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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.

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 Companiesto 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-glorificationis desperately needed by public university leadership.

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

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About the Author

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

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