Damned if you do …
by Zaharom Nain. Posted on August 28, 2011, Sunday
I REALLY can’t remember how it all started. But start it did a few years back, with Malaysian mainstream newspapers, especially, publishing the sad yearly figures as they were released.
I’m talking about the World University Rankings, of course. Rankings, which, over the past few years, have been used by many to gauge how pathetically our universities have slipped down the international ladder. And, in a wider sense, some argue, rankings which also indicate problems with – if not the failure of – the Malaysian education system.
And so it was for years on end – ongoing accounts of our public universities slipping further out of sight, even among the rankings of Asian universities.
Something needed to be done, of course, because although some bright spark local VC did question the validity of the ranking methodology, other international rankings also gave the same sad story.
After all, we – or rather the government – had planned to make Malaysia the education hub of the region. And, more recently, there’s also been talk of moving us higher up the international economic ladder, beyond a middle-income country.
So, our public universities, plus our local education ‘minders’, such as the Ministry of Higher Education (MOHE) and, of course, the Malaysian Qualifications Agency (MQA), set about figuring out suitable responses to ‘improve’ this state of affairs.
After all, as the CEO of the MQA himself has noted: “With increasing cost and global access and competitiveness, students, parents, employers and funders demand to be assured of the quality outcomes of higher education. Indeed the demand has gone beyond fulfilling threshold minimum requirements but to exceed them. Ignore quality and we will be ignored.”
But, we must remember, this is 1Malaysia Bolehland.
So, apart from some top university administrators genuinely attempting to address the very real problems of declining standards, we have had many more others devising ways of minimising the need for reform.
Evidently genuine reform would seem rather difficult and would make these administrators unpopular – among their staff and, possibly, unpopular among top politicians and particular ethnic communities.
Hence, working on the principle that attack is the best form of defence, when their universities kept sliding down the rankings, these people continued to query and criticise the evaluation methods of the ranking bodies.
They supplemented these critiques with proposals that included the possibility that we have separate rankings for Asia, substituting ‘rating’ for ‘ranking’ and even refused to submit their universities to the ranking exercise.
Unfortunately, the problem just didn’t go away. Indeed, even when the field was reduced to just ranking within Asia, the results weren’t exactly encouraging, with our universities falling behind not only universities in Singapore and Hong Kong, but also, god forbid, a couple from Thailand.
So, it’s been back to the drawing board for many of our public universities, especially with the added pressure of private ones with an established pedigree from England and Australia coming to our shores.
It is within this context that the recent brouhaha regarding Malaysia’s oldest university, Universiti of Malaya (UM), needs to be seen. Many of us in higher education had heard about the grumblings within a section of the academic staff in MU for awhile now.
Initially the complaint was about the need to publish in journals which, some argued, disadvantaged those in the social sciences and humanities who publish more book chapters and books than in journals. But apparently negotiations enabled this to be taken into account within UM.
Now UM has crept up the international rankings, indicating to some of us that the age-old maxim of ‘publish or perish’ seems to have worked for them thus far.
But, really, the problem doesn’t appear to lie there, but more with the reluctance, inability even, of some to get themselves published anywhere in the first place. This is a problem not only in UM but in other local universities as well.
Indeed, in one university I am familiar with, while there are clearly attempts to ‘move’ long-dormant academic staff to publish, when this fails, the tendency is to depend heavily on what is called ‘golden goose’ staff – the few who research and then publish consistently in top-tier journals.
Of course this cannot be sustained in the long-run. And we all know that in the public sector even unproductive staff cannot easily be terminated. But, of course, they can be bypassed during promotion exercises. And it is this strategy that has evidently led to the grumblings in a university like UM.
Meritocracy obviously raises dissension in a Malaysian environment that still emphasises a culture of bodek-ism and what some have called kulitocracy.
There’s hence talk that these grumblings, as is typical of Malaysia, also have taken on ethnic dimensions. This has happened when those who find themselves disadvantaged and under increasing pressure to now prove their academic worth play the pathetic ethnic card in desperation; the very same people whose leaders in university wish to remain popular hence make excuses for them.
For these ‘leaders’, the problem is not with their lazy staff, but with – often western – definitions of what constitutes ‘quality’ and ‘productivity’.
It is this cauldron that someone like the UM head finds himself in. The minister concerned has come to his support. But one can’t help but notice the deafening silence from the other VCs thus far.
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