Danial Rahman

Danial Rahman has education close to his heart. He tweets at @danial_ari and welcomes feedback at danialrahman0330@gmail.com.



CAN our public universities reach the heights of renowned institutions such as the University of  Oxford some day?

As a statement of aspiration, the answer is certainly “yes”.

However, the perception of our public universities (and political climate) is such that many would prefer if nobody said such a thing. Shutting up is better.

Fortunately, the Second Education Minister Datuk Seri Idris Jusoh has never been conventional as such and recently made a statement to the effect that our universities could one day be on par with Harvard, MIT and Oxford.

True to the times, this statement was met with ridicule, anger and lots of cursing. An online newsportal spun it, implying that the Minister mentioned that we could be like Oxford “soon” (though this was never uttered).

Even a renowned local academician bought into the spin and wrote a commentary condemning the statement and the higher education system, which, ironically, he has been a part of (and influenced) for almost 26 years.

For the uninitiated, Idris Jusoh’s speech is available online at his Facebook page. Before the ‘controversial’ statement, he had prefaced it with the achievements of our public universities (I’ve written an article on the hidden success stories so I wont repeat myself. Please check it out here: http://www.thestar.com.my/Opinion/Online-Exclusive/Whats-Your-Status/Profile/Articles/2015/02/05/Many-higher-education-success-stories-are-overlooked/)

He followed through, and this is key, by saying “Give us 30, 40 or 50 more years, there is no reason why our universities cannot compete with the best universities in the world”.

The point to be made here is this: Aspirations are important. It gives us hope and focus.

I’m glad that the Minister is willing to face the expected criticisms to remind us that we can choose to be great (which coincidentally is the title of a book).

I tell my friends to look for the positives, because everyone else will remind them of the negatives.

So, where do we go from here?

On 7 April 2015, the Malaysia Higher Education Blueprint 2015-2025 was launched (available online at http://hes.moe.gov.my/event/). In the executive summary, it mentions that the HE Blueprint aims to build on the successes, address the problems and continually ensure that Malaysia’s higher education system stays abreast with, if not ahead of, global trends.

A number of initiatives will be introduced, but there are four that that caught my eye, of which I’d like to highlight.

The first is an initiative known as the ‘CEO Faculty Programme’. Imagine the likes of Tony Fernandes (CEO AirAsia), Azman Mokhtar (MD Khazanah), Lee Sang Hoon (President Samsung Malaysia), and Azman Ismail (MD Shell) giving lectures in public universities on a frequent basis (and not just a one-off special event). I’m made to understand that these CEOs as well as a few others have given their commitment to lecture 30 hours a year – a sizable amount of time for a busy CEO!

I’m envious. Having heard Tony speak in the past, his students are in for an inspiring and mind-opening experience. It’s also great to see the private sector take a proactive role in the learning process by sharing real-life experiences. Imagine the case studies one could discuss in such lectures.

The second initiative is a four-pronged academic career progression track, namely, teaching, research, leadership and professional. When I was in university, it puzzled me that some very good lecturers did not become ‘associate professors’ or even ‘professors’. What baffled me was how some did.

Later I realised that this was because these good lecturers were more interested in teaching and lecturing and had honed their ability to present lectures, enhanced pedagogy, and provide tutorials. The consequence was that that they didn’t spend much time doing research or writing papers, which was a requisite for promotion. I felt that this was unfair and arbitrary. It also gave an advantage to academicians who were good at research and writing, but not as effective at lecturing, which defeats the purpose of teaching a class.

And so, under the HE Blueprint, promotions and career-progression will no longer be weighted mainly towards research and writing. Those who excel at teaching can focus there and have as much an opportunity to become a professor as those who excel at research. In the United Kingdom, some professors do not have PhD’s but are made professors for their expertise in the field of knowledge and experience. I see our universities being more dynamic and accommodating through such an initiative, and I for one, look forward to seeing this become a reality.

According to news reports, Harvard University has an endowment fund of more than USD30 billion. The size of the endowment has been the product of many years of alumni engagement, which I feel is sorely lacking in Malaysia.

Having graduated from a local university not too long ago, I’ve barely received any alumni updates. Contrastingly, the university in which I did my masters, based in the UK, sends me an email almost every month.

Undoubtedly, there is a need to leverage on alumni success and wealth in Malaysia. One of the pushes in the HE Blueprint is for greater financial sustainability of the higher education system. Recently, UiTM launched the “RM1 billion Education Fund”. Boasting an immpressive alumnus of nearly 600,000, if each were to give RM2000, achieving the RM1 billion goal would be easy. This is an initiative worth keeping an eye on, for it will have many positive repercussions for our students, least with regard to scholarships and providing educational opportunities (and reducing reliance on the government for funding).

The final initiative I’d like to highlight is enhanced public-private cooperation. Recently, Samsung Malaysia set up a “Internet of Things Academy” in Universiti Teknikal Malaysia Malaysia (UTeM or Technical University of Melaka, Malaysia). Internet of Things or IoT (as it is popularly known) will be the next big shift within the technology world. It is about our daily items communicating with each other and the internet to improve our quality of living.

Samsung recently pledged USD100 million to promote and pursue IoT research worldwide. The setting up of the IoT Academy in UTeM is the first of its kind in the world. UTeM students will now be able to access the latest technologies and do research related to IoT. The academy is also open to students from other academies.

The Samsung-UTeM IoT Academy is just one example of many public-private efforts currently taking place within the higher education system. Companies such as CIMB, B-Braun, IBM and Rolls Royce, just to name a few, are already actively engaging with out higher education institutions, from universities to community colleges, by setting up centers, providing internships, and advising on curriculum.

In conclusion, as ironic as this may sound, knowledge of the HE Blueprint isn’t as important as the impact is gives. As a student, I never really cared much for strategic plans or blueprints. All I cared for was to get a good lecturer, good grades and that the university supported my cocurricular activites (in this case, debating). And today it’s the same – All a student wants is a good education and opportunities (their parents too).

I believe that HE Blueprint will provide just that with the many initiatives put in place. And I sincerely hope that the students, lecturers and community feel the positive impact from it.

Originally published on The Star on Thursday April 23, 2015 MYT 12:42:00 PM

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