Monday, July 20, 2015

A world class Malaysian university

What would it take for a Malaysian university to be among the top 100 universities in Asia? The Times Higher Education World University Rankings compares university performance across their core missions - teaching, research, knowledge transfer and international outlook using 13 performance indicators. There is no Malaysian university in the top 100 in Asia compared to two universities from Singapore and surprisingly two from Thailand.


What is preventing our universities from being globally competitive? Surely it is not the shortage of resources: Malaysian public universities received almost 25% of the total expenditure on education and training (about RM 12 billion in 2013). Yet surveys show that more than 25% of university graduates in 2012 had not secured a job 6 months after graduation. At the same time, Malaysian employers are lamenting a shortage of talent as a major constraint in growing their business. There is evidently a mismatch between what the local universities are producing and what the labor market needs leading to underemployment and frustration amongst university graduates. Many of them turn to the public sector for employment which means that the public sector is not attracting the best and brightest talent.


Then there are the over 56,000 Malaysian students studying in foreign universities, many of whom are likely to be excellent students and a number of whom are also sponsored through Government scholarships. There are no publicly available tracer studies on the career prospects of these students and their competitiveness in the labor market compared to the graduates of Malaysian universities (one can however speculate that they are likely to be more competitive). Access to university education for young Malaysians is unequal and largely influenced by household income: while 40% of young adults from the top quintile of Malaysians (by household income) have a university degree, only 5% from the bottom 60% have a degree.


The challenge for Malaysia therefore is both to expand opportunities for all Malaysians to have a university education as well as improve the quality and relevance of university education. There are obvious areas for improvement focusing on creating a more meritocratic and open culture in universities. This requires a fundamental reform of the university system starting with the Ministry of Higher Education. However that may be too ambitious an undertaking and it may be more pragmatic to focus efforts on one university as a pilot. This would require revamping the university leadership, recruiting and rewarding the best academics and researchers irrespective of their origin or ethnicity, selecting the best qualified students and establishing a culture of excellence in research and teaching, learning from the best experiences in the world. Above all, the Government needs to realize that throwing more money at the current system and seeking band aid fixes without fundamental reforms is unlikely to get any lasting or meaningful impacts.

Malaysians deserve better education

The Low Yat incident has brought into sharp focus how our education system is failing Malaysians. Half of Malaysian 15 year olds are functionally illiterate. At the same time, half of Malaysian employers in a recent survey identified the shortage of talent as a constraint for future economic growth. The under-schooled youth end up in the job market with low basic numeracy and literacy skills and with little if any communication or problem-solving abilities. Yet they live in a society that is visibly prosperous and of course they want their share of the good life. Being unemployed or under employed, this group of Malaysian youth is ripe for recruitment by the criminal fringe elements which promise them the wealth and status that they know they cannot get otherwise.

Clearly the national educational system has failed these Malaysian youth. While we lament over how poorly Malaysian kids are performing in global standardized testing, there is a clear correlation between socio-economic status and educational performance with the schools catering for poorer Malaysians being more likely to be under resourced and under managed. Access is still a challenge: about a third of kids from rural households live more than 5 km away from the nearest secondary school.

The quality of teaching and school leadership and management remains a significant challenge. The respect and social status enjoyed by teachers and school heads has eroded over the years. The blatant politicization of the educational system has not only marginalized non-Malay teachers and parents but also disillusioned all teachers who are committed to excellence. Mediocrity and group thinking in schools has overshadowed innovation and passion and it is not surprising that the cream of Malaysian school leavers do not view teaching as a preferred career option. Most tragically, the education system has failed in creating an integrated, inclusive Malaysian society and is more ethnically and socially polarized today than at independence.
The Low Yat rioters and the many others like them, irrespective of ethnicity, are a product of a school system that is simply broken. Clearly it is not a problem of a lack of resources but effectiveness of delivery and results. In 2013, the Government spent about RM54 billion on education and training of which around 10% was on post-secondary technical, vocational training and labor market programs. It is time we take a hard look at the effectiveness of this considerable public spending.  To start with perhaps we need a more reform minded Minister of Education who has a stellar track record as an educationist and who is committed to excellence irrespective of ethnicity and political affiliations.