The Tempinis diaries

November 11, 2007

THES University Rankings: Why am I not surprised?

Filed under: education — Tags: , , , — toru @ 6:55 am

The annual silly season is here!  The Times Higher Education Supplement Rankings has just been released.  Universities which moved up the rankings are gleefully trumpeting their positions and institutions which plummeted are in damage control mode.  Vice Chancellors and Presidents of universities ought to be mindful not to get carried away in gloating about their improved positions.  One who lives by rankings will eventually die by rankings.  Recall the ill fated UM Vice Chancellor of UM who proudly put up billboards all over campus when UM was ranked in the top 100 of the THES rankings only to see UM drop to oblivion in the following year’s rankings (see ). 

This year NUS dropped from 18 to 33 whereas Malaysian universities continued their nose dive (UM (246), UKM (289) and USM(307)).  While any rankings of universities ought to be taken with a huge pinch of salt (the rankings seem to be too UK centric), my own sense is that the rankings of the Singaporean and Malaysian universities are about right this time.  NUS was probably ranked too high in the past and its perfectly respectable position of 33 in the world seems to reflect its proper standing in the world.  The decline in rankings for Malaysian universities also accurately reflects the sorry state of higher education in Malaysia. I remember as an undergraduate and postgraduate student, I would hardly ever come across any articles published in international journals by Malaysian academics.  Those that I did stumble upon were usually quite poorly written.  Like it or not, universities nowadays are judged by their research output.  If a university is not producing internationally respected research work, it is inevitable that its reputation will suffer.

What then is the problem with Malaysian universities?  As I see it, the problem is both a systemic problem and a funding issue.  The systemic problem is that universities in Malaysia are not run in a meritocratic fashion both in terms of recruitment and promotion of faculty members and student admissions.  It is no secret in Malaysia that Bumiputras get preferential treatment as faculty members and admission as students.   In the long term, this model makes Malaysian universities uncompetitive internationally.  World class universities need to be run in a meritocratic fashion.  You need to hire and promote the best person for the job regardless of race and nationality and you need to admit the most qualified students.  Otherwise people will leave and the institution will suffer.  And they have.  Just take a look at NUS.  NUS hires the best person for the job regardless of nationality.  It was reported that 52 % of their faculty members are non-Singaporeans.  It is no wonder that NUS has progressed so far as compared to their Malaysian counterparts.  NUS taps into the global talent market whereas Malaysia is not even able to tap into the best of their local talent pool.

For a university to succeed, it is important to create an environment where the production of good quality research is valued.  You should have a system where you give out tenure and make people professors because they produce research that your university is proud of.  You should not promote people because of their race or the fact that they politic well or become deans or vice deans.  Research is hard work.  If people know they can get promoted by other means other than doing research, they will. Quite apart from the problem of not practising meritocracy, there are a lot of other systemic problems in Malaysian universities.  Malaysian universities have terrible infra-structure (old buildings / hostels / terrible accommodation for visiting staff etc) as compared to American and Singapore universities.  One should not underestimate the importance of these factors.  Take the point of providing proper accommodation for visiting staff.  If you have no respectable and comfortable premises for your visiting guests, who will want to come to your university to teach for a semester or two?  Such visiting guests are important.  Eminent visitors expose students to world class faculty members and they energise local faculty members.  One becomes better by working with someone who is a leader in the field.  Another example of the systemic problem which exists is that it is next to impossible to get a working permit for a foreign spouse in Malaysia.  How then does Malaysia expect to recruit international faculty members who have spouses who might want to work?  It is quite unreasonable to expect their spouses to just sit at home and take care of their kids.   

Apart from the systemic problem, there is also the funding issue.  I think the Vice Chancellor of UM is right in saying that UM cannot compete globally because it is too poorly funded (RM 400 million as opposed to NUS’ S$ 1.2 billion).  If a university is poorly funded, how can that university afford: (a) to buy the latest lab equipment; (b) to stock up on a good library;  and (c) to hire good people?  I am told that the starting pay for academics in Malaysia is quite paltry.  How then can Malaysian universities hire the top student in each cohort to become their faculty member?  And why would any internationally respected academic want to come to Malaysia to work for such paltry salary?  But I do agree with Tony and Kian Ming (see here ) that the solution does not lie in just throwing money at the universities.  If the systemic problem of not hiring the best person for the job is not resolved, money will not solve the problem.

Can anything be done to arrest the decline of Malaysian universities?  I really don’t know.  The Bumiputra system is so entrenched in the country that anytime one questions it, we will have some nut case waving a Kris at the UMNO general assembly screaming blue murder.  It seems that Malaysia has reached some sort of cross road on this issue.  One is to change.  Run the top universities in the country like UM and UKM on a purely meritocratic system.  Hire the best people for the job.  And recruit the best students for these universities.  Perhaps, the other universities can still continue to practice Bumiputra-ism but at least there will still be the hope of pockets of excellence in the country.  This is a bitter political pill to swallow.  But I believe that it is worth going down this route.  The decline of Malaysian universities will eventually hurt Bumiputras.  So what if you get more Bumiputras in UM or UKM, if all you get is a mediocre education that is not internationally competitive.  The second option is just to accept status quo.  Do nothing.  But accept that Malaysian universities will keep on going down.  And don’t act so surprised every year when the rankings come out.

I have to end this post with the following observation that I have made in previous posts.  Nothing I have said here is meant to disparage alumni or students of Malaysian universities.  As I have written before, if you are good it doesn’t really matter too much where you went to university (although it does help open quite a few doors at the beginning of your career). 


  1. You should split your post into few paragraphs for easier reading. 🙂

    That aside, well written and couldn’t agree more.

    Comment by Jason — November 11, 2007 @ 7:34 am

  2. Truly agree on your last paragraph

    Comment by Freethinker — November 11, 2007 @ 8:08 am

  3. Excellent blog. I seems that you have done plenty of research on the issue and present it in an analytical report. Sadly the ministers and VC in Malaysia are still engulfed in the denial syndrome without the proper action taken. Most were ‘talk and no work’.

    Comment by Xan — November 12, 2007 @ 12:05 pm

  4. I am doing PHD here in Malaysia and have studied in 2 countries before.

    Regarding the weaknesses of Malaysian universities I want to admit all those problems.

    – The quality of education in Malaysia (at least in USM which has been called the best this year) is very weak. Lecturers are sometimes not aware of the most basic concepts of their field. It is shocking for me to see this. In my own country most of the lecturers have done their PHD in US system (at least 9 PHD level courses + PHD qualification exam + thesis). In the school I am working except 2 lecturers all others have done their PHDs in British system. I looked at every single of them. Not even one of the 35 lecturers have done their PHD in a university which appears in Thes 200 list.

    This is a Disaster!

    As a result (of not covering those 8-10 PHD courses) these lecturers have a very narrow knowledge around their research thesis and nothing more.

    – Selection: I am coming from 2nd university of my country (quality wise) and because that university was very tough my average (despite I was the 2nd best student in my graduation year) is around 2.9/4. School had asked me to pass 2 prerequisite courses before starting research. I regret that when I attended the lecture I saw sometimes I know much more than the lecturer about that subject!! Lecturers did not have deep knowledge in the subject.

    In my country the school had 75 years of experience in that field but had 20-25 PHD students (and 35-40 PHD, AP and Prof. lecturers) but here in USM the department has 170 PHD and Masters by research students (No professor, 8 AP and remaining are PHD)

    – Supervisors here sometimes have 15 PHD and Masters by research students. How is this possible? You calculate how much time will be allocated to each student, specially that lecturers have courses too.

    – I do not speak about racial based problems in the school as I am a foreigner.

    – Any way I regret of doing my research degree here (as I know it does not have much value). I wish I had money to do it in my own or another country.

    – In USM people in my school seem to be unaware of ISI. In my country papers outside ISI publications have definitely no value. Here I look into lecturers Resume and see some of them do not have even a single ISI paper.

    – The school has accepted hundreds of students from specific countries (which I do not name) and those students (in school of computer science) do no how to program. A PHD student here (coming from one of those countries) says I can not do Java or C, I only know Visual Basic!!!

    He wants to become a PHD in computer science, go back to his country and say I have my PHD from USM and I just know visual Basic!!!

    Then you will be surprised why people say USM’s quality is crap (no one will suspect after speaking with our computer PHD friend which does not even know a proper programming language)

    By the way most of these students (coming from those countries) have averages above 3/4 !!!

    – With this kind of quality it is not strange for me that we do not have ISI papers and we do not do serious research. We just pretend to do research.

    Comment by Someone — November 13, 2007 @ 8:30 am

  5. […] there are a lot of things wrong with Malaysian universities;  as I have explained in my previous post , these problems are both systemic and also a question of inadequate funding .  However, these […]

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  6. If you notice the details, NUS individual rankings are all in top 10 or top 20. The only thing which pulled them down, is staff to student ratio.

    So, ultimately, NUS is still top 20 in the world.

    Comment by booku — November 29, 2007 @ 8:09 am

  7. […] talented individuals, it needs to start thinking of these soft factors and how to overcome the systemic problems faced by Malaysian universities.  An example of how Malaysia is really amateurish in […]

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  8. […] 2, 2007 In my previous post, I blogged about how the quota system (in terms of student admissions and faculty promotions) is […]

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  9. THES is not a perfect ranking, but it is a good indicator. Malaysian Univ is not there, because of many reasons. If it is there, then is a surprise. To be a top univ, must have a fair practice first!

    Comment by kelvin — June 19, 2008 @ 2:59 pm

  10. Ranking is not everything. There are other social requirements to fulfill. We will never compete with the class leading universities considering the amount of money they are spending on research and infrastructure.

    Comment by salam — December 19, 2008 @ 8:29 am

  11. i like this article so much , i saw link to university ranking it called eduroute i like it too

    Comment by may — September 27, 2009 @ 12:03 pm

  12. University rankings are important but individual school/faculty ranking should be given higher emphasise.

    Comment by Berry Berry Easy — October 29, 2009 @ 6:21 pm

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