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The Disgrace of Malaysian University Education
Malaysia’s public universities have dropped completely out of the World University Rankings maintained by the Times of London. Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia was ranked 87th in the top 100 Asian rankings in 2013, but has since fallen out. Not a single Malaysian university made the top 100 Asian rankings.
The collapse of higher education in Malaysia has grown so marked that World Bank economist Dr Frederico Gil Sander recently said the state of the system is more alarming than the country’s considerable public debt. The talent needed to develop the Malaysian economy is not being produced.
It isn’t just the Times survey. Malaysian public universities have also shown mixed results in other surveys like the QS rankings,where three Malaysian universities rose slightly while Universiti Teknologi Malaysia, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, International Islamic Universiti Malaysia, and Universiti Teknologi MARA, all slipped. Not a single 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, with no Malaysian university even reaching the top 400.
Public Universities Vice-Chancellor/Rector Committee chairman Kamarudin Hussin, also vice chancellor of Universiti Malaysia Perlis (Unimap) claims that the ranking methodologies favor older, more established universities. Yet many universities within the 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 1991, and Pohang University of Science and Technology, ranked 11th, was established in 1986.
Even ideologically governed schools better
In addition, a number of universities from countries that are not democratically, governed like Sharif University of Technology (43rd, 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 top 100 Asian university rankings last year.
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.
Probably the tone Kamarudin used in his article hints at the first problem – the view that authority takes precedence. Kamarudin asserts that academic freedom exists, but should be subject to the views of the so called “majority,” which could be read as authority. In August last year, Kamarudin 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.
Independent thought suppressed
Supressing independent thought is counterproductive to creativity, critical thinking and problem solving, the very mindset that Malaysian universities seek to develop. Among the characteristics required are people who are knowledgeable and have the right to choose.
Malaysian universities begin to lose the plot where their leaders are glorified with unnecessary ceremonies that 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 unnecessary expenses such as lavish dinners with highly paid entertainers to celebrate this or that event, this award or that. Some of these dinners are very extravagant, costing up to hundreds of thousands of ringgit. Vice chancellors make lavish trips both domestically and internationally, with no apparent benefit to the universities 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 and seek funds outside government allocations.
The waste goes much further. The Malaysian Auditor General’s 2012 report, for instance, cited Universiti Malaysia Sabah’s (UMS) mishandling of its computerized maintenance management system. After the university spent RM400,000 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 percent 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 the allocation of RM438.64 million for setting up Unimap under the 8th Malaysian Plan, only 25 percent of the campus plans have been completed, which university management blamed on budget constraints.
What is even more startling according to the 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, cement in many places is cracking and crumbling, roads and parking areas are inappropriate and much of the equipment supplied is not functioning.
According to the report, from 2002 to 2012 the university had no dormitories and has been renting them and ferrying students to campus instead, at a cost of RM138.4 million. In 2015, Unimap arranged with the Proven Group of Companies to supply additional privately owned accommodation at Titi Tinggi, some 35 km from Kangar and 40 km from the main campus at Ulu Pauh. Details of the agreement have never been made public, but Unimap will pay rent for 15 years for the use of this accommodation, but ownership will continue to remain private.
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.
Any significant time spent within Malaysian academia will produce stories about corruption. 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.
Just some examples that have come to the writer’s attention are consultancy companies run and operated by faculty, with deans and deputy deans as directors and shareholders. Students have told the writer in confidence that examiners at master’s 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 questionable travel is common.
University staff tend to be fearful of their superiors, most extremely hesitant to blow the whistle 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 discreet 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.
Domineering vice chancellors
A major problem is leadership. Vice chancellors tend to be domineering, not allowing room for dissent from their own faculty and university members. Often staff are selected on loyalty rather than merit. Strong vice chancellors can browbeat the university board and get 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 is powerful enough to destroy many of the management checks and balances that exist to prevent mismanagement 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 organization so that these institutions should function as they are meant to. All importantly, vision beyond self-glorification is desperately needed by public university leadership.
Murray Hunter is an Australian academic who recently taught at a Malaysian university