Much has been written about Malaysian universities especially in light of the 2007 Times Higher Education Supplement World’s Universities Rankings (“THES 2007”). While a slide in standing of Malaysian universities in the list is certainly cause for concern, there is a need to guard against taking knee-jerk actions to improve the scores used in the rankings. After all, great universities are not built overnight. Measures such as an overnight increase in intake of foreign students and lecturers and accepting more postgraduate students in Malaysian universities may increase the scores of Malaysian universities used by the compilers of the Times Higher Education Supplement in the short term. But such steps need to be implemented in a careful and thoughtful manner. It simply will not do to have a wholesale addition of foreign and postgraduate students if these students are not good candidates who are able to raise the academic standards in local tertiary institutions. Similarly, in the quest to internationalise Malaysian universities, overseas faculty members who are recruited ought to be eminently qualified and not third or fourth tier academics who are unable to find jobs in their home countries.
There are many reasons why Malaysian universities are not highly placed in an international ranking exercise like the one conducted by the Times Higher Education Supplement. These include the relatively low percentage of PhD qualifications among faculty members, the uncompetitive salaries of university dons, the brain drain of talent etc. Such factors are certainly important and ought to be addressed if Malaysia is serious about developing internationally renowned tertiary institutions. Further, I believe Malaysian universities ought to embark on a radical reform of the tenure process. It has been reported that top Chinese universities have already begun to re-look at their tenure process and re-model it along the lines of the American tenure system. Why is reform of the tenure process so important? It is vital because an American tenure system provides academics with the proper incentives to conduct and publish research. After all, at the end of the day all modern universities are judged in the academic world by the research that it produces. If Malaysia wants world class universities, then it must develop universities that produce an internationally respected research output.
How can the American tenure system promote a better research culture in Malaysian universities? Tenure is an indefinite award of appointment given to an academic until he or she reaches the age of retirement. As such, the award of tenure ought to be a rigorous process; tenure should be granted only to deserving candidates who have a track record of producing good research work. While the American tenure process is far from perfect, I believe that it is the only system which is transparent and places the correct emphasis on research. Young academics are therefore assured that they will be judged by their research work and thus less worried of faculty or university politics affecting their career progression.
Although the American tenure process needs to be adapted to local conditions, the core features if implemented in Malaysia would provide young local academics with the incentives to publish. In a nutshell before an academic is granted tenure, he or she should go through the following process:
(a) the candidate should have established a measure of international reputation in the academic community. Benchmarks of such a reputation include publications in international refereed journals and citations of their work by other academics.
(b) The candidate’s body of work should be read and assessed by a team of independent referees outside the university. The way the referees are chosen is also important. In an American tenure system, the candidate names a list of 4 – 5 referees and the University’s Promotion Committee names another panel of 4 – 5 external referees. The Dean or Head of the University’s Promotion Committee will choose either 2 to 3 names from each list and ask the referees to prepare a report on the quality of candidate’s work.
(c) The referees should be internationally known experts in the field. Former PhD supervisors and persons with close connections to the candidate ought to be precluded from acting as referees.
(d) The referees’ reports should be sent to an external committee outside the faculty. The ultimate decision to award tenure ought to rest on this external tenure committee to ensure impartiality.
While this process is quite tedious and time consuming, I believe that it is a process that is worthwhile implementing. By having such a rigorous process before tenure is granted, young academics would have to publish good articles if they want to earn tenure. Of course, the tenure process needs to be fine-tuned and adapted to local conditions. For example, it might not be possible for an academic specializing in local history to achieve international prominence. However, the prima facie case for tenure ought to be evidence of an international reputation. The tenure process also frees young academics from the fear that promotions are based on local faculty politics as the process is conducted by a panel of external referees and a committee outside the faculty.
It would take a brave Vice-Chancellor to institute such a radical tenure reform in Malaysia. After all, change is never popular as most people do like the status quo. Nevertheless, I believe that this process must happen if Malaysian universities intend to be a major player in the international academic community. Such a step if taken will help re-focus Malaysian tertiary institutions to one of the core missions of a modern university i.e. the production of good quality research work.