Ministry on track with R&D graduates

"MALAYSIA not churning out suitable graduates to drive innovation, R&D" (SunBiz, Sept 8) refers.

We thank Prof Dwight H. Perkins for his views and are glad there is keen international interest in Malaysian higher education.

The Ministry of Higher Education recognises the importance of producing holistic, entrepreneurial and balanced graduates as stipulated in Shift 1 of our Higher Education Blueprint 2015-2025. This encompasses producing graduates who are innovative and able to drive R&D.

Ten years ago the ministry introduced the research universities (RU) initiative to enculture R&D and accelerate its growth. We are now reaping the benefits as the five RUs have recorded an increase in postgraduate students (masters and PhDs) whose focus are on R&D. There were also increases in publications and citations (594% according to Thomson Reuters), international collaborations, patents filed and more. To date, the ministry has recorded over 28% in return of research investments from the RU initiative – a positive yield from the commercialisation of ideas and research products.

The ministry has also introduced the integrated cumulative grade point average (iCGPA) initiative in 2015 which not only assesses students' knowledge, but also their problem solving, information management, and entrepreneurial skills. The iCGPA is the first of its kind in the world and is being implemented in 20 public universities encompassing over 350 programmes.

On innovation, Malaysia is proud to have produced many graduates who are innovative. Among them are Joel Neoh, a graduate from Monash University Malaysia, who is involved with Groupon Malaysia and Catcha Media. There is also Noorain Mohd Said, a University of Malaya chemistry graduate who applied her knowledge to innovate organic body care products earning her millions while still studying.

At Universiti Tenaga Nasional, a group of students created a car-sharing application to help ease traffic congestion while at the Multimedia University a software that recognises locations based on pictures of buildings was developed. These are just some examples to show the innovative mindset of Malaysian students.

On the brain drain issue, we thank Perkins for acknowledging that Malaysians are sought after by overseas universities and for employment.

The government recognises the challenges of brain drain, which is a worldwide phenomenon. But on the flip side, there is also brain gain.

In 2015, World Bank lead economist Truman G. Packard said "many talented Malaysians come home after being based abroad, which brings many benefits for the country."

The bank suggested that brain drain is not a major concern and that Malaysia's efforts to bring experienced Malaysians home were on the right track.

On the nature of Malaysian universities where presidencies are picked by the government, the issue of autonomy in higher education has been long debated. In the Higher Education Blueprint, autonomy is addressed and the ministry recognises that it must move from "tight controller" to "regulator and policymaker".

Currently, the powers to appoint key public university posts are legally vested in the minister, nevertheless the appointment process is thorough:

(i) the board and academic associations can nominate candidates and give their views to the minister;

(ii) the ministry has a selection committee of eminent persons who advise the minister; and

(iii) the Higher Education Leadership Academy profiles the candidates.

Appointments are not left to chance or whims and fancy.

The minister of higher education recently delivered a keynote speech on autonomy. He acknowledged that "Greater university autonomy is required for future success" and that autonomy is a gradual process. His speech can be accessed at facebook.com/DatoSeriIdrisJusoh/posts/814879262021952

On the quote that universities are not what they should be and if teachers are brought in without merit, it would be cheating the students: All university lecturers have to pass rigorous academic vetting to be appointed as faculty members. A PhD is a minimum. Merit is highly valued and there is no compromise on quality.

Most of Malaysia's higher education success stories are the result of the hard work and effort of our homegrown academics and researchers. Some have been recognised by Thomson Reuters as "World's Most Influential Scientific Minds".

Some academics prefer to leave due to their inability to meet key performance indicators set by the universities. The minister has communicated that such preference is respected and that academics who do not perform can leave or be released.

On the quote that "A few years ago I was pretty optimistic that Malaysia was going to make the necessary changes; I am a lot less optimistic today": I believe Perkins has reason to be optimistic. Malaysia's higher education system is improving as expressed by our apothegm, "Soaring Upwards".

In fact, 2017 has been a record breaking year. The acronym UMAR illustrates our recent success stories:

U stands for Universitas 21 or the U21 Ranking of National Higher Education Systems. In this year's report, the Malaysian HE system was ranked 25th overall – an improvement of 11 places over the last six years.

M refers to University of Malaya. In the last five years, UM has steadily improved in the QS World University Rankings. From 167 in 2013, it is now 114. Within the next two years, it is expected to break into the top 100.

A – Among Asean nations, Malaysia is home to five of Asean's top eight universities, namely its 3rd, 4th, 5th, 7th and 8th institutions.

R stands for research universities. Out of about 26,000 universities worldwide, Malaysia's RUs are ranked within the Top 1% in the world.

Malaysian universities are performing well in subject rankings. In 2017, a total of 11 subjects offered by our public and private universities were ranked among the top 50 in the world by the QS World University Rankings 2016/2017.

University of Malaya leads the way with five subjects in the world's top 50: 23rd for electronic and electrical engineering; 26th for developmental studies; 33rd for mechanical engineering; 38th for chemical engineering; and 41st for education.

Universiti Sains Malaysia: 32nd hospitality management; 35th mineral and mining; 38th chemical engineering; and 49th environmental sciences.

Taylor's University (a historic first for a private university) is in 29th spot for hospitality management.

International Islamic University Malaysia is in 46th spot for divinity, theology and religious studies.

We appreciate Perkins' views. The ministry accepts that there are still many challenges ahead. Rest assured, it is working hard to ensure we address these challenges.

We have introduced a number of initiatives known as Redesigning Higher Education and iCGPA is one initiative under this heading. Others include Malaysia MOOC (the world's first nationally coordinated MOOC initiative); CEO@Faculty Programme (where top industry CEOs are appointed as adjunct professors and teach up to 30 hours a year in our public universities); 2u2i (a work-based learning undergraduate programme which will give students greater industry exposure); and APEL or Accreditation of Prior Experiential Learning (which enables individuals without formal academic qualifications to use their experience to enter university) and many more.

We have also embarked on an extensive effort to better understand the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Soon, we will be introducing a Higher Education 4.0 Framework to ensure higher education institutions are ready for the disruptions that will take place, and are able to equip future graduates with the skills and knowledge needed in the era of technology convergence.

The Ministry of Higher Education will keep communicating with stakeholders on its recent efforts and welcomes feedback.

Datin Paduka Ir Dr Siti Hamisah Tapsir
Director-General of Higher Education