Tertiary education strategies involving masters and doctoral-level qualifications should include some degree of local context and not be based solely on international standards or those of elite institutions in the West.
THE media and blogosphere are abuzz with opinions disparaging the value of several master’s and doctoral level qualifications.
Articles published in respectable publications such as Nature, The Economist, The Wall Street Journal, and Forbes have in the recent past set the tone of this debate, casting doubts about the “return on investment” (RoI) of higher degrees.
These RoI-based discussions seem to focus on the socio-economic circumstances of the developed countries.
These discussions do not reflect the higher education priorities of the rapidly developing parts of the world.
Higher education strategies in developing countries must be based on the ground realities obtained there and not transferred from that of a developed country.
While global standards of educational excellence are fine, there must be a degree of adaptation to the local context.
I shall illustrate this through two examples drawn from India and Malaysia respectively, deriving from those examples, two simple propositions for further debate.
Let us consider MBA-like degrees in India. There are over 2,400 institutions offering such degrees (3,300 by another reckoning), currently targeting a pool of about 400,000 potential applicants every year (both fresh graduates and working executives, in more or less equal numbers).
In India, about 25 institutions offering MBA-like degrees belong to the top-tier, accommodating about 4,000 new students, who are the top-performing students in various entrance tests, every year.
The next 75 institutions constitute a middle-tier, accommodating about 9,000 new students every year. This leaves a vast majority of applicants (around 387,000) who could not make it to one of the top- or middle-tier institutions.
These remaining applicants are willing to pay for a postgraduate qualification that would enhance their employability and launch them into a career of their choice.
The 2,300 (or 3,200) remaining institutions are challenged to offer a valuable qualification.
Thousands of Indian students would enrol in these institutions because, either they are not sufficiently prepared for the employment market or they see in this an opportunity to rebuild their careers.
For this majority group of applicants, there is a need to enhance the value of the postgraduate qualification they will acquire.
I am not aware of any systematic effort towards reassessing the learning outcomes and customising the curriculum of these institutions (those which are not in the top 100), where the vast majority of the applicants enrol.
I am aware of attempts to turn these institutions into clones of the more elite ones; be it in infrastructure, learning resources or pedagogy.
These elite Indian institutions are themselves based on institutions in the United States such as Harvard, Sloan or Wharton.
But these elite Indian institutions may not be the best models, because they have adapted themselves to the needs and capabilities of a specific minority, ie., only the top three percent of the applicants.
Proposition One: It could be counterproductive to apply the same model of excellence on all institutions.
Different types of institutions should have the opportunity to define their learning agenda differently and establish operations to suit that agenda.
Of course, they also need to evolve mechanisms to generate timely feedback on whether, and how well, they are accomplishing that agenda.
What about Malaysia?
Now let us turn our attention to doctoral degrees in Malaysia.
As a rapidly developing country, Malaysia is keen to expand higher education to support an innovation-led economy.
Accordingly, the Government sponsors Malaysian students for research degrees (both master’s and PhD) within the country and abroad.
Malaysia has 64 universities (20 public, 37 private and seven foreign universities).
The total number of PhD holders in the country was about 12,000 in 2010, while the number of students enrolled in doctoral programmes (in Malaysia and abroad) was about 17,000.
Assuming that one-tenth of the enrolled students will complete each year, we can expect about 1,700 new PhDs every year (although not all of them will work in Malaysia).
The country has ambitious targets to produce 48,000 PhD holders by 2020 and 60,000 PhD holders by 2023.
Despite these extraordinary targets and the corresponding financial support programmes, the number of new applicants for doctoral study in Malaysia is not encouraging.
The PhD dilemma
In the student community, there are doubts about career options after the PhD.
Some students think that a PhD qualification could reduce their employability if potential employers consider it an over-qualification.
However, there is no doubt that the higher education sector needs more PhD holders but PhD-qualified researchers are also needed in the industry, perhaps in equal measure.
Global studies reveal that the industry needs researchers who have acquired a number of skills, in addition to expertise in their research area.
Besides relevant scientific competencies, researchers are expected to demonstrate project and team management skills, specific personal and interpersonal skills.
They should be competent in the new ways of doing research (eg. transdisciplinary collaborative research) and have the capacity to handle the conflicting demands of the research-based professions (eg. balancing research objectives with commercial interests).
Proposition 2: Increasing the number of PhD holders may not translate into the expected capacity for innovation-led growth unless the PhD holders meet the specific expectations of the industry and academia.
There is a need for the government and industry to collaborate with universities to design research education programmes which are relevant for the country, thus enhancing the attractiveness of research as a career option.