Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Top universities are from developed countries

The article below is written by Mansor Puteh and it represents his personal opinion. I reproduce here to share with everyone on this article, which I believe will allow us to think through the issues that he brings forth.
He writes this article based on his experience at Columbia University.
On the points he brought up, I would leave to everyone to judge. Only a point in the 2nd last paragraph, I personally do not agree with the definition of Professor and Associate Professor. At least what I see in Cornell is not what Mansor defined. Perhaps it could be due to different school/faculty. I am judging based on my experience at engineering college. Typically in Cornell, Associate Professor is given when a professor achieves his/her tenureship and usually after about 6 years, they will get full professorship. At least, that's what I understand.
Enjoy reading the article!
Top world universities are from developed countries
Mansor Puteh

I was pleased that my university which was ranked 12th in the THES-QC listing of world class universities last year, rose a notch higher this year to number 11. It is the same university where Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad was invited to speak at recently...and where Dustin Hoffman had acted at as a doctoral candidate in 'The Marathon Man' and Alfred Hitchcock was awarded an honorary doctorate in the early 1970s. And hopefully, soon this university will have the first and only person in the world to publish sixty (yes, sixty titles in Malay and English) books, simultaneously!

This is also the first university in America where the students had taken control of the university administration to protest against the American involvement in the protracted Vietnam War in the 1960s, which snowballed into a national pastime with students at other universities, taking their own initiative to demonstrate against the War which culminated in the killing by the army of some students at Kent State University at Wounded Knee. The ultimate success of the student campaign was the withdrawal of American troops in the then South Vietnam, which saw the country that was split into two merging into one Republic of Vietnam, which also saw the collapse of the 'domino theory'.

I would like to share my experience with those who are interested to discuss the issue of why Malaysian universities had failed to make it to the top 200 universities in the world, and will never make it to this list, ever. It is based purely from personal experience having studied at Columbia University in New York City.

My first question is: Just which universities does the ministry of higher education (MOHE) in Malaysia want to knock off from the list so some of our universities can replace them? All of them are well-established academic institutions that we have on many occasions sent our students and academic staff to study at. Yet, I have not heard of anyone from those universities that had been sent to study at any of our universities. And they have always strived to achieve excellence, while the Malaysian univesities only now hears the word, 'excellence' when in the past they had neglected to fully understand what it means, because they were busy churning out graduates.

This proves that we have a need to learn from them, but they do not have anything to learn from us, because what our universities know, were mostly from them! Their libraries have all the books that all the libraries of our universities have; and we have just a fraction of what their libraries have. The largest library in any university in Malaysia has a few hundred thousand titles of books; whereas the Harvard Library has six million in all languages and still counting.

I am happy to say that one of my books is kept in it, too, for which they acknowledged receipt after I had donated a copy to them on my last trip to their campus. They spend more money acquiring new titles every year, while our universities spend money on refurbishing their buildings including pavements, which change in shape and design every year, probably to suit to the tastes of the vice-chancellors or other senior administrators.

The top universities do not blow their own horns or organize shows, except for their commencements or graduation ceremonies which are held simply in the park and without much fanfare, with the students not being handed the scrolls individually, while ours are turned into a circus with lengthy speeches and a parade of the university staff. Their graduation gowns are simple while ours are so gaudy with unusually expensive 'songket' motifs that could pass for wedding costumes worn by Malay bridegrooms or characters in some 'bangsawan' plays, and not serious intellectuals.

To tell you the truth, I did not find the essay written by the minister of higher education, Mustapha Muhammed that was published in the Sunday Star, on why Malaysian universities could not make it to the list to be extraordinary. On the contrary, I can say it even lacks substance as his views are commonplace and downright boring because they are predictable. The Sunday Star only decided to publish his essay because of his stature and not necessarily because it was a brilliant piece of work.

And if anyone else has failed to notice, I would like to point to this one glaring fact; that all the universities in this top 200 bracket are those from countries that we generally describe as developed or whose economies are advanced such as America, England, Europe, Japan, South Korea, China, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand. All the universities in this bracket were prominent in their respective countries for a long time even before the THES-QC list was first announced few years ago. And as their countries and economies continued to develop, their status rose as they tried to meet with the demands of their expanding industries in order to provide the manpower needed for the continued growth of these strategic industries.

The problem they had was the fact that they were innovative countries which introduced a host of scientific and technological wonders that they could not find elsewhere but had to develop themselves. Whereas, in Malaysia, which is just happy to be a mere consumer-oriented country whose economy is largely dependent on what the others produce and create; there is no urgent need for us to be creative or research on anything since everything that we need is available to be picked from the shelves.

Yes, we have a small group of creative people, but they are also not exceptional or original, but copycat; especially those working in film, television, theater and the arts and advertising industry. We are only excited to be the first in the region or Asia to be able to bring into the country from abroad any technological wonder, without having to think hard enough to create them ourselves, to meet with our own special needs. In the end we have become extensions to the economies of the west and other developed countries.

We cannot expect to find any university from the lesser developed or poor countries to make the list. They are happy to be able to give university level education to their own students in order that they did not have to spend too much on them if they have to be sent abroad. This is their only function, and it is not to encourage it students to excel in education.

There are reasons why only universities in such countries could make it to the top 200 bracket while those which are in countries in the lesser developed or developing will find it very difficult to make the grade and they are not like those that the others including Mustapha had offered. It is not true that for a university to attain the world class status it has to have instructors or professors who have doctorate degrees, and who had conducted serious researches or published them in serious academic journals.

So I wonder what sort of research can our university professors and researchers do considering that the economic development of the country on the whole does not require any serious research to be conducted at all, and all the findings that we need are being provided free by researchers and scientists or experts from outside of the country? We have not yet got anyone to conduct a serious study on why there is racial division in this country to start with. All the views we have on the matter are given off-the-cuffs and based on general observations.

We, as a country, are mere consumers or copycats of ideas and findings that have been put on the shelves and sold in the markets of academia. I personally do not see how could we compete with the researchers at the top world class universities, and force our university lecturers and scientists to conduct researches just so that we can get them to discover something unusual, that their counterparts elsewhere had not managed to do before and to get them published in serious and prestigious international academic journals.

This would be very difficult to do considering that most of our university lecturers are arm-chair experts who conduct their researches in the comfort of the libraries and not in the fields. No wonder most of them can only spout second-hand ideas on anything including space technology, with our spaceman sounding like a parrot, having spouted nothing original that can be engraved in stone, let alone gold. And our politicians, NGO leaders, academicians, economists, sociologists, psychologists, philosophers and idealists, too, are sounding like parrots with no original views on anything.

At one time, the president of Harvard was an economist who only had a master's degree. I am sure there were many others at the university who had more impressive academic backgrounds but none of them were chosen to fill the post that was vacant then. The reason being these professors are supposed to be instructors and not administrators, and university administrators are not supposed to pretend to be experts in any chosen field, although there are few university presidents who also teach.

The co-deans or co-chairmen of the film division I was studying at were professionals with one having a doctorate and the other a Hollywood film director who had won two Oscars for best director. And all the instructors did not come to work from nine to five everyday; they only came to the film division at the school of the arts, when they have classes to attend to. Here, all university lecturers are expected to be on the campus everyday, regardless of whether they have classes to give or not.

And most of the top ranking universities are those that have small student population with Dartmouth College and Brown Universities having less than eight thousand students. Columbia and Harvard only have a student population of around 20,000 students each. And the campuses are not huge but compact so that the schools are close to each other. Dartmouth College and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) do not wish to change the names to 'university' yet they are able to offer degrees up to the doctorate level. In Malaysia, all institutions of higher learning yearn to be called a 'university' or at least a 'university college' with one private institution deliberately spelling the word 'college' in a small size to enhance the other word, 'university'.

I have a few other observations to make on my experience studying at Columbia for three years, which point to the attitude of the administrators, especially the vice-chancellors or presidents of our universities and the deans, and they way they often conduct themselves in public, which is mostly to show off their stature and not necessarily intelligence or expertise.

Throughout the period I was on campus, I did not see the president of the university or knew how he looked like. I only knew his name as Michael Sovern from the university catalogue. I did not read any speech that he might have read anywhere, or seen his photo in the college paper called 'The Columbia Spectator'. And he did not go around the campus to show his face and try to act important. Least of all, he did not give his personal views on anything to the media or wrote a column like many of our vice-chancellors do as a habit who would abuse their university facilities by using their university email addresses for personal and private businesses. He was not described as Professor Dr. Michael Sovern and all the academic titles that he had mentioned and repeated at any chance. He was just Mr Sovern, who drove his own car to work. And when the university authorities decided to auction his official car, I was told the market price was only US$2,000. And it was not even a luxury car.

Some of my professors went to work by commuting in the train, while the others preferred to cycle because it is their business to be with the public. One of my professors posed with his bicycle and wearing short pants in the university website, looking unpretentious; whereas in Malaysia, his counterparts would don the university graduation robes and standing in front of rows of books trying to look like serious academicians.

Yes, at Columbia, the university professors are called simply 'instructors' although their status is professor and the faculties are sometimes called 'schools'. They did not believe in using big words such as faculty. And the School of Journalism at Columbia is the one that gives away the Pulitzer Prizes for journalism each year. These are considered the most prestigious awards for journalism in the world.

And throughout America, those who teach full-time are called professors even though they may not have doctorate degrees, while those who teach part-time are associate professors. Adjunct professors are mostly retired people or those from the industry who teach occasionally like the adjunct professor I had who was 80 years and had been a screenwriter in Hollywood during the Silent Era.

One of my instructors, an associate professor, taught film editing, won an Emmy for best editing for a documentary yet, the next day when he returned to work, no one took notice of what he had achieved the night before, and there was no celebration and definitely no mention in the college papers. He only had a bachelor's degree, as most of my other instructors who also had master's degree.


Bitbot said...

I don't any disrespect to Mr.Mansor Puteh but I really didn't get the point of the letter. It was literally just pointing out the differences between US Universities (or Columbia University in this case) and Malaysian universities with a focus on behaviour of the academic staff.

Seriously, what's the point in making comparisons? Is he suggesting that we encourage our academicians to have the same behaviours / code of conducts as the US universities as well?

Also I find it really weird that he says the opinions expressed before this were not original because he himself did not express any original points either. All he did was compare between the universities from his experience and that was it. Comparisons between universities and education systems have been done since decades ago and is nothing new.

I'm glad that he is trying to bring out a different perspective to the issue of the university rankings but after reading his entire letter, I felt it was not constructive, not original and left me thinking "So what's the point of all the things you're saying?".


Chen Chow said...

Thanks bitbot~! What about the opinion of other readers?

Perhaps, we can see what can we derive from here and see what can we get to go forward...

No point dwelling from the past.

I agree with bitbot that merely comparing would not be sufficient, what we would need to do is to evaluate what can we really apply into our local context. What that we can make to improve the situatioin here.

After all, merely importing solutions from abroad would not be sufficient.