Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Malaysia Announces New Higher-Education Strategy

The Chronicle of Higher Education
From the issue dated October 19, 2007

Malaysia Announces New Higher-Education Strategy

The government of Malaysia, whose universities are battling a reputation for mediocrity, recently announced plans to revitalize its lagging university system and turn the country into a center of higher education in Southeast Asia. But critics of the proposals say that until universities operate on a system of merit that is free from political interference, the plans will be empty words.

Excellence in higher education has been elusive for Malaysia. Each year the country's leading institutions slide farther down on international surveys that rate academic quality — or they don't show up at all. Their mediocre reputation has called into question the government's goal of attracting 100,000 international students by 2010.

At an August meeting of government ministers and higher-education officials, Malaysia's prime minister, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, said that some 20 public universities would be granted autonomy from the central government, though not in all areas. They will be encouraged to raise their own money and will be given more power over how to spend it. Some universities will also be given more indepedence in hiring faculty members.

But the prime minister stopped short of allowing public universities complete freedom to enroll only the best students or recruit top faculty without regard to race, stating that the universities will still have to reflect the racial makeup of the country.

Although they are the majority, ethnic Malays benefit from an affirmative-action program that was created in 1971 when they were the poorest and least-educated ethnic group. Today, Malays are still given preference when it comes to government jobs, and they pay lower interest rates and housing prices than do other ethnic groups.

Ethnic Malays also take an easier university entrance examination than non-Malays. Unable to gain admission into the country's better programs, and often denied government scholarships, thousands of ethnic Chinese and Indian students leave the country each year and do not return.

The race-based system also applies to government teaching jobs, making it difficult for non-Malays to get hired. Faculty members complain that promotion is not based on research or publishing, but on pledging loyalty to the government-appointed administration.

Lim Kit Siang, a prominent member of the opposition Democratic Action Party, criticized the plans for failing to end a system that favors one race over the others.

Azmi Sharom, an associate professor of law at the University of Malaya, who has been critical of the government's interference in higher education, said he applauded the plan to give public universities more autonomy, particularly if vice chancellors are selected for their academic qualifications and not their political allegiances.

"When you have decisions that are made for political reasons, then it's not sound academic practice," said Mr. Sharom. "If you are going to be the best, you can't be having any of this hanky-panky."

The government has vowed to overhaul higher education before. But most of the measures have been cosmetic, designed more to raise the country's rankings in international surveys than to actually improve the quality of education.

The economist Jeffrey D. Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, was given an endowed chair at Malaya partly to elevate the profile of the languishing university. The move has caused grumbling among local scholars who wonder how Mr. Sachs, who holds multiple positions at Columbia and has rarely set foot in Malaysia since his appointment in 2006, can make a contribution.

"Anyone can see it's all show," said Mr. Sharom. "They are so obsessed with the rankings, they are doing things just to boost them. Jeffrey Sachs is a symptom of that."

Section: International
Volume 54, Issue 8, Page A33

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