Policy Matters - In pursuit of a Nobel prize

07 Sep 2015 / 20:05 H.

    UNIVERSITI Malaya's vice-chancellor, Professor Datuk Dr Mohd Amin Jalaludin, wants his university to produce Malaysia's first Nobel prize winner. Not to be left behind, vice-chancellor Datuk Prof Dr Sahol Hamid Abu Bakar of Universiti Teknologi Mara is in the race to have one of its graduates win the Nobel prize.
    Should Malaysian universities try to produce Nobel laureates? Should they aim to inch up to find themselves in the list of the top 50 universities in the world?
    Before answering these questions directly, some of the undergrowth has to be cleared.
    Universities are a reflection of economic development. By and large, a country of low economic development would be able to support universities of a certain quality.
    A "good" university would, generally, be defined as one which has good teachers, research facilities, research output, patents, and of course, good students. Alternative or additional criteria could be added. One can go so far as to take into account the number of foreign students, the diversity in the nationalities of teaching staff, the availability of parking space, even travel grants for staff.
    When the level of economic development is low one cannot expect the government to spend a great deal on laboratories, invite Nobel laureates or other luminaries to give speeches. It will even be a challenge to retain the more marketable of its citizens from taking up appointments across the shores.
    Malaysia is afflicted by problems of its own that could stand in the way of producing Nobel laureates. The poor scores in PISA suggest that pre-university education is not at a high level. The "raw" material, obviously, is not of a high enough order to create globally renowned researchers.
    Recent reports indicate that there has been absolutely no quality control even over the English used in workbooks. It is astounding that this could have happened; hopefully, the final examination question papers, from which these questions were extracted, did not have these mistakes.
    Most Malaysian universities are teaching universities; the recruitment of lecturers is not based purely on meritocratic criteria; and, to top it all, lecturers feel encumbered by the bureaucratic processes that abound in universities.
    Within this context, it is unrealistic and unreasonable to expect the world of Malaysian universities. It is more sensible to demand that local universities satisfy the manpower needs of the nation.
    There is no point if one or two (or even 10) professors are working in esoteric areas in physics or economics. If Malaysians write the odd paper on quarks and their flavours, or on epistemic games, that is not going to have any effect on our gross domestic product.
    More impactful will be contributions to technology development that are of use to industry, or research on parasitology that will help reduce the incidence of dengue.
    Malaysia is at that level of development where it needs technologists who can take small and medium enterprises up the value chain.
    Companies need research analysts who can understand the workings of the economy, interpret the figures, and express an opinion on the economy, in five intelligible pages every morning, or every week, as the case may be.
    It is distressing if these analysts have sophisticated models in their heads but fumble when trying to find the words to voice their thoughts. It is worrisome if they have no opinion on the current state of the economy. And what if they cannot write half a page in English or Malay to size-up the economy?
    It would be unrealistic to try to breed Nobel prize winners when resources would be better spent on raising the overall standard of university education. We need more lecturers who can understand the technical papers in their respective fields, use their specialised knowledge in ways that can improve the lives of Malaysians, have a passionate interest in all that an academic life entails, and can participate intelligently in public discussions.
    By way of comparison, it would be preferable to buy Proton Sagas for a thousand Malaysians than send one Malaysian to space, especially if otherwise these thousand Malaysians would have to walk to work.
    It seems unduly narrow-minded to focus on the manpower needs of the economy. But as a first step it is imperative that the foundations of the economy be serviceable.
    There are complaints that the younger civil servants are not as intellectually inclined as those of the previous generations, that the younger career diplomats are not as articulate as they should be, that multinational corporations are not satisfied with the supply of human capital. The World Bank has alluded that Malaysia's human capital could pose a problem to the economy's long-term growth prospects.
    The universities have bureaucratised education. They now have elaborate criteria based on Bloom's taxonomy to categorise what is taught and at what level. They have devised methodologies to measure the output and productivity of lecturers.
    Yet, people mourn the decline of standards in tertiary education. They seek a return to a golden era in the past.
    We need to concentrate on rebuilding the basics and making sure that they purr like Formula 1 engines.
    Meanwhile, everyone should be encouraged to publish in Science and Nature.
    If one is persuaded to take a shot at the Nobel prize, one should. Why not?
    Dr Shankaran Nambiar is a senior research fellow at the Malaysian Institute of Economic Research. The views expressed in this article are his personal views. Comments: letters@thesundaily.com


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