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Why Malaysian universities are performing poorly

Prof. Murray Hunter

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Malaysian public universities have dropped in the Times Higher Education University Rankings over the last few years. Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) made 87th position in 2013, but as at 2015, no Malaysian university made the top 100 Asian rankings.

Malaysian public universities have also shown mixed results in other rankings like the QS rankings, where three Malaysian universities had slight rises in their rankings, while Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM), Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM), International Islamic Universiti Malaysia (IIUM), and Universiti Teknologi MARA (UiTM), all slipped in rankings from previous years. No Malaysian university made the top 100, According to the QS ranking profiles, Malaysian universities have lost significant ground in academic reputation and tend to be weak in research, where no Malaysian university reached the top 400.

Public Universities Vice-Chancellor/Rector Committee chairman Dr. Kamarudin Hussin, who is also vice chancellor of Universiti Malaysia Perlis (Unimap) claims that the ranking methodologies favour older, more established universities. Yet many universities within the THES top 100 Asian universities were established relatively recently. Hong Kong University of Science and technology, ranked 7th was established in 1980, Nanyang Technological University, ranked 10th was set up in 1981, and Pohang University of Science and Technology, ranked 11th, was established in 1986.

When comparing performance to Malaysia’s neighbour, Thailand, King Mongkut’s University of Technology, established in 1960 made 55th place, and Mahidol University came in with 91st placing.

In addition, a number of universities from countries which are not democratically governed like Sharif University of Technology 43, Iran), Isfahan University of Technology (61, Iran), Iran University of Science and Technology (69), King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals (71, Saudi Arabia), and King Saud University (72, Saudi Arabia), all made the THES top 100 Asian university rankings last year.

Dr Kamarudin accepts that Malaysian universities have “many issues that must be resolved….(and) there are plenty of oversights that must be fixed”. However, unfortunately, he didn’t mention what they are, or offer any solutions.

World Bank economist Dr Frederico Gil Sander agrees with Kamarudin’s comment that the “stakes are high”, when he says that the poor state of Malaysia’s education system is more alarming that the country’s public debt. The talent needed to develop the Malaysian economy is not being produced.

Probably the tone used by Dr Kamarudin used in his article hints at the first problem with Malaysian public universities. That is, the view of authority over the rest. Kamarudin asserts that ‘academic freedom’ exists, yet this should be subject to the views of the ‘so called’ majority’, which could be read as authority. In August last year, he was one of the strongest opponents of students attending the Bersih 4 rally, threatening disciplinary action, such as suspension or even expulsion of students who attended from university.

Supressing independent thought, is counterproductive to creativity, critical thinking, and problem solving, the very mindset that Malaysian universities espouse to develop. Among the characteristics of society required for progression are people who are knowledgeable and have the right to choose.

This attitude by university leaders doesn’t appear to be isolated. Hazman Baharom called their attitude ‘aristocratic’, in reference to the partisan political leanings of Professor Sahol Hamid Abu Bakar, former vice Chancellor of Universiti Teknologi MARA (UiTM). This institutional arrogance can be seen in the proposal to educate students about the ills of ISIS. The underlying assumption being that Malaysian students are easily led and cannot think for themselves.

Malaysian universities begin to lose the plot where their leaders are glorified with unnecessary ceremonies that make a mockery of academia, and tend to dominate the persona of universities, rather than act as facilitators for people to excel.

This leads to a lot of unnecessary expenses such as lavish dinners with highly paid entertainers to celebrate this event and that event, this award and that award. Some of these dinners are very extravagant at some universities costing up to hundreds of thousands of Ringgit. Vice Chancellors make lavish trips both domestically and internationally, where the benefits of these trips to the university have not been scrutinized, except for MOUs that are never acted upon.

This is in a time when university budgets are being slashed, the minister has directed university management to be frugal with spending and seek funds outside government allocations, and the public are suffering economic hardships through the economic downturn, GST, and depreciated Ringgit.

The waste goes much further. Within the few parts of the Malaysian Auditor General’s report that is released to the public, the 2012 report cited Universiti Malaysia Sabah’s (UMS) mishandling of its computerized maintenance management system. After spending RM400,000 on the system between 2008 and 2012, the auditor general found that data was not keyed into the system and the person responsible for managing the system had no IT knowledge.

The cost of three building projects ballooned 8.9% at Universiti Tun Hussein Onn Malaysia (UTHM) due to delays and inexperience of the contractor.

The auditor general further found at Universiti Malaysia Perlis (Unimap) that funding allocations didn’t take into account the basic needs of students in the planning and construction of its main campus. Despite RM438.64 Million allocated for setting up Unimap under the 8th Malaysian Plan, only 25% of these campus plans have been completed, which university management blamed on budget constraints.

What is even more startling according to the AGs report is that Unimap made the first payment to the contractor working on the permanent campus before the contract was fully negotiated and signed. The report further states that workmanship is extremely poor, where cement in many places is cracking and crumbling, roads and parking areas where inappropriate, and much of the equipment supplied is not functioning.

According to the AGs report from 2002 to 2012 the university has no hostels of its own, and has been renting them and ferrying students to campus instead, which cost RM138.4 Million. As of 2015, Unimap entered into an arrangement with the Proven Group of Companies to supply additional privately owned accommodation at Titi Tinggi, some 35kms from Kangar and 40kms from the main campus at Ulu Pauh. Details of this agreement have never been made public, but Unimap will pay rent for 15 years for the use of this accommodation, but ownership will remain private after this period.

The Unimap-Proven venture is contrary to the Education Ministry’s vision of universities earning income through hostel rental to students. Thus in the medium to long term the university will be restricted in the ways it can earn revenue to fund future budget cuts.

Similar issues exist at Universiti Malaysia Kelantan (UMK) where the lack of student accommodation has led to severe overcrowding at hostels.

Mismanagement and waste is one issue, but outright corruption is another.

If one has spent any significant time within Malaysian academia, stories about corruption within the institution will no doubt arise. However, most, if not all of these remain hearsay, as there are few reports of corruption to higher authorities and very few charges are ever made, with no convictions made in this area.

Just some examples that have come to the writer’s attention are consultancy companies run and operated by a faculty, where directors and shareholders are the dean and deputy deans. Students have come forth and told the writer in confidence that examiners at master and PhD level ask outright for payments to pass. A particular dean of a new faculty, used a company owned by proxies to supply equipment. University cars have been sent to workshops for repairs that don’t exist. Academics are paying for articles to be published in academic journals without peer review, and the heavy use of research grants for travel that is questionably related to the research topic it was granted for.

University staff tend to be fearful of their superiors, most are extremely hesitant to speak out and whistle-blow on their peers and superiors. In an interview with a state director of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission, the writer was told that the MACC would provide a neutral and discrete place for those who wanted to remain anonymous and report corruption. However those few that came forward faced hurdles with the MACC that were almost insurmountable, such as being requested to file a police report which would jeopardize anonymity.

A major problem is the leadership of Malaysia’s public universities today. Vice chancellors tend to be domineering, not allowing too much room for dissent from their own faculty and university members. Often, staff are selected upon loyalty rather than merit, breeding a culture of gratitude within their institutions. Strong vice chancellors can browbeat the university board, and senate, getting their own way on operational issues, due to the transitory nature of university boards.

Universities within Malaysia have become dominated by vice chancellors who are intent on micromanaging their universities. The strong power-distance relationships that develop between the leader and subordinates in Malaysia is powerful enough to destroy many of the management checks and balances that exist to prevent mis-management and even abuse of power.

It’s time to re-organize Malaysian public universities from the top down. Not only is new leadership needed, but heavy reform of the university organization so that these institutions should function how they are really meant to. All importantly, vision beyond self-glorification is desperately needed by public university leadership.

Make this change and Malaysian universities will very quickly feature in the top 100 Asian university rankings.

Innovator and entrepreneur. Notable author, thinker and prof. Hat Yai University, Thailand Contact: murrayhunter58(at)gmail.com

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Southeast Asia

Malaysia’s Efforts in Improving Education: Lessons for Developing Countries

MD Staff

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Image from the Malaysian Times

Malaysia’s efforts to tackle education challenges, particularly through the establishment of a ‘delivery unit’ that tracks results, can help other countries seeking to improve implementation in the sector, says a new World Bank report.

The report, Improving Education Sector Performance: Lessons from the Delivery Unit Approach, highlights the role of the Education Performance and Delivery Unit, or PADU, under the Ministry of Education, in improving education outcomes, a key government priority.

The report examines how PADU facilitated program implementation and delivery of results through the Literacy and Numeracy Screening program, or LINUS. Unlike other interventions, the LINUS task force – comprised of several divisions – worked closely with agencies across government to provide an effective framework for coordination, tracking, monitoring and reporting.

“Following the World Bank’s analysis of the LINUS approach, we are glad to share the approach with other countries seeking to improve education outcomes,” said Dato’ Seri Mahdzir bin Khalid, Minister of Education. “As we progress, we will constantly refine ways of delivery and continue to engage relevant institutions such as the World Bank to gather feedback and improve implementation.”

The Government Transformation Program, announced in 2009, set improving education outcomes as a key priority, and a detailed plan in the Malaysian Education Blueprint followed.  Making improving education outcomes a national priority can elevate the profile, stakes, and resourcing for the initiative. Building in evaluations of impact into the program design would further bolster efforts to improve education outcomes.

“The delivery of the essentials of a thriving nation – better schools, healthcare, public transportation – is a mutual goal of all nations, but implementation is a common challenge. The delivery unit approach taken by Malaysia is a creative and effective way to address this challenge,” said Faris Hadad-Zervos, World Bank Group Representative to Malaysia. “This report distills useful lessons learnt in improving the performance of its education sector, and makes recommendations to bring Malaysia one step closer towards its aspirations of becoming a high-income country.”

The study is the latest installment in the World Bank Group’s Outbound Knowledge Report Series that curates, distils and disseminates Malaysia’s development experience. This report is part of the Malaysia Development Experience Series, which strives to capture key learnings from Malaysia that are relevant for developing countries around the globe as they transition out of poverty and into shared prosperity.

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Asia’s dark underbelly: Conflicts threaten long-term stability and development

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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A host of conflicts, stretching across the Asian landmass from the Middle East to Southeast Asia and northwest China, are likely to spark violence, complicate economic development, and dash hopes for sustainable stability.

The conflicts and tensions range from ethnic strife in Kurdish areas of Syria and Iran, mortally wounded Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts, embattled Baloch nationalism in Pakistan, disposed Rohingya in Southeast Asia, and widespread discontent in Iran, to iron-grip repression in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Xinjiang. Individually and collectively, they promise to create black swans and festering wounds that threaten economic growth and social development.

Stripped to their bare essence, the conflicts and tensions have one thing in common: a quest for either cultural, ethnic or national, or political rights or a combination of those, that governments not only refuse to recognize but are willing to suppress with brutal force.

Repression and military action are designed to suppress political, ethnic and/or national, and economic and social grievances in the false belief that a combination of long-term suppression and economic development will weaken ethnic and/or national and political aspirations as well as undermine dissent.

That is true in case of the Rohingya and Uyghurs as well as for brutal repression in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and northwest China, and military actions such as the Turkish intervention in Syria’s Afrin.

Problems in the Middle East and South Asia are aggravated by a debilitating struggle for regional hegemony between Saudi Arabia and Iran that threaten to destabilize the Islamic republic and Pakistan, have already produced a devastating war and a humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen, and are dragging the Horn of Africa into its orbit.

If history teaches anything, it is that only a minority of autocrats have achieved economic and social development. General Augusto Pinochet ensured that Chile is the only South American member of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), albeit at a high human cost, while Asia gave birth to tigers like South Korea and Taiwan.

Moreover, Asia’s multiple conflicts and tensions do not distract from the fact that by and large, the continent is flourishing economically.

History, however, also teaches that ethnic and/or national aspirations explode with vehemence the moment opportunity arises. Seventy years of communist rule in the Soviet Union failed to smother nationalist sentiment in parts of the empire like Chechnya and the Caucasus or erase nationalist differences between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Forty-seven years of communism did not prevent nationalist sentiment from breaking Yugoslavia apart in a series of bloody wars in the 1990s in the wake of the demise of the Iron Curtain.

Carved out of the ruins of the Ottoman empire, modern Turkey has failed to erase demands for Kurdish cultural, if not ethnic or national aspirations, through economic development and political integration based on the principle of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the visionary who founded the republic, that “happy is he who is a Turk.”

Similarly, Palestinian nationalism is alive and kicking 51 years into Israeli occupation of lands conquered during the 1967 Middle East war.

The aftermath of the 2011 Arab popular revolts, involving a concerted counterrevolution co-engineered by the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, has laid bare the essence of current conflicts and disputes: a determination of regimes to impose policies on minorities or states at whatever cost.

The UAE-Saudi-led diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar is a case in point as are Asia’s multiple ethnic conflicts. They erupt in a world in which post-colonial borders are being called into question in countries like Syria, Iraq, Libya, Myanmar and Pakistan.

The Rohingya, amid the dizzying array of ethnic and national conflicts stretching from the Middle East or West Asia to China in the East, exemplify the problem in, perhaps, its purest form. Potentially, the Rohingya could become Southeast Asia’s Palestine.

What makes the Rohingya unique is the fact that their aspiration, unlike Palestinians, Kurds, Baloch or Uyghurs, does not involve attachment to a specific piece of land despite a centuries-old history in the Myanmar state of Rakhine. That is also what potentially enables creative thinking about a solution that could open the door to innovative thinking about a multitude of other conflicts.

To many Rohingya, lingering in abysmal conditions in Bangladesh’s Cox Bazaar, after some 650,000 fled repression and terror in Myanmar, securing a sense of belonging on whatever territory that guarantees them protection from persecution as well as economic and social development, is more important than returning to an uncertain existence in Rakhine state. “All I want, is a place to which I can belong,” one refugee said.

Few Rohingya, analysts and officials believe that an agreement that in theory allows Rohingya in Bangladesh to return to Rakhine state will solve the problem. Even if the Rohingya were allowed to return in significant numbers, something that many doubt, nothing in Myanmar government policies and statements suggests that they would be anything more than a barely tolerated, despised ethnic group in a country that does not welcome them.

The makings of a Palestine-like conflict that would embroil not only Myanmar but also Bangladesh and that could spread its tentacles further abroad are evident. In a rare interview with Al Jazeera, Mohammed, a spokesman for the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) using a false name, predicted that suicide bombings constitute the next phase of their effort to secure a safe and stable existence.

The Falah-i-Insaniat Foundation, a charity associated with Lashkar-e-Taiba, one of South Asia’s deadliest groups, claimed in December that it had established operations in Rakhine state where it had distributed blankets and cash.

“We attacked them (the Myanmar military) because they refuse to give us our basic rights as citizens. Again and again, [the] Myanmar government lies to the world. They say they treat us well and give us rights, but they don’t. We are unable to travel from one place to another. We are not allowed to run a business. We are not allowed to go to university. The police and military use various way to suppress us. They beat, torture and humiliate us. That is why we decided to stand up,” Mohammed said.

Preventing the Rohingya issue from spiralling out of control and becoming a problem that can no longer be contained to a specific territory, much like the multitude of similar conflicts, disputes, and repression-based regime survival strategies across Asia, requires out-of-the box thinking. Short-term repression and efforts to impose one party’s will at best buys time and sets the scene for avoidable explosions.

With out-of-the-box thinking a rare commodity, nationalism and protectionism on the rise, and regimes, emboldened by an international community unwilling to stand up for basic rights, able to go to extremes like the use of chemical weapons against rebels in the Syrian province of Idlib, long-term prospects for stable and secure development in Asia are dimmed and potentially threatened by predictable black swans.

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Our teachers need a stern lesson

Rattana Lao

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Outspoken Thammasat graduate Rattana Lao has very definite ideas on how to reform the education system. (Photo courtesy Ms Rattana)

It is no surprise that our local news reports on education have usually been replete with how bad the Thai learning system is.

From a national perspective, the country’s recent Ordinary National Educational Test (O-Net) test results for Grade 12 students reveal the average scores are below par in all subjects. The only subject that the average score is higher than 50% in is Thai language. This does not mean the average quality of students’ Thai language competence is high or adequate.

The World Bank’s report provides a bleak picture of the level of Thai language attainment among students. Its report states that 32% of 15-year-old students in Thailand are “functionally illiterate”. This means their reading comprehension is so poor that they barely understand what they read, hence they even struggle to survive or cope with menial jobs.

When it comes to an international comparison, Thai students are falling behind their peers in Vietnam, Malaysia and Singapore. This is most evident in the Programme for International Students Assessment (Pisa) which evaluates the ability of randomly selected 15-year-old students to attain scientific literacy, reading literacy and mathematics literacy. Sadly, for the past 10 years, Thailand’s performance in the Pisa test has never met the world standard. The average 15-year-old Thai student is 1.5 years academically less competent than their peers in Vietnam.

Thai educators are well aware of how bad the system is. For decades, considerable energy, attention and resources have gone into education reform in order to revamp the system. However, the system has not changed much. Since the National Education Act was promulgated in 1999, the system is still heavily centralised and overtly unequal resulting in low academic achievement of students.

One of the main problems of the Thai education system is the rampant rote learning pedagogy. Thai classrooms apply a top-down approach that lacks interactive engagement with students. Teachers stand in front of the class with the expectation to know it all and be the masters of knowledge, while students are given limited engagement and thus show little enthusiasm.

To make matters worse, teachers are not always present in class. The Quality Learning Foundation reported that Thai teachers spend more than 42% of their time outside the classroom.

Worst of all, Thai schools are overloaded with demanding curriculums. Students are expected to know so many topics without being provided with substantive explanation or examples of difficult concepts. They are expected to learn through memorisation rather than understanding, or acquisition of knowledge.

In the recent bi-annual meeting of Anandamahidol scholars, Charas Suwanwela, President of the Education Reform Committee appointed by the current government, offers a compelling insight to the reform process. He highlighted why the two decades of education reform do not produce the needed result and what needs to be done.

Firstly, our education system must shift from a top-down approach to a bottom-up one. By all standards, the Thai system needs greater decentralisation. Reformers of the 1999 National Education Act were aware of this and put decentralisation at the forefront. However, realistically speaking, most — if not all — decisions and resource allocations still depend largely on the discretion of the Ministry of Education, which is heavily bureaucratised and highly hierarchical. Such reliance and dependency has limited the ability of educational service areas to be able to perform.

“To successfully implement any kind of reform, such effort must be bottom up where everyone owns it. As things stand, nobody is accountable for educational problems in Thailand. We all blame each other but nobody takes charge of how things must change”, Mr Charas said.

Greater participation of the public and private sectors is needed. For so long, educational responsibility has belonged to the state, which leaves the rest of the society inert and irresponsible for change. But education is the responsibility of every party: The state, schools, families, private sectors, communities and even temples. Everyone must participate to make a difference.

Second, there must be a renewed sense of hope for teachers and students.

“Teachers and students must be empowered to become active agents. For teachers, they must be motivated to constantly acquire new knowledge to inform and inspire students. While specialisation teachers in all subjects are needed, we do not have the resources to do so. Therefore, teachers must be eager and empowered to improve themselves”, Mr Charas said.

The heart of it all, however, is that students must be awakened. In the new era of digital technology, students cannot rely on top-down, rote learning and memorisation as the method of education. They must learn to be digitally literate so that they can acquire information on their own. A digital revolution is needed for students to learn online, on-air and on the ground.

Third, education reform must take the issue of inequality seriously. Prasarn Trairatvorakul, National Economic Reform Chairman, recently shared his vision of the state-run Equitable Education Fund that aims to address educational disparity.

“A new law is being drafted to mobilise [financial] resources from national budgets, donations and lottery profits to create an Equitable Education Fund in order to mitigate educational inequality,” Mr Prasarn said.

“The annual educational budget is around 500 billion baht. This new law will propose that 5% of that will be allocated precisely to offer educational resources to support the most marginalised and underprivileged in the country. Starting from early childhood education, this new fund aims to offer financial supports for students up to upper secondary schools.”

The system cannot be overhauled overnight. However, with vision, collaboration and real commitment, there is a beaming light of hope that education in Thailand might improve over time.

First published in Bangkok Post, repost under author’s permission

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