October , 2014
Lame excuses for opting out of varsity rankings
by Dr. Kua Kia Soong@www.freemalaysiatoday.com
The reasons cited by Malaysian universities for not participating in the Times Higher Education Supplement’s Top 400 World University Rankings (THES) are suspect and unbecoming of a country that has launched its visionary Education Blueprint. In the words of the Prime Minister:
“Education is a major contributor to the development of our social and economic capital. It inspires creativity and fosters innovation; provides our youth with the necessary skills to be able to compete in the modern labour market; and is a key driver of growth in the economy. And as this Government puts in place measures under the New Economic Model, Economic Transformation Plan and Government Transformation Plan to place Malaysia firmly on the path to development, we must ensure that our education system continues to progress in tandem. By doing so, our country will continue to keep pace in an increasingly competitive global economy.”
In the THES World University Rankings 2012-2013, not a single Malaysian university was included in its Top 400 list for the second consecutive year.
For local universities to cite a lack of funds as the cause for this demise is rather lame when education expenditure in recent decades has been prodigious. The Malaysian Government has sustained high levels of investment in education over the 55 years since Independence, and according to the Education Blueprint:
“As early as 1980, the Malaysian federal government’s spending on primary and secondary education, as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), was the highest in East Asia. In 2011, the amount spent, at 3.8% of GDP or 16% of total government spending, was not only higher than the OECD average of 3.4% of GDP and 8.7% of total public spending respectively, but also at par with or more than top-performing systems like Singapore, Japan, and South Korea (Exhibit 1). In 2012, with an education budget of RM37 billion, the Government has continued to devote the largest proportion of its budget, 16% to the Ministry. This demonstrates the very real commitment the Government has to education as a national priority.”
In last year’s budget speech, the Prime Minister said the government would ensure that the implementation of the National Education Blueprint achieves the objective of placing Malaysia in the top one-third category of the world’s best education within a span of 15 years.
As a result, the education sector received the biggest allocation out of all the other sectors with RM54.6 billion or 21 per cent provided in Budget 2014 in an effort to enhance educational excellence.
The Prime Minister said the government would focus on strengthening public and private higher learning institutions towards producing quality graduates who met the demands of the job market.
He said RM600 million would be provided in research grants to public institutions of higher learning in the quest to improve the status of research universities by increasing research and the number of articles for publications in international journals.
Malaysia’s McKinsey-commissioned Education Blueprint liberally cites international student assessments, such as the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), as a means of directly comparing the quality of educational outcomes across different systems.
Likewise, at the tertiary level of education, the THES is a gauge of academic excellence that compares the performance of universities across the globe in research, teaching and quality of education in their campuses.
For UM to claim that it is “not yet in a strong enough financial position to compete with richer, older and better-ranked universities” is disingenuous when we bear in mind that UM and NUS both come from the same pedigree. (NUS is among the world’s top 20.) They started as one university in 1949.
Politicians and academicians alike would do well to read Hena Mukherjee & Poh Kam Wong’s excellent paper on “NUS/UM: Common Roots, Different Paths” (2014 Centre for Human Resources Development, Vietnam) to draw lessons from the experiences of the two universities: their missions post-independence; the thrust of the secondary school system in preparing students for tertiary education; their strategies for institutional management, nurturing of undergraduate and postgraduate students, and academic staffing; policies regarding internationalisation of students and faculty; and their inter-connections with global advances.
The history of UM demonstrates that politics and national-level policies can severely constrain the institutional development of a public university. This can have significant long-term consequences in terms of limiting its capacity and culture to pursue academic excellence and ability to compete internationally.
The victimising of academics and students for merely commenting on national issues such as the controversial Sedition Act shows that the authorities also need to win the hearts and minds of the major stakeholders, viz. lecturers and students in order to inculcate a new vibrant culture on campus.
Student leaders would be unwise to support the move to opt out of the THES ranking since there is no valid reason for any university in the world to pursue excellence at the expense of quality of education and a culture of academic and student autonomy. Participation in varsity rankings is intended to drive academic institutions towards improved quality rather than, as has been suggested, as a mechanism that degrades the quality of education and campus culture for students.
Malaysian universities would do well to sustain efforts that use world rankings as a benchmark and source of motivation for progress. The government should stop using “transformation” merely as a buzz word but inspire our local universities to match a new vision and new targets. Doesn’t transformation suggest an ante- and post-facto comparison?
As with the other national targets, it is ultimately one that requires the political will to stay the course over the long term. And to stay the course, our universities need an objective gauge to compare academic excellence and the quality of educational outcomes across different systems. Thus, dropping out of the THES varsity ranking is simply not an option.
Kua Kia Soong is an adviser to SUARAM