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.