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First step for Malaysian universities to return to world-class university quality and excellence is to adopt the recommendation of World Bank Report to end fraudulent meritocracy system and introduce common university entrance examination

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by Lim Kit Siang  

(Dewan Rakyat, Thursday): Malaysia has fallen completely out of the list of the world’s Top 200 Universities this year in the 2007 Times Higher Education Supplement (THES) - Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) World University Rankings.

This is a national shame, especially as occurring during the nation’s 50th Merdeka anniversary and it must serve as the latest warning to the national leaders to end their complacency and delusion that Malaysia is becoming more competitive globally when the reverse is actually the case.

The national shame of Malaysia falling completely out of the list of the world’s Top 200 Universities this year in the 2007 Times Higher Education Supplement (THES) - Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) World University Rankings had been equaled by the scandal that this Malaysian ignominy had been totally ignored by last week’s UMNO General Assembly, whether by UMNO delegates or leaders.

This shows the superficiality of the commitment of UMNO leaders to the slogan of “Cemerlang, Gemilang and Terbilang” and to transform Malaysia into a knowledge-based innovative economy marked by a world-class university system.

The Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi had after the UMNO General Assembly expressed his concern about the fall of Malaysian universities from the international league of best universities, but why wasn’t there a single reference to this shocking result in the UMNO General Assembly, touted as the most important national political assembly of the country?

Malaysian universities have suffered a very serious drop in the international league of the world’s best universities in the 2007 THES-QS rankings,

For the first time, there is not only not a single university in the Top 200 Universities list, there is also not a single university in the separate ranking of Top 100 Universities for five subject areas – Natural Sciences, Social Sciences, Arts and Humanities; Life Sciences and Biomedicine; and Engineering and Information Technology.

For the Top 200 Universities List, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) and Universiti Malaya (UM) had fallen out of the ranking, with UKM plunging from 185th slot last year to 309th while University of Malaya plunged from 192nd last year to 246th spot. Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM), which was ranked as the only “outstanding” five-star university in a recent government survey, has fallen to 307th spot from 277 last year. In 2005, USM was in the 326th spot.

The performance of Malaysian universities in the Top 100 lists for the five subject areas are even more dismal, with not a single university making into the five lists although last year University of Malaya was ranked 49 in Social Sciences and 95 in Natural Sciences, UKM was placed No. 62 in Natural Sciences, and University Sains Malaysia placed No. 96 for Life Sciences and Biomedicine.

The National University of Singapore (NUS) (No. 33) is ranked among the Top 100 Universities for all the five categories while Nanyang Technological University (NTU) (No. 69) is ranked among the Top 100 universities for three categories, viz: Engineering & IT; Natural Sciences and Social Sciences.

NUS is ranked No. 10 for Engineering & IT; No. 12 for Life Sciences and Biomedicine, No. 25 for Natural Sciences; No. 20 for Social Sciences and No. 21 for Arts & Humanities.

NTU is ranked No. 25 for Engineering & IT; No. 99 for Natural Sciences and No. 88 for Social Sciences.

Even Thailand’s Chulalongkorn University is rated among the Top 100 Universities for two categories – Engineering & IT (No. 100) and Social Sciences (No. 83)

Last year Malaysia was placed in four of the 500 slots in the five Top 100 Universities for the five subjects.

This year, Malaysia was completely excluded in all the five listings of Top 100 Universities for the five categories.

There are 38 “elite of elite” universities, which are not only ranked in the Top 200 Universities list, but also ranked in every one of the five Top 100 subject list. The country breakdown and details for these 38 “elite of elite” universities are:

Country No of “elite of elite”
United States 15
United Kingdom 4
Australia 6
Canada 5
China 2
Japan 2
South Korea 1
Taiwan 1
Singapore 1
Hong Kong 1
Total 38

Universities in the Asia-Pacific region which are in this exclusive 38 “elite of elites” list are:

Country University Ranking in Top 200 Universities
Australia ANU 16
Melbourne 27
Sydney 31
Queensland 33
Monash 43
New South Wales 44
Japan Tokyo 17
Kyoto 25
Hong Kong Hong Kong 18
Singapore National University of Singapore 33
China Peking 36
Tsinghua 40
South Korea Seoul National 51
Taiwan National Taiwan 102

Why is Malaysia not in this “elite of elites” listing and when will Malaysia have a university which will have all-round excellence as to be included in this list?

Until some 35 years ago, there was no doubt that University of Malaya was one of the world-class universities and if its university standards, quality and excellence had been maintained and not suffered any precipitous plunge, University of Malaya would not only have taken her place in the Top 200 Universities ranking but would be one of the two scores of “elite of elite” universities enjoying all-rounded excellence to be ranked among the Top 100 universities for all the five different categories!

Today, Malaysian universities have plummeted so badly that nobody could now answer the question: Which is the Malaysian premier university?

Nobody knows and this is a big shame as it is caused not by competition by universities to be the best but to avoid the bigger plunge in international rankings.

Is it University of Malaya?

Until two years ago, there was no dispute if University of Malaya claimed to be the nation’s premier university – a position it had occupied unchallenged for over three decades.

It was also internationally recognized as the premier university in Malaysia as reflected by the 2004 and 2005 Times Higher Education Supplement (THES) World Universities Rankings for Top 200 Universities, being positioned No. 89 and 169th slots respectively.

However, it was toppled from the pedestal by Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) when UKM beat University of Malaya in the 2006 THES ranking, placed No. 185 as compared to the 192nd position for University of Malaya.

Is it UKM then?

UKM’s placing on the top of the university pole in the country lasted one short year as in the 2007 THES Top 200 Universities ranking, UKM plunged a shocking 124 places from No. 185 to No. 309, not only behind University of Malaya’s No. 246 but also Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) which is placed No. 307.

Furthermore, in the recent government ranking for public universities, both UKM and University of Malaya was ranked behind USM, the sole university to be placed on the five-star Outstanding Category, with no university rated for the top-rung Excellent Category.

Is it then USM, to lay claim to be the nation’s best university?

Not so, although in the 2004 THES ranking, USM was rated among the Top 200 Universities when placed No. 111, but it plunged 215 places to No. 326 ranking in 2005, 277 in 2006 and 307 in 2007.
Year 2004 2005 2006 2007
USM THES Ranking 111 326 277 307

With no single university currently able to lay claim as the nation’s premier university, this sad state of affairs is a reflection of the very troubled public university sector.

May be this confusion awaits resolution when a private higher education institution establishes its claim as the nation’s premier university, better than anyone of the public universities – especially as the Chinese government has recognized 43 private universities and colleges as compared to only seven for public universities.

One aspect which had been overlooked in the latest THES Top 200 Universities ranking is that Malaysia is losing out badly in the international competition for excellence, not only to universities of developed nations but even those of developing nations.

Thailand, for instance, has established its superiority in university excellence to Malaysia when for three consecutive years, Chulalongkorn University of Thailand beat Malaysian universities in the THES ranking – 121 in 2005, 161 in 2006 and 223 in 2007 as compared to Malaysia’s best of 169 in 2005 (University of Malaya), 185 in 2006 (UKM) and 246 in 2007 (University of Malaya).

Also for the first time in the THES Top Universities Ranking, Malaysia has lost out to three other third-world nations, viz.
Country University Ranking in Top 200 Universities
Brazil University of Sao Paulo 175
University of Campinas 177
Mexico Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico 192
South Africa University of Cape Town 200

Just as Vice Chancellors must be held responsible for the poor rankings of their universities, the Higher Education Minister, Datuk Mustapha Mohamad must bear personal responsibility for the dismal international ranking of Malaysian universities - particularly for Malaysia falling completely out of the list of the world’s Top 200 Universities this year in the 2007 Times Higher Education Supplement (THES) - Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) World University Rankings.

I was very surprised that the Higher Education Minister, who visiting universities in China last month, had asked the Chinese government to recognize more Malaysian universities and colleges for two reasons.

It was news to me and to most Malaysians that China has recognized 50 institutions in the public and private sector in Malaysia – 7 IPTAs (public institutions of higher learning) and 43 IPTSs (private institutions). This is a clear indicator that public universities in the country are losing out in terms of academic excellence and international recognition to private institutions.

Secondly, the Chinese government has recognizing more Malaysian universities and colleges than the Chinese universities and colleges recognized by the Malaysian government – when many Chinese universities are internationally recognized for their academic merit and excellence while Malaysian universities have disappeared from the international radar of academic excellence.

In the 2007 THES-QS World Top 200 University Rankings, six Chinese universities were ranked but not a single one from Malaysia.

The six Chinese universities are:

University Ranking in Top 200 Universities
Peking University 36
Tsinghua University 40
Fudan University 85
Nanjing University 125
University of Science and Technology of China 155
Shanghai Jiao Tong University 163

China has two universities, Peking University and Tsinghua University, which are among the 38 “elite of elite” universities, as they are also listed in all the Top 100 Universities in all five different categories.

Altogether, Chinese universities occupy 21 spots in the 500 slots in the five Top 100 Universities for five categories – but Malaysia does not recognize anyone of them although we do not occupy a single spot in the 500 slots for the five lists of Top 100 Universities.

Malaysia even refuses to accord recognition to the degrees of Peking University and Tsinghua University, two of the “elite of elites” universities as the Malaysian government only recognizes their degrees for Chinese language studies.

Why has the Malaysian government not recognized these internationally-acclaimed Chinese universities for their world-class degrees and courses, when Malaysia does not have any equivalent whatsoever?

It is most strange and extraordinary that a country which has dropped out of world-class university rankings is asking for more recognition for its universities from another country with universities of international repute but which it has refused to recognize?

The Malaysian government should promptly and forthwith recognize all the degrees of Chinese universities which are internationally-recognized as among the world’s top universities, and not just the Chinese Language Studies of four Chinese universities, before we can righteously ask China for more recognition of Malaysian universities by Chinese government.

Malaysians have not been told the real and true reasons for the shocking performance of Malaysian universities in the THES-QS Top 200 Universities ranking. Malaysian universities have been consistent in increasingly deplorable results in world rankings, whether the THES-QS, Shanghai Jiao Tong University World’s Best 500 Universities or the Newsweek’s Top 100 Global Universities.

If the government is serious about its slogan of “Cemerlang, Gemilang, Terbilang” to create a world-class university system to transform Malaysia into a knowledge-based innovative economy, it must end the New Economic Policy (NEP) in the universities and fully restore the policy of meritocracy and academic excellence coupled with social need to provide university education opportunities to economically-backward Malaysians regardless of race.

It is the NEP policy and mentality which caused University of Malaya to fall 213 rankings behind University of Singapore in less than four decades as both universities had started on the same footing some 50 years ago. University of Malaya is ranked No. 246 as compared to the 33rd ranking for National University of Singapore.

The government must recognize that so long as the NEP is kept in place in the universities, there would be no way for any Malaysian public university to compete with other universities from other countries. This is why Malaysia is also losing out to universities from Thailand and Africa – which was unthinkable four decades ago!

If Malaysia is to get back to the trail of world-class academic excellence, all universities should be allowed to enroll the most qualified students, employ the most competent professors and researchers with competitive remunerations and restore a culture of academic excellence and freedom.

One simple test of whether the government is seriously committed to abandon the baggage of past NEP policies to create a world-class university system is whether it has the political will to end the annual brain drain depriving Malaysia of the best and brightest for the development of the country.

For a start, the Higher Education Minister should ask the Cabinet to check the annual four-figure brain-drain of the best and brightest STPM students and Chinese Independent Secondary school students to Singapore by providing them equitable higher education opportunities at home to demonstrate that the government is serious in wanting to build a world-class university system.

Secondly, the Higher Education Minister must ask the Cabinet to end the present fraudulent meritocracy using both STPM and matriculation by having a common university entrance examination.

This is the recommendation of the World Bank study on “Malaysia and the Knowledge Economy: Building a World-Class Higher Education System” submitted to the government in March this year.

Otherwise, the Higher Education Ministry is only continuing to pay lip service to university excellence and quality without the political will to bring about the institutional changes without which there is no way for Malaysian universities to return to world-class university status.


* Lim Kit Siang, Parliamentary Opposition Leader, MP for Ipoh Timur & DAP Central Policy and Strategic Planning Commission Chairman

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