Sunday, September 27, 2009

We must stop the rot

Article written by Terence Fernandez
[Access date: 27 September 2009]

EVERY year, about 3,700 academics from around the world are quizzed on what they think defines a good university and to list down what they feel are the premier higher learning institutions in the world. Their responses are collated and at the end of the day, 500 universities are shortlisted and published on the Times Higher Education (THE) QS World Top University Rankings.

Each year, universities around the globe fall over themselves to gain entry into this prestigious list because it helps secure more grants and sponsors; helps attract a larger student population, where in the era of foreign education, it is used as a commercial boast to attract students.

In Malaysia, where one brags of frivolous achievements such as the largest fruit basket, longest teh tarik and a space tourist, being listed on the Times-QS rolls is indeed a big deal, which is why when the list is released, all and sundry crane their necks to see if they made the cut.

The latest global rankings list University of Malaya (UM) at 230; Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) at 250; Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) at 313; Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM) at 320; and Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM), 356.

In the Asian Top 200, UM is 39; UKM 51; USM 69; UTM 82; UPM 90 and the Multimedia University at 171.

But every year we see a decline in the achievements of most of these varsities. Why, can be traced at every level of our education system.

Dumbed-down examinations, lower passing rates, questionable marking methodologies and debatable literary content have all contributed to this decline.

Politicisation of the education system has added to the cause in standards of local varsities going south and this starts at school – from sub-standard teachers who join teachers’ training college as a last resort, exam-oriented syllabuses to vague admission criteria.

This was well-illustrated when the government recently had to explain that some of its top-scoring Pubic Service Department scholarship applicants may be book smart but do not have the analytical mindset to qualify for certain courses. Basically, it was trying to say that these straight A students cannot survive the real world beyond their books.

This is probably why even education officials send their children to international schools while espousing the virtues of studying in government schools and institutions.

We know we are in trouble if even Indonesia does not recognise our qualifications. What more with many parents considering educating their children abroad – irrespective of whether they can afford it or not, it is time we re-look our education system from kindergarten and stop making guinea pigs out of our children.

Back home, there are those who opt for a professional qualification via college diplomas rather than spending four years in university, only to join the unemployment line.

In my line of work, I regularly come across evidence of this decline in our education standards.

Errors in government statements on its websites and official correspondences are not unusual.

On Sunday, the Health Ministry through its website issued a statement on H1N1 which read among others: “This day was proclaimed a new 231 with symptoms pesakit influenza-like illness (ILI) has been incorporated into the hospital for treatment and at the same time some 166 have been didiscaj kes. This makes the tray seramai 1048 ILI being treated in hospital, including 106 fruit 14 private hospital ...”

Signed by Health Director-General Tan Sri Dr Ismail Merican, the posting was removed as soon as Ismail (whose English is impeccable) was notified by a reporter. Obviously it was written by another staff but the lack of checks caused embarrassment to the director-general and the ministry.

We have on our desk a letter in English from a university professor littered with grammatical errors. Not too long ago, one university had to publish an apology to a member of the Royal House for its atrocious use of the English language in a congratulatory message to her published the previous day.

I cannot speak on other faculties but we have many journalism students interning with us. The knowledge that their lecturers have not spent a day in a newsroom sends shudders down our spine as we contemplate the future of journalism in this country. One intern even confided that the first thing she learnt was self-censorship – how to write favourably about the establishment.

Then there are those which border on the criminal. Last week, Universiti Sains Islam Malaysia law lecturer Yasmin Norhazleena Bahari Md Noor opened a can of worms when she lodged a report on fixing of marks with the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission.

Yesterday, theSun front-paged a report where two UPM lecturers were caught plagiarising. What more can you say? One is a professor and the other a PhD holder with a law degree.

UPM vice-chancellor Prof Datuk Dr Nik Mustapha R. Abdullah said this matter passed the institution’s Publication’s Committee as it usually only scans through materials and journals for submissions to Times Higher Education in an effort to scale up the university rankings.

One wonders which direction UPM would be headed now that it has been proven that some of its material is plagiarised. And this again brings to mind the shallow priorities of some. Improving the overall education standards would inevitably keep us on a reasonable level on the charts.

What’s the point of submitting tailored PR materials when the rot continues to stink?

As long as herd mentality and partisan policies continue to infiltrate our education system, we can bet that it will be a matter of time when Malaysian universities disappear from the rankings.

UM and UKM have already fallen out of the Top 200 list, and with questionable policies and dubious characters in charge and involved in shaping the next generation of our workforce, we are in for a tough time to compete with our neighbours, what more the rest of the world.

[My related article entitle "The end of academia?: From cogito ergo sum to consumo ergo sum Germany and Malaysia in comparison" available for download >> click here]