The Government has put in place initiatives to strengthen the country’s higher education system, which is showing signs of improvements and soaring upwards.
EARLY one morning last week, I received a call from Prof Datuk Seri Dr Zaini Ujang, who is the Education Ministry’s secretary-general II.
“Sir, I have good news,” he said.
“Our national higher education system ranking has improved from 28th to 27th spot out of 50 nations according to the Universitas 21 Ranking of National Higher Education Systems (also known as U21)”.
“And, we are ranked 21st when it was adjusted for GDP and levels of development, ahead of Singapore, Japan, Germany and Hong Kong”.
I said: “That’s good. I believe we can still do better.” “I agree, sir,” said Zaini.
Just over a month ago, Quacquarelli Symmonds released the QS World University Rankings by Subject 2015. There were improvements in those rankings too.
Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) and Universiti Malaya (UM) each had one subject in the world’s top 50. USM ranked 31st for environmental science while UM ranked 32nd for development studies (this is a new subject included in this year’s ranking).
Nine subjects were ranked within the top 51 to100 in the world across five of our public universities, namely USM, UM, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM), Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM) and Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM). Coincidentally, these five universities hold research university status (RU), a project which the then Higher Education Ministry started in 2006.
UM leads the pack with six subjects in the top 51 to 100, including English and literature, linguistics, architecture and built environment, chemical engineering, electrical and electronic engineering, and mechanical, aeronautical and manufacturing engineering.
USM has five subjects within the top 51 to 100, which are architecture and built environment, chemical engineering, electrical and electronic engineering, development studies as well as mechanical, aeronautical and manufacturing engineering.
UTM has two in architectural and build environment as well as chemical engineering, while UPM and UKM have one each with agriculture and forestry, and development studies ranked within the top 51 to100 in the world.
If we were to expand the list to the top 200 subjects, we would see the inclusion of two private universities, namely Multimedia University (MMU) and Universiti Teknologi Petronas (UTP). In total, 10 of our public and private higher learning institutions are ranked within the top 200 in the world across 26 disciplines, including geography, pharmacology, business studies, economics and law.
It is heartening for me to see that most of our engineering faculties are ranked within the top 100 in the world.
Beyond the QS subject ranking, our universities have fared well in other discipline rankings. For instance, UPM ranked 54th in the world in agricultural science according to the Best Global Universities Rankings, while according to research group Elsevier, the International Islamic University Malaysia is tops when it comes to Islamic Banking, in particular in terms of authoritative articles published (11% of the world’s total publications).
Subject rankings are an important indicator of the growth and improvement of our higher education system.
In an insightful report titled An Avalanche is Coming: Higher Education and the Revolution Ahead published in 2013, it mentions that the future of higher education will be about the ‘niche university’.
This is where focusing on specific areas of knowledge and skills, as opposed to spreading too widely, will be key towards remaining relevant and competitive in the global higher education landscape.
The report, published by a United Kingdom think tank, Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) in collaboration with the Pearson group, also mentions that the survival of universities and its ability to attract students will depend on making the most of comparative advantages and this is influenced by geography, environment and the strength of localised content.
In this regard, I believe that we are on the right path and will need to maintain our focus as we move forward.
In early April, a Thai newspaper, The Nation, reported that Malaysian academics ‘surprisingly’ beat Thais and Singaporeans in research papers.
The report stated that Malaysian researchers produced 47,000 articles or nearly twice their Thai counterparts. Singapore on the other hand produced 34,000 articles.
According to the report, “the sharp growth in the number of researchers was because the Malaysian government dramatically boosted funding compared to the Thai government.”
As mentioned earlier, this coincided with the Malaysian Research University Project in 2006. It is starting to bear fruit and this is an encouraging sign.
Many have pointed out to me that quantity doesn’t necessarily mean quality. I agree.
Quality is an ongoing process and usually indicated by the number of citations a publication receives (it shows faith and confidence in the work produced).
In 2014, Thomson Reuters released a list of the world’s best and brightest scientific minds. The report, entitled The World’s Most Influential Scientific Minds: 2014, analysed data from the last 11 years using the Web of Science and InCites platforms to determine which researchers around the globe have produced work that is most frequently cited by peers.
Among the 3,200 notable individuals were three Malaysian researchers: Prof Dr Saidur Rahman Abdul Hakim from UM’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, Prof Dr Ishak Hashim from UKM’s School of Mathematical Sciences and Prof Dr Abdul Latif Ahmad from USM’s Department of Chemical Engineering.
In my view, we have the quality. Undoubtedly, this needs to be ramped up.
There are many ways to measure the success of Malaysia’s higher education system. Above, I’ve highlighted a few – by way of national ranking, subject ranking and enhancing publications.
These certainly aren’t the be all and end all. Perception, of employers, parents and society, as well as the reality of our graduates’ performance in industry is vital too.
But let’s not stray away from the message here. Our education system is improving. And as I’ve said in the past, we are soaring upwards.
We have many reasons to be proud of what we’ve achieved, but we are aware there’s still effort to be made. With the recently launched Higher Education Blueprint (2015-2025) and continued support of all stakeholders, we can continue to soar. Dato Seri Idris Jusoh Home News Education June 7 2015