For all the spilt ink on how to improve Malaysian universities, the initiatives that ought to be undertaken are quite obvious. The challenge is whether there is the political will to implement these initiatives and whether the universities can find a good man or woman to carry out these moves firmly yet being sensitive to the local culture of the universities. The story on NUS below presents an excellent case study for Malaysian universities. Malaysians should get over their pride and learn from Singapore.
Also, politicians should try not to interfere with the day to day running of universities. They should appoint a good man or woman and leave him or her alone for a few years. Ideally, a Vice Chancellor should stay for at least six years. It takes 3 – 4 years for a batch of students to graduate. For any initiatives to bear fruit, we have to be patient and let the Vice Chancellor do his or her work. Shih Choon Fong of NUS stayed as the President for 8 years.
In summary, these initiatives are:
(a) abolish (or lessen) the quota system for recruitment of staff and student;
(b) make publications in international refereed journals the key performance indicator for staff;
(c) benchmark pay to publications and research output. This will make it possible to pay younger research active staff more over their less productive colleagues;
(d) make the pay more competitive internationally with respect to research active staff;
(e) sign meaningful research collaboration and student exchange programmes with respected universities;
(f) hire internationally. The best person should be recruited for the job regardless of race and nationality. To do this, the pay has to be competitive internationally;
(g) hire faculty with strong PhDs. Pre-existing staff should be sent to respected universities for their PhDs; and
(h) implement a tenure and professorial system whereby external referees from respected institutions would have a significant input on the quality of the research of the candidate. The quality of research should be the determinative factor in awarding tenure or professorship.
How tough treatment made NUS one of best
Sandra Davie , EDUCATION CORRESPONDENT
May 23, 2005
THERE was a time at the National University of Singapore when the name Shih Choon Fong was bad news.
The man who took over five years ago from long-time vice-chancellor Lim Pin seemed to be making people unhappy with every move he made.
Academic staff were plain sore. There were pay-cut shocks. Promotions were harder to come by. There was a new emphasis on academics getting published, or else. Many familiar faces at Kent Ridge quit.
The rumblings of discontent got so bad, they even reached Parliament.
The then chairman of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Education, Dr Wang Kai Yuen, accused Professor Shih of turning established norms of employment upside down.
Staff morale had sunk, he said, and longtime staff were being replaced by foreigners.
But Professor Shih, who called himself NUS president, stood his ground. Yes, some had resigned. But many more had joined, and from the best universities overseas.
NUS was remaking itself to play in the premier league and for that, he said, it needed star players.
If some didn’t grasp what he was talking about, it finally became clear last November.
Seemingly from out of nowhere, NUS emerged at No. 18 in The Times of London’s ranking of the world’s best universities.
Even loyal alumni were surprised.
As expected, American institutions took seven of the top 10 positions, with Harvard University at No. 1.
But few expected NUS to be not only in the top 20, but also ahead of well-known names such as Cornell and Columbia in the United States, McGill University in Canada, Melbourne University in Australia and the French Ecole Polytechnique.
‘NUS, the 18th best university in the world? How on earth did a university in little Singapore manage that?’ went one incredulous online posting.
But to NUS leaders, this was the payoff for years of strategising, hard work and tough decisions geared towards putting the university on the world’s academic map.
For its ranking exercise, the Times Higher Education Supplement placed half the weight on a university’s ‘intellectual vitality’, which was measured by these four indicators:
HOW REGULARLY original research done by staff is cited by other academics – and there are publications that track this.
THE RATIO of professors to students;
SUCCESS in attracting foreign students; and SUCCESS in attracting internationally renowned academics.
When deciding on a university’s standing, once those factors were added up, equal weight was given to a fifth indicator – what academics elsewhere had to say about it.
For this input, about 1,300 academics in 88 countries were asked to name the best institutions in their fields.
Supplement editor John O’Leary said the five indicators were chosen to reflect strength in teaching, research and international reputation, with the greatest influence exerted by those in the best position to judge: the academics.
A former NUS don said he had to admit now that Prof Shih ‘knew the game well’. This was a result of Prof Shih’s years as an academic at Harvard and Brown universities in the US before returning to Singapore in 1998.
‘Looking back now, some of the measures Prof Shih took were what was needed to give NUS a powerful kick-start,’ he said.
Academics’ pay was one area. Both NUS and Nanyang Technological University put in place new performance-based pay structures.
At NUS, that meant pay cuts for some and generous rises for others. At NTU, none of the 1,200 staff took a pay cut.
The NUS got its star players too, in the form of people like Professor Chris Earley of the London Business School, now dean-designate of the NUS Business School. Others include biochemistry department head Barry Halliwell from King’s College London, and assistant professors Markus Wenk from Yale University and Liou Yih Cherng from the Harvard Medical School.
Prof Shih insists he is not biased towards foreigners. Stars can come from anywhere, including Singapore.
But he explains that the university gains in more ways than one when it attracts an academic like Professor Halliwell, 55, one of the most influential scientists worldwide in biology and biochemistry.
‘When top-notch academics like Prof Halliwell make a move, from one university to another, everyone else, including graduate students, takes note, and some may follow. They are magnets for top talent,’ says Prof Shih.
There have been other ways in which NUS thrust itself into the major league.
It sought partnerships with top US, European, Chinese and Japanese universities. Some paved the way for student exchanges, others led to joint degree programmes and even overseas colleges.
Partnerships with Stanford, the University of Pennsylvania and the French engineering schools, the Grande Ecoles, did not come easy. The NUS had to convince them that it was a worthy partner and that its students would be up to the rigours of their courses.
But every partner gained proved to be a point scored.
‘It is an indirect way of benchmarking,’ said Prof Shih. ‘When a top-notch university agrees to take your students and awards them degrees, it means that they recognise you to be on a par.’
Keeping company with the best included joining the right clubs. So NUS is part of Universitas 21, an international network of 18 research-intensive universities.
It is also in the Association of Pacific Rim Universities. The association’s 36 members include top Asian and American institutions such as Stanford, the California Institute of Technology and the University of California, Berkeley.
Professor Shih was chosen to lead the group three years ago, succeeding University of Southern California president Steven Sample, who had headed it since it was set up in 1997.
The secretariat has moved to Kent Ridge, and NUS vice-president for university and global relations Lawrence Loh is secretary-general. Both men were re-elected for a two-year term last year.
Professor Loh said: ‘Here was a chance to raise the visibility of NUS and, ultimately, its global standing. We grabbed it.’
Being ranked 18th was significant, but what matters more, says Prof Shih, is staying on a par with the world’s well-respected universities.
For that, NUS has to raise its game further, and work twice as hard.
‘But we have some of the world’s best talents here in NUS, it is not an impossible task,’ he says.
‘I say bring on the comparisons and the competition.’