on peer review and citations per faculty.

How can you change this? I think the Ministry of Higher Education (MOHE) and public universities are already taking some steps to address this starting with the push to send more Malaysian faculty members overseas to complete their PhD. But even then, the process by which non-PhD holders currently lecturing in our public universities can obtain funding from the MOHE to do their PhDs overseas is still far from transparent.

From anecdotal evidence I've heard from some of our readers, the process is still very much driven by “know who” rather than “know how” and sadly, by racial quotas instead of by ability.

If this practice continues, I would not be surprised if the percentage of sponsored students obtaining their PhDs would be less than 50 percent, again leaving the MOHE in the quandary of not being able to achieve its 60 percent target of PhD holders by 2010.

While your strong words of inculcating a “publish or perish” culture is encouraging, it will have little “teeth” if it is not seriously implemented in our public universities. Our public university lecturers are almost “unfireable.” Hence, a threat of “publish or perish” is not seen as credible unless real action is taken.

Does this mean that you are willing to slowly “weed out” the non-performers in our public university system replacing them with highly motivated and better qualified academics? Only time will tell.

The road ahead is fraught with challenges, both internal and external. As events and trends in the world continue to develop and evolve, our public universities are in danger of being left behind. At the same time, internal political constraints and considerations make it even more difficult to change from within. Your job is not one which I envy and I applaud you for at least taking positive and concrete steps to effect change, hopefully at a substantive rather than a cosmetic level. But I fear that the restraints that is the Malaysian political system will eventually get the better of your good intentions, at great expense to our country.


This article represents the opinion of Kian Ming.

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