Setting the highest standards

University of Southampton Professor and Optoelectronics Research Centre director Sir David Payne.

Based on current trends where degree courses and reputation of a varsity matter, some of the world’s best universities are offering top-notch courses at their respective campuses in Educity Iskandar Malaysia.

WITHOUT fibre optics, this story probably would not have been written.

In modern day journalism, an e-mail interview is a viable option if the interview subject is living halfway across the world.

Furthermore, journalists no longer have to sift through dusty files while researching for a story when Google can do the job easily, all thanks to fast-speed Internet connection made possible by fibre optics.

Prof Sir David Payne who heads the Optoelectronics Research Centre at the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom (UK), is the man behind the invention of the erbium-doped fibre amplifier in the 1980s which led to the vast transmission capacity of the Internet today.

He recently made headlines again when his team of researchers developed hollow fibre optic cables that transfers data at 99.7% of the world’s speed limit.

This translates to a transmission speed of 73.7 terabits per second, which is 1,000 times faster than the 40-gigabit fibre optic links at a much lower latency.

Sir David and Optoelectronics Research Centre deputy director Prof David Richardson, in a recent joint interview, agree that fibre technology has developed rapidly and steadily over the years.

They agree that the amount of information that can be sent down a single optical fibre has increased by about a factor of a billion over the past 40 years or so.

They say that more than a billion kilometres of fibre have already been laid across the globe, creating by far the biggest “machine” that mankind has ever constructed.

In doing so, it has enabled the development of the Internet and the incredible levels of connectivity to people and machines that most of us largely take for granted today.

Beyond the shores

Although both Sir David and Prof Richardson are based in the UK, students at the University of Southampton Malaysia Campus (USMC) have not been left behind by the research excellence promoted by the engineering faculties of the university.

USMC chief executive officer Prof John McBride says research and development activities are very big on the agenda of the engineering faculties in EduCity Iskandar Malaysia in Johor, and students in the Malaysian campus are learning the same modules as their UK counterparts.

“It’s a great campus here in Malaysia, all of our academics have PhD qualifications, some of the staff from UK are on long-term secondments here, while a significant number are returning Malaysians who have decided to come back to reverse the brain drain,” says Prof McBride.

“We are hoping to get Sir David to give a public lecture to our students here as he’s frequently in the region for a joint photonics research programme with the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore,” he adds.

As a member of the Russell Group (a representation of 24 leading UK universities), University of Southampton is ranked second at Electrical and Electronic Engineering in Times Good University Guide 2013.

University of Reading Malaysia vice-provost Prof Martha-Marie Kleinhans who enjoys a “neighbourly” relationship with Prof McBride at EduCity says students in UK universities are kept in the loop on the latest discoveries in R&D.

“If we come out with a discovery yesterday, we will share and teach it to you tomorrow. You don’t have to wait until we publish it, nor do you have to wait until it goes down the grapevine of some community colleges,” she says.

Besides having a tradition of academic excellence, a reputed university name does make a difference. It helps students get a headstart in the working world, says Prof McBride.

“Good universities like ours have connections with companies which constantly approach us to talk about our graduates, and that’s the kind of place where students would want to be,” he says.

Prof Kleinhans adds: “Being the university that we are, we have the network to lay out internship opportunities for our students. Apart from having good grades, the next step for students is to go beyond the university.

“That’s where we play our part in connecting our graduates to help them understand the impact out there.”

When asked about graduate unemployment worldwide, Prof McBride says those who graduate from reputable varsities need not be overly concerned as they secure jobs easily.

Those who graduate with professional qualifications in engineering, accountancy and pharmacy, he says are usually guaranteed a job although students should not be discouraged from pursuing their interest in other fields.

“My simple message is this: If you get a degree from a good university, you will be more marketable ... people will be coming to you ...

“The same applies to other countries too. When one is armed with a degree from a university that is not as renowned, chances are you will not be as employable.

“There are many students signing up for courses such as forensic science without realising that vacancies in this field are few and far between,” he says .

Prof Kleinhans says that based on the statistics presented, many graduates come into the job market thinking that they can command high salaries.

However, this is not always true as they must not only have qualifications relevant to the needs of the job market, but must have earned their degrees from well established institutions where the academic standards are higher.

“For graduates to secure high-paying jobs, it will be best for them to be enrolled in courses or in fields where jobs are readily available and in a reputable university.

“It is pointless pursuing ‘any course in any university’.

“They must have a purpose ... the pressure and focus has to be on having an education at the right university to ensure a better future ... the world is your oyster if you do that kind of thing,” she says.

Prof McBride says that during dialogues with multinational corporations, the top leadership of the organisations expressed their concerns over the large number of graduates who lack soft skills.

Communication is key

“The companies find that while graduates may have the qualifications, they are not always the ideal candidates for the jobs available simply because they are unable to communicate their ideas, project their thoughts and analyse a situation.”

Above and beyond the quality of work and research that the students put in, they need to have the ability to think through problems and explain their thought process, opines Prof Kleinhans.

“Often, employers are interested to find out if the graduates are able to communicate and think analytically.

“It is not uncommon for employers to ask questions such as ‘What is a table?’, ‘If you were a sandwich, what kind of sandwich would you be?’ to test how the graduates work out their answers,” she adds.

With all the emphasis on the graduates’ soft skills, it then begs the question on whether these skills can be taught.

“There is a perception that you can teach these skills as a subject, which I don’t quite agree.

“The way it is done is by having very good lecturers who not only teach Science, but talk around the subject and get students to talk about it so that they can learn across disciplines ... in the learning of Science subjects for instance,” says Prof McBride.

He points out that this approach to learning has already been a culture in many top universities.

“It’s not taught as part of the curriculum for most UK universities as it is not defined as a communication subject. It’s all about critical thinking and that is how students should develop the skills during their years in university,” says Prof McBride.

As Asian students tend to be more passive during lectures, both Prof McBride and Prof Kleinhans who have spent time in the Malaysian campuses are often asked if this teaching approach has worked for them.

“Coming from a university in North America where students are very active and noisy in classes, I found students in Britain to be completely quiet when I first went there.

“At the end of the day, the level of particpation by students in class is very relative depending on how you are looking at it,” says Prof Kleinhans.

As for Prof McBride, he thinks that the inaugural batch of students at USMC have great potential.

“You would expect the students to be quiet but many have volunteered to act as guides during the university’s open day. They have blossomed in a short time, they speak up ... which is all part of building their confidence that we should be proud of,” he says.

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