kheru2006 (kheru2006) wrote,

PhD targets – Don't rush matters

I AM glad that the Ministry of Education responded promptly to my letter "PhD targets worrying" (Letters, July 22). Further, the letter attracted another sympathetic response from Dr P. Singh (Letters, July 28) and even a commentary "Don't sacrifice quality" (Citizen Nades, July 30).

Despite the length of the response, the ministry skirted around the key questions I raised. First, what is the basis of the number? Why not another bigger or smaller number?

The ministry harped on the supply side strategies, but ignored the demand side, which is the gist of the question.

Granted that governments may have to do some "social engineering" to nurture a trend, still there needs to be objective reasons for targeted figures, especially if it involves large sums of taxpayers' money. Every PhD student receives a stipend of about RM30,000 a year, and typically for three to four years. That is about RM100,000 per student. This excludes all expenses related to the research. In reality, the passing rate is very high in local universities, so an optimistic estimate is that all the 60,000 PhD candidates will pass. That is still at least RM6 billion over five years! Should there not be a more convincing case for setting this target?

This brings us to the other question. I asserted that a majority of these PhD candidates are foreigners, who are obliged to leave the country on completion of their studies.

The ministry tacitly acknowledged this point without rebuttal. So, what is the spillover effect to Malaysia after spending the money and chasing the talent away? Why promulgate such a policy? Perhaps this matter is not within their jurisdiction? Why not have a joint response with the other relevant ministries, or let the Economic Planning Unit or the Prime Minister's Office handle this?

I have heard of the Knowledge Transfer Programme (KTP) as espoused by the ministry, to benefit the community.

Compared to grants, that receives perhaps the least interest among academics. The no-nonsense approach by industries frightens many academics who are in an exploratory rather than a performance-guarantee mindset. Moreover, publishing anything from such ventures is unlikely. Even industries remain wary of academics, first to protect their trade secrets; second they are doubtful of the benefits.

There remains a lot of groundwork and confidence-building for KTP to flourish.

On my concern about the dilution of quality, which both other authors also worry very much, the ministry answered in just one sentence: "Nevertheless, the Ministry of Education will not compromise on the quality aspects of the doctorate programmes offered by universities in the country." So much for quality assurance! How do we measure quality? The number of scientific papers published in so-called top-tier journals? Is more the merrier, irrespective of the discipline and the nature of the research?

Readers will be shocked to see how easily some candidates churned out papers, and I truly doubt that is quality. Unless they stay in the academia, most doctorate holders do not occupy themselves with publishing papers. They may have to supervise or coordinate others, deal with customers, write internal reports, file patents, etc all without paid copy-editors to enhance their atrocious writing. Are we preparing our PhD candidates to excel and contribute in such environments?

Related to quality, the more worrying is the target group of the MyBrain15 programme: "Unemployed graduates without fixed income, non-permanent/temporary government staff", among others. In the first place, why are those graduates unemployed, why did they fail to secure permanent employment? Are they employable? Are their high CGPAs reflective of their capabilities? Do we want such graduates to educate our next generation? Or, are we already over-producing graduates? Why is MyBrain15 not tussling with the market to attract the highly-sought-after top students instead? Therein lays the crux of the matter.

There is no market for PhD holders, and smart students are smart enough to shun this route. In South Korea, PhD graduates start as managers in the industry; in US, they are paid much higher too. So there is a tempting incentive. Not here!

While I fully support the efforts of the Malaysian government to avoid the middle-income trap, it is vital that we do not rush things. We are "pulling up the tree shoot to hasten its growth", cautioned a Chinese proverb. Rome was not built in a day, neither can an advanced Malaysia.

Concerned Academic Petaling Jaya The SUn Daily 3 Aug 2014
Tags: education, quality

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