The Higher Education Ministry's battle cry, "Soaring Upwards" – meaning continuous improvement – continues to ring loudly in 2016. While there have been many positives, the year has seen its share of challenges. Let's take a look.
First, the positives.
Rising in Asia
Just last week, QS announced its Asia University Rankings, and five Malaysian public universities were ranked in the top 100. In fact, two are in the top 50 – Universiti Malaya (UM) in 27th place and Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM), in 49th place, with Universiti Sains Malaysia (51), Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (55) and Universiti Teknologyi Malaysia (63) rounding up the top 100.
While we shouldn't be too obsessed with rankings, they clearly excite the public. An infographic on Higher Education Minister Datuk Seri Idris Jusoh's Facebook page clocked nearly 2,000 shares in a matter of days.
Equally encouraging is that two private universities are in Asia's top 200 – Universiti Teknologi Petronas (127) and Taylor's University (179).
Three subjects, top 50 worldwide
In March, QS released its World Universities Rankings by subject. For the first time in Malaysia's higher education history, three subjects are ranked top 50 in the world. UM leads the pack with two subjects, namely, development studies (30) and electrical and electronic engineering (37), with USM's chemical engineering at 46th.
To add to this, 13 subjects were ranked within the world's top 100, including all engineering categories assessed (aeronautical, mechanical and manufacturing engineering) as well as agriculture, pharmacy and computer sciences.
As universities worldwide become more focused and niche, it's encouraging to see that we have a number of standout subjects offered locally.
Three scientists recognised as world's most influential
Earlier this year, three professors, two Malaysians and an Iraqi, serving in UKM and USM, were named in Thomson Reuters Most Influential Scientific Minds list. All three were in the field of chemical engineering. They were selected because their publications were among the most-highly cited in the world.
Malaysia, Germany top list
In a major British Council report published in May, Malaysia and Germany were singled out as the best performers in research that looks at national policies on openness to international higher education. The report, "The Shape of Global Higher Education: National Policies Framework for International Engagement", rates Malaysia and Germany as 'very high' in terms of openness, quality assurance and recognition, as well as access and sustainability.
Home to top international varsities
Recently, it was reported that Malaysia is currently home to 10 international university branch campuses – the highest in Asia.
We are home to five British universities (Nottingham, Reading, Newcastle, Southampton and the newest, Heriot-Watt) – the largest battalion outside of Great Britain. Also here are universities from Australia (Monash, Swinburne and Curtin), China (Xiamen – the first Chinese university approved to open overseas) and Singapore (Raffles). Malaysia is also home to the Asia School of Business (ASB), a collaborative effort between Malaysia's Central Bank and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Sloan School of Management (MIT-Sloan) which will offer world-class executive education beginning September 2016 – imagine, MIT in Malaysia!
The British Council report and Malaysia's strong international educational institution presence bodes well for the Malaysian Government's aims to turn Malaysia into a global education hub and attract 200,000 international students by 2020.
As it stands, there are some 120,000 international students (151,000 including school children) studying in Malaysia. More than 30,000 are pursuing postgraduate degrees. International students currently contribute about RM7.9 billion to the nation's economy and this is expected to increase to about RM15.6 billion per annum by 2020.
Beyond the economics, the presence of international students should enhance competition between institutions and between students.
And now, let's take a look at some of the arising challenges.
UM publication manipulation
Just last week, it was reported that four scientific publications published by UM researchers in various international journals were found to have contained manipulated figures (images and graphs).
UM's management has acted swiftly and have instructed the author and co-authors to retract the papers, with the university's research integrity and ethics committee currently deliberating the appropriate action to be taken.
Quite appropriately, Vice-Chancellor, Prof Tan Sri Dr Mohd Amin has come out and said that UM does not condone any form of research misconduct.
Perhaps for the nation's top university, which is ranked 146th in the world, 27th in Asia, has two subjects in the top 50, among others, the pressure of maintaining performance or chasing KPIs is getting to their researchers.
When things like this happen, it is important to reflect and ensure are priorities and intentions are in the right place. The chasing of rankings and publication numbers should never be done at the expense of academic integrity.
UTM's insensitive slides
Another controversial issue arose last week when presentations slides used by a yet-to-be identified UTM lecturer in a subject on Islamic and Asian Civilisation (Titas) contained information that was deemed insulting to members of the Hindu and Sikh faiths.
The issue caused a lot of uproar, not merely for being ignorant or insensitive, but because it was an academician who had prepared the slides. The duty of care of an academician is high, especially as he or she is seen as an intellectual leader in society, what more an educator of young Malaysians.
Commendably, UTM Vice-Chancellor Prof Datuk Dr Wahid Omar immediately issued an apology on behalf of the university. At present, an investigation by an independent panel is underway, with the outcome expected sometime this week.
So there you have it. The highlights of what has been an interesting few months for Malaysia's higher education sector. The Higher Education Ministry and universities have clearly been working hard, so kudos to them.
For every positive, there will be a negative. In my opinion, knowing both and working towards a better tomorrow is very important. I write about education – in all its glory and gloom – because I believe in its role in shaping a better Malaysia.
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Danial Rahman has education close to his heart. He tweets at @danial_ari and welcomes feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.