Towards quality undergraduate education

  • Business
  • Saturday, 16 Jul 2011

The National Economic Advisory Council (NEAC) wrote in March last year: “Malaysia faces an exodus of talent. Not only is our education system failing to deliver the required talent, we have not been able to retain local talent of all races nor attract foreign ones due to poor prospects and a lack of high-skilled jobs.”

Human capital lies at the heart of any high-income economy. It is key to Malaysia's transformation agenda. Not surprisingly, human resource development features prominently in the New Economic Model. Simply put, we will need to develop, attract and retain talent. Yet, the brain drain the cross-border migration of talent runs counter to the compelling domestic need for a more skilled, more innovative and more entrepreneurial labour force to be able to constantly add value.

Against this backdrop, the Malaysian experience is not unique. The World Bank estimates that in 2010, 215 million people lived outside their country of birth; 80% from developing nations, with 43% living in high-income advanced economies. Within Asia, the most pronounced brain drain is in South-East Asia. Malaysia's brain drain is intensive; not because too many are leaving but because the skills base is narrow. This is compounded by the lack of compensating inflows. It is also concentrated in Singapore.

A large part of Malaysia's problem reflected the poor quality of graduates from public universities. It progressively eats into the quality of its human capital stock. Among its top research universities, only Universiti Malaya is among the top 200 (at 180th) in the UK Times Higher Education 2010-2011 rankings. Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia was ranked 291; Universiti Sains Malaysia, 314; Universiti Teknologi Malaysia, 320; and Universiti Putra, 345. This poses a particular challenge.

Historical perspective

For years, the classic Ivy League American college envisages learning based on foundational knowledge of key disciplines or fields (“core”) and in-depth study of a key area of specialisation (“concentration”). This approach has been variously described as an unstable compound arising from the marriage between the German research university and the English liberal arts college.

Unlike the United States, the British Commonwealth public universities started following the British model. Today, these universities are, in practice, more akin to the already much deteriorated German experience, which for decades pride themselves on their egalitarianism in education. With the adoption of the 1963 Robbins Report, the British and Commonwealth public university system has become geared to advance this holy grail.

As a general rule, vigorous selective admissions of the 1950s and 1960s, with exceptions, have since gradually disappeared. A degree from one university is deemed to be worth just as much as the other. Every university will be run more or less the same, turning most of the once proud older universities into virtual extensions of government bureaucracy. Again with exceptions, professors and staff become public servants earning more or less the same pay at almost every university, based not on merit and academic excellence.

And so, just this one idea equality which turns out to be a bad one, is attributed to its undoing. This idea promotes the anti-elitist belief in equality of access to university education and equality of standing of every university. The consequence is for the state to pay to see this idea through. Since the best receives the same funding as the worst, the result in Britain has been, according to author Robert Stevens, “to homogenise English university and dumb them down to a lower mediocre mean”. It reflects a system designed to protect the weak instead of rewarding the best.

Understandably, this phenomenon has since led to a disentangling of intellectual privilege from social privilege. This new academic elite was led by Tony Blair based on the principle that some students are academically better and thus, deserve greater resources directed to their development. Otherwise, England was “in danger of turning into an incubator for the likes of Yale and Harvard,” says Oxford Professor Alan Ryan. Unlike the British system, the United States maintained an elitist rewards system, designed to develop the best and brightest. Here, competition is the name of the game. Top US universities stayed mainly independent of government funding. With independence, comes the ability to compete for academic success with the best the world can offer. This means vigorous competition for funding, the best students, and the best staff.

A liberal arts education pursues a spirit of free inquiry undertaken without concern for finding a job. It accomplishes two main objectives: (i) sharpens students' awareness of the world; and (ii) provides them with the tools to engage the forces of change. The breadth of subjects they study and the skills and habit of mind they acquire are intended to shape their lives after graduation. This is best exemplified in the overarching role of the US Ivy League colleges to educate students to be independent, knowledgeable, reflective, and creative thinkers with a sense of social responsibility. Towards this end, they are made to think and act critically. Their sense of history and theory enlightens and empowers them to act with great self-confidence.

What's wrong with it

Five things. Let me use Harvard, consistently the best of the lot, as an example. Harvard strives to be the best in many things; it often succeeds. Yet, over the years, I think it has allowed its main mission to drift. That's the first that that's wrong. Harvard veers from education towards increasingly, stakeholder satisfaction. It gives undue attention on developing an international brand and assumes the role of an education market-enterprise. It has gone from “ to” Mind you, Harvard remains consistently a first-rate world-class research university.

Second: Relentless competition for research excellence has produced a university system optimised for research. Of course, this brought untold prestige and prosperity through scholarly discoveries and scientific inventions. But, I think, at a price to underlying student quality. For example, there are no KPIs (key performance indicators) for effectively imparting knowledge and inculcating habit of mind to make students wiser and productive 20-somethings.

University structures don't consciously promote responsible citizenship. Professors are rewarded for academic excellence. But no marks for helping students find meaningful lives.

Third: It is not that the great universities have been complacent. Indeed, over many years, deep and profound changes have taken place (i) in curriculum: now richer, deeper and broader, but without a clearly identifiable link between what is taught in class and what they do outside class; (ii) in grading: now more disciplined even though grade inflation still exists; but grades are now more credentials for employment and graduate schools, rather than instructional feedback from teacher to student; and (iii) in extra-curriculum activities: they have become broader and more diverse with competition going beyond intellectual undergraduate ideals; they are now more motivated by materialistic incentives.

Fourth: I think great universities have forgotten their basic job to turn restless 18-somethings into stable 20-something-adults, to help them grow up. The greater the university, the more intense is market competition for faculty, students and funds.

Increasingly, there is less attention on (a) developing good character; (b) building personal strength and integrity; (c) inculcating kindness, co-operation and compassion; and (d) offering extracurricular experiences that link up to formal learning.

Finally, the sciences and humanities have long been the foundation for curriculum thinking: the sciences being the transforming force, while the humanities, the means for moral uplift. Science will grow in stature. How can universities nurture and inspirit the humanities? Humanists today already feel marginalised. This should not be. New advances in the sciences offer possibilities to prolong human life, destroy life, artificially transform life in ways that challenge the very meaning of what it is to be human. As such, traditional focus of the humanities on questions of value, of meaning, of ethics, has assumed more importance. Somehow we need to ensure scientific advances are made to serve humane purposes.

Curriculum reform

The answer must lie mainly in curriculum reform. Education should be more than what we learn. At Harvard, fortunately, the undergraduate mission remains largely intact to transform teenagers (whose lives have been so structured by their families and schools) into adults with the learning and wisdom to take responsibility for their own lives.

It has taken Harvard the greater part of the 2000s to review its curriculum. In 2009, it replaced the existing 30 year-old Core Curriculum with a new Programme in General Education (PGE). Emphasising strength of character and scholarly excellence, the new curriculum is focused to (i) help students understand complexities of the human condition; (ii) come to grips with the basic questions of life; and (iii) fit seamlessly into its multi-talented, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-national student life.

To work, it has to gel with new commitments to pedagogical innovation, and to activity-based initiatives linking extracurricular activities to classroom experience. But the academic experience is its centrepiece, comprising (a) the concentration (in-depth pursuit of a disciplinary interest) (b) the electives (broadening interest beyond the focus) and (c) the PGE (connects and helps appreciate the complexities of the world).

In contrast to the Core Curriculum which exposed students to a number of different “ways of knowing” the new PGE seeks to provide new opportunities to learn (and faculty to teach) in ways that cut across departmental and intra-university lines; and achieve four goals that link up to life after college: (i) prepare for civic engagement; (ii) understand the traditions of art, ideas, and values; (iii) respond to deep change; and (iv) understand ethical dimensions.

To pursue these goals, students complete courses in (a) aesthetic and interpretive understanding; (b) culture and belief; (c) empirical and mathematical reasoning; (d) ethical reasoning; (e) science of living systems; (f) science of the physical universe; (g) societies of the world; and (h) United States in the world.

As I see it, restoration of the right balance between scholarly excellence and its education role requires developing in students a philosophy of life that brings dignity, honour and responsibility. Harvard has set the new gold standard in undergraduate education. Its first graduates will emerge in 2013.

Malaysia need not reinvent the wheel to jump-start our own undergraduate uplift. There are valuable lessons to be learnt. For us, this means a ready blueprint to help our students to believe in themselves as skilled individuals, and to place themselves first, above members of any identity group. This entails creating community out of diversity, based on confidence in one's own principles. It remains key to raising the quality of an educated person and leader. Something we all want to emerge from our universities.

The end product

In the end, we have now readily available an experience to engage the increasingly complex world. As I see it, the Harvard PGE should enable new graduates to have the ability to compose a literate and persuasive essay, the insight to interpret a famous humanistic text, the capacity to link history to the present, the know-how to understand foundation science and scientific methods to unravel mysteries of the real world, and enough quantitative reasoning to sharpen analysis of problems.

We have to believe that tomorrow's world will not accept graduates not knowing the difference between a gene and a chromosome. Or, not familiar with select Nobel Prize-winning works in literature. This building of self-confidence must involve a capability to speak in English; and to articulate cogently, persuade others, and reason on moral and ethical issues. They are also expected to know how to collaborate with others on divisive issues, and to engage each other in a civil manner.

The job ahead is daunting. We need to start now.

It is noteworthy that since 2008, Melbourne University has adopted the US academic model requiring all students to take “breadth” courses and embark on more specialised training as professionals in medicine, law and engineering. Most of these pathways add an extra year, but they graduate with greater personal satisfaction and higher quality.

After all, what's another year in a student's lifetime? In Malaysia, life expectancy has been already lifted to 73 years in 2009, rising past 75 in 2010. As former Harvard president Derek Bok said: “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.” Worse is to be in denial.

> Former banker Dr Lin is a Harvard-educated economist and a British Chartered Scientist who now spends time writing, teaching and promoting the public interest. Feedback is most welcome at

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