Many higher education success stories are overlooked

Filepic: Entrance of University Malaya.

Despite some negative perceptions, there is much to be proud of and build on when it comes to our universities.

What do you think of our higher education system? 

I will start by giving you my answer: I believe it has been successful. 

So, before you answer that, read on.

The Bionic Prosthetic. In 2013, Azman Yeop Akil entered the Malaysian Book of Records as the first disabled Malaysian to cycle more than 1000km with a bionic leg. A few years earlier, in 2005, his right leg was amputated after being hit by a motorcycle. A project known as “Ekspedisi Kasih Bionik” (Bionic Love Expedition), initiated by the University of Malaya (UM)’s Centre for Applied Biomechanics (CAB), Photonics Research group and the Faculty of Engineering not only gave Azman a new type of prosthetic, but also a new lease of life. 

BAL EX STROKE. In a Pakistani village, some 130 members of a local community consisting of stroke patients, healthcare givers and family members were taught home-based rehabilitation exercises. The module, known as BAL EX STROKE, was created by Dr Zuraida Zainun and her team from Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM), whom, in collaboration with the Liaquat University of Medical and Health Sciences (LUMHS) Pakistan, has improved the quality of living of the local Pakistani community (after having successfully introduced it in Malaysia).

Safe Water Treatment Process. In 2008, Professor Azni Idris of Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM) won a gold medal at the International Exhibition at Innova, Brussels for his product “Aflok”. Aflok (not related to Ben), is used to treat various types of dirty water. What makes it special is that it aside from being 100% natural and environmentally friendly, it is able to overcome the problem of toxic sludge in industry wastewater. More importantly, Aflok has been able to clean rivers in remote areas around Malaysia and all over the world, giving many people access to clean water.

QurANIS. In 2013, UM’s Centre for Quranic Research in collaboration with the Foundation of Quranic Education for Special Children (FAQEH) established a programme known as QurANIS to education and guide special children on Islam. The programme provides special needs children the opportunity to learn the Quran based on their strengths and capabilities.

It is also worth mentioning that we have overtaken Singapore and Thailand in terms of the number of publications produced. This quantity also comes with quality: Four of our professors were named in the Thomson Reuters World’s Most Influential Scientific Minds list in 2014. They earned this distinction by ranking among the top 1% most cited researchers in their subject fields. Reports also state that Malaysia has seen a quadruple increase in the number of citations from 2005 to 2012, indicating increased confidence in Malaysian-produced research, and over 11% in yearly growth in university-filed patents. 

Between 2007 and 2011, RM3.6 billion in revenue had been generated by our five Research Universities (from RM1.863 billion government funding). These Research Universities, namely UM, USM, UPM, Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM) and Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM)) are projected to spearhead research and development which will lead to the creation of some 182,720 jobs by 2020. 

Alright, enough of the nerdy technical stuff, I promise. The reason I’ve highlighted the above is because, just like my earlier article on Measuring Change in Education (Link:, there are many good things happening in our higher education system that we should and can be proud of. A year ago, I was oblivious to many of these amazing achievements. 

Indeed, some of you may say that we aren’t doing well in international rankings. To this, a few things come to mind. Firstly, over the last few years we’ve seen an upwards trajectory in rankings. In the QS World Universities Rankings, UM is 151st in the world (up from 167th in 2013) and 32nd in Asia. UM is also best amongst Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) nations. 

USM is 28th in the world for environmental sciences while UPM is 54th in the world for agricultural sciences (no.7 in Asia and no.1 in South East Asia). In the recently released UI-Greenmetric World University Ranking, UPM is ranked 41st in the world for campus sustainability and environmental management. Many of our universities also rank within the top 100 in the world for subjects-matter like engineering, language studies, and computer sciences (niche focuses). 

Unconvinced? Fair enough. You may be unhappy that we aren’t ranked in the Times Higher Education list or say that we aren’t placed high enough, etc. This is no doubt a work in progress, and our universities are working hard.  Lest we forget, there’s also subjective side to rankings – who decides? Are criteria fair? And does it truly reflect an institutions worth? With more than 5 organisations vying to be the authoritative source of ranking, it’ll be a long time before that debate is settled.

Without a doubt, improving our graduates’ English proficiency and communication skills is vital. Equally important is to talk about the growing political awakening of our university students, some for the better (and gate-crashing vandalism aside), for worse, and how to manage the discourse in a healthy, reflective manner (for lack of space, I shall revisit this in the future).

Moving forward, we need to build on the successes. In March 2015, the Malaysian government will launch the Higher Education Blueprint which will lay down 10 strategic shifts that’ll guide our HE landscape for the next 10 years (2015-2025). 

From graduates who are ‘job seekers’ to ‘job creators’, university focused education to equally valuable TVET (Technical and Vocational Education and Training) pathways, and from a centralised system of governance to a more autonomous one, we are in for exciting times.

A public review of the HE Blueprint is currently taking place online until February 20th. You can give your own feedback and view the 10 shifts

Alternatively, if you’re ready, feel free to share your answer to the question I started with. Emails and tweets welcomed. 

> The views expressed are entirely the writer's own. 

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Danial Rahman

Danial Rahman

Danial Rahman has education close to his heart. He tweets at @danial_ari and welcomes feedback at


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