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Why Malaysian universities are performing poorly

By Murray Hunter - posted Monday, 11 January 2016


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.

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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 agreeswith 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.  

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Malaysian universities begin to lose the plot where their leaders are glorifiedwith unnecessary ceremoniesthat 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 entertainersto 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.

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About the Author

Murray Hunter is an associate professor at the University Malaysia Perlis.

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All articles by Murray Hunter

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