Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Alternative take on USM expansion

I probably won't have the time to go through the plans / blueprints regarding the USM expansion so I won't be able to add much more to what I've already said earlier. While my take is slightly more positive, here's a very negative opinion on the project written by Anil Netto. Anil is right to be skeptical of such ambitious plans in the Malaysian context given our poor track record but I hope that there are some grounds for my optimism.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Bakri Musa's take on Science & Math in English

M Bakri Musa wrote this piece on his blog last week. I agree with most of this points. I'm agnostic when it comes to this issue since I recognize that there are pros and cons on both sides of the argument. I'm a pragmatist and I would choose the option which will bring about the most benefits with the least cost. Given that internal studies of the MOE have shown that teaching Science and Math in English doesn't really affect the results of students (I'd like to see the methodology though), I think that it makes sense to continue teaching both these subjects in English.

Continue Teaching Science and Mathematics in Malay

The government’s decision to revisit (and most likely do away with) the current teaching of science and mathematics in English is an instructive example of how an otherwise sensible policy could easily be discredited and then abandoned because of poor execution. Had there been better planning, many of the problems encountered could have been readily anticipated and thus avoided, or at least reduced. The policy would then more likely to succeed, and thus be accepted.

Ironically, only a year ago a Ministry of Education “study” pronounced the program to be moving along “smoothly,” with officials “satisfied” with its implementation. Now another “study” showed that there was no difference in the “performance” (whatever that term means or how they measure it) between those taught in Malay or English.

The policy was in response to the obvious deficiencies noted in students coming out of our national schools: their abysmal command of English, and their limited mathematical skills and science literacy. They carry these deficits when they enter university, and then onto the workplace.

The results are predictable. These graduates are practically unemployable. As the vast majority of them are Malays, this creates tremendous political pressure on the government to act as employer of last resort. Accommodating these graduates made our civil service bloated and inefficient, burdened by their deficient language and mathematical abilities.

This longstanding problem began in the late 1970s when Malay became the exclusive language of instruction in our public schools and universities. Overcoming this problem would be a monumental undertaking.

The greatest mistake was to underestimate the magnitude of the task, especially in overcoming the system’s inertia. Today’s teachers and policy makers are products of this all-Malay education system. Change would mean repudiating the very system that had produced them, a tough sell at the best of times.

In their naivety, ministry officials convinced themselves that such enormous obstacles as the teachers’ lack of English fluency could easily be overcome by enrolling them in short culup (superficial) courses that were in turn conducted by those equally inept in English. Or by simply providing these teachers with laptops programmed with instructional modules!

Even if we had had the best talents devoting themselves exclusively to implementing the policy, the task would still be huge. Unfortunately we have Hishammuddin Hussein as Minister of Education shepherding the change. An insightful innovator or an effective executive he is not. Being simultaneously an UMNO Youth Chief, he was also distracted in trying to pass himself off as the champion of Ketuanan Melayu.

These factors practically ensure the initiative’s failure. The tragic part is that the burden of the failure falls disproportionately on the rural poor, meaning Malays, a point missed by these self-professed nationalists. I would have thought that that alone would have motivated them to succeed.

A Better Way

Teaching science and mathematics in English would solve two problems simultaneously. One, considering the critical shortage of textbooks, journals, and other literature in Malay, teaching the two subjects in English would facilitate the acquisition of new knowledge by our students. With the exponential growth of new knowledge, it would be impossible to keep up solely through translations, even if we were to devote our entire intellectual resources towards that endeavor.

The other objective was to enhance the English fluency of our students. Of course if that were the only consideration, there are other more effective ways of achieving it, like devoting more instructional hours to the subject.

If, as the recent Ministry’s “study” indicates, there is no difference in performance between those taught in Malay or English, that in itself would favor continuing the program because of the twin benefits discussed earlier. Besides, changing course midstream would not only be disruptive but also counterproductive. Our educational system needs predictable stability and incremental improvements, not disruptive U-turns and faddish changes, especially in response to political pressures.

A more important point is this. Altering a politically pivotal and highly emotional public policy requires careful preparation and deliberate execution. If I were to implement the policy, this is what I would do. Lest readers think that this is hindsight wisdom on my part, rest assured that I had documented these ideas in my earlier book, long before the government even contemplated the policy.

Being prudent, as we are dealing with our children’s and nation’s future, I would begin with a small pilot project, analyze the problems, correct the deficiencies, and only then expand the program.

First, I would implement the policy initially only at primary and selected secondary schools, like our residential schools. The language requirements as well as the science and mathematical concepts at the primary level are quite elementary, and thus more readily acquired by the teachers. And at that level the pupils would not have to unlearn much as everything would still be new.

In schools where the background English literacy level of the pupils is low as in the villages, I would have the pupils take English immersion classes for a full term or even a year. We had earlier successful experiences with this with our Special Malay Classes and Remove classes. This strategy has also been tried successfully in America for children of non-English-speaking immigrants. Another idea I put forth in my earlier book is to bring back the old English schools in such areas. As the Malay literacy level in the community and at home is high, these pupils are unlikely to “forget” their own language.

At the secondary level, our residential schools get the best students and teachers. Consequently the program could be more easily implemented there as the learning curve would be steep, and mistakes more readily recognized and corrected. Once the kinks have been worked out, expand the program.

Second is the issue of teachers. Fortunately Malaysia has two large untapped reservoirs of talent: recently retired teachers trained under the old English-based system, and native English speakers who are either spouses of Malaysians or residents of this country. Given adequate compensation and minimal of hassles, they could be readily recruited.

I would add other incentives especially if they were to serve in rural areas where the need is most acute. Thus in addition to greater pay, I would give them first preference to teachers’ quarters.

A permanent solution would be to convert a number of existing teachers’ colleges into exclusively English-medium institutions to train future teachers of English, science, and mathematics. As the present teacher-trainees have limited English fluency, I would begin admitting them right away in January following their leaving school in December of the preceding year.

From that January till the regular opening of the academic year (sometime in July), these trainees would undergo intensive English immersion classes where their entire 24-hour day would be consumed with learning, speaking, thinking, and even dreaming in English. With the subsequent three years of additional instructions exclusively in English, these graduates would then be fully fluent in English.

With such quality programs, these graduates would be in great demand within and outside their profession. With their heightened English facility and mathematical competency, their educational opportunities would also expand as they could further their studies anywhere in the English-speaking world. With such bright prospects, these colleges would have no difficulty recruiting talented school leavers. Our teaching profession would also be enriched with the addition of such talents.

As for textbooks, there is no need to write new ones. The contents of these two subjects are universally applicable. Meaning, textbooks written for British students would be just as suitable for Malaysians, so we could select already available books. With its purchasing clout, the government could drive a hard bargain with existing publishers.

I hope Ministry of Education officials, including and especially Hishammuddin, would heed these factors when they review the current policy. They should continue the current policy, correct the evident errors, and strengthen the obvious weaknesses. The success of this policy would also mean success for our students, and our nation. That is a worthy pursuit for anyone with ambitions to one day lead the nation.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Ambitious USM expansion

I've always had more good things to say than bad about USM and USM's progressive and forward looking VC, Dzulkifli Abdul Razak. He's just announced an ambitious RM450 million expansion plan to build a science and arts park in Penang. I think this plan has got some good ingredients including looking at different forms of funding for this expansion plan. If it works out, hopefully, it can be one of the many good things which Penang can look forward to.


Thanks to one of our regular readers for this link. It is a speech from the new VC of the University Malaysia Sabah, Lt. Col. Prof. Datuk Dr. Kamaruzaman Hj. Ampon. A brief read of his bio and a brief search on google scholar shows that he is a legit academic. His appointment was clearly a political appointment as part of a series of moves by Pak Lah aimed at appeasing the politicians in Sabah and to prevent them from leaving the BN. There was no VC select committee convened to authorize this search. But as far as political appointees go, Dr. Kamaruzaman seems like a pretty good candidate on paper. I wish him all the best in his efforts to build up UMS.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Talk about kiasu

Saw this report about Lukasz Zbylut who applied to 18 colleges in the US and got accepted into 7 Ivy League schools as well as Stanford and NYU (Stanford is not an Ivy League school, for those of you who might not know). He got accepted by 17 out of the 18 schools. MIT rejected him. He's going to Harvard and will reject, among others, Princeton and Yale. Frankly, I think that applying to 18 schools is a bit excessive but you gotta give him props given that he only came to the US about 5 years ago and didn't speak much English then.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

More students at IPTS vs IPTA

It won't be long before the number of students in private colleges and universities (IPTS) in Malaysia outnumbers those in the public universities. The ratio is approaching 1:1, according to a recent Star report. What are some of the implications? What are some of the challenges?

I reproduce the newspaper report below so that we can preserve the statistics on this blog.

GEORGE TOWN: The enrolment at private institutions of higher learning (IPTS) is increasing and almost at a 1:1 ratio with that of public institutions of higher learning (IPTA), said Deputy Higher Education Minister Dr Hou Kok Chung.

He said the 2007 intake saw 167,788 students enrolling for undergraduate courses at IPTS and 190,265 at IPTA.

This, he said, was in contrast to the total number of 365,800 students who are now pursuing undergraduate courses at IPTS and 507,438 at the IPTA.

"The IPTS is getting stronger and more important," he told a press conference Monday after a meeting with senior executives of IPTS at Trader's Hotel here.

Dr Hou said the meeting was a forum to interact with representatives from IPTS to brief them on the latest matters involving the ministry’s policies, and to hear their issues and proposals.

Among the matters addressed Monday were the ongoing establishment audit of 200 IPTS, increasing the intake of genuine foreign students, the issue of lack of teaching staff, and the restructuring of IPTS.

Dr Hou said 17 out of 33 active IPTS in Penang had approval to take in foreign students, adding that there were now 571 foreign students out of the 34,634 IPTA and IPTS undergraduates in the state.

He said the target was to have 80,000 foreign students enrolled in higher education institutions throughout the nation by 2010.

"There are now about 50,000 foreign undergraduates, with about 34,000 of them enrolled in IPTS," he said, adding that there was no quota for the IPTS while the IPTA was only allowed to take in 5% foreign undergraduates starting last year.

My impression of private colleges and universities can be summarized as such:

There will be a gradual differentiation in the quality and reputation of private colleges and universities. In fact some of this is already happening. There will emerge a handful of IPTS which will challenge the IPTA as research universities. Sunway Monash and Nottingham are obvious candidates. There will be other 'home grown' IPTS which will want to or be pushed to the direction of being research universities.
There will also be another layer of IPTS who don't have research aspirations but will be known for offering good facilities, courses and teaching. In addition, I suspect that there will also be some specialized IPTS which focus on certain types of courses - design (LimKokWing) or IT (Informatics). And then there will be a scattering of smaller IPTS which offer 'value for money' courses.

With as many students entering IPTS compared to the IPTAs, their importance will only grow and will have a big impact on the skill levels of the work force, the research activities in our universities, the job creating potential in the education sector and so on.

But there are also many concerns associated with the rapid expansion of the IPTS, including:

1) The quality and number of lecturers needed to teach the growing number of students in these institutions. While a PhD is not really necessary to teach or to teach well, one wonders what kind of quality control the IPTS have in regard to training and equipping lecturers to teach the courses they need to teach.

2) The type of courses being offered. Most IPTS offer commercially viable courses in a small number of areas - business, accounting, computing, economics, engineering, sciences. While the types of courses have expanded with competition and more IPTS, one wonders if these are the ONLY types of courses that should be offered at IPTS. Will there be a separation of markets such that the 'non-marketable' courses such as forestry, archeology, Islamic studies and so on are only offered at the IPTAs?

3) The growing number of foreign students. The problems associated with this are manifold. I generally feel very sorry for many of the foreign students who are given very skewed impressions of what it is like to study in a private college in Malaysia and then are very disappointed when they come here. Some blame has to be attributed to the aggressive agents in countries like China to are given financial incentives to 'recruit' students to come to Malaysia. There are also problems associated with 'students' coming to the country under a student visa as a cover to conduct illicit activities. Generally, I think its a good way for the country to earn foreign exchange and for private colleges to expand but there needs to be a greater level of self regulation on this front.

The expansion of the IPTS has more positives than negatives, in my opinion. It provides another avenue of job creation for the country, it gives different options to Malaysians who want to earn a degree, it earns foreign exchange for the country and it can contribute towards human capital development. But that doesn't mean that there are huge challenges associated with the rapid expansion of IPTS, some of which have been mentioned here.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

PTPTN loans - some practical solutions

For those who don't know, PTPTN loans are low cost loans given by the government to students studying at universities in Malaysia. I've always supported the government's moves to track down those who fail to repay their PTPTN loans. If the default rates continue at the current rate, the allocation given to PTPTN might be used up pretty soon.

The loan default runs into many millions of taxpayers dollars and puts the viability of this program in jeopardy. Which makes me ask these questions - why is the default rate so high and is PTPTN the best vehicle to channel these loans?

I don't know what the exact default rate is like but it has to be pretty serious for PTPTN to consider pretty drastic measures to track down those who fail to repay their loans. Some of the measures proposed includes blocking their passports and blacklisting them on credit bureaus which would make it difficult for them to take out housing and car loans.

My sense of why the repayment rate might be low is that those who take out the loans don't think that the government will go after them if they fail to pay back their loans. There is a feeling that the government is too inefficient to go after them or that the government simply doesn't care about them not paying the loans back. After all, many JPA scholars do the same, don't they? Furthermore, there might be a sense of entitlement that I deserve a scholarship to go to university and as such I shouldn't be made to pay back this 'loan'.

Which brings me to the 2nd question. Is PTPTN the best organization to be in charge of managing these loans? Would, for example, giving this responsibilities to banks a better solution?

One of the reasons why these loans are taken up by the government is because banks would not want to give out loans to students who can only pay them back in 3 or 4 years time. Furthermore, these PTPTN loans are subsidized in that they have low or no interest rates (in addition to a management fee) on the grounds of encouraging potential students to attend university and by doing so, provide a public good for the country.

Given this market failure, would it not make sense if the government were to subsidize these loans through banking institutions who have a much better infrastructure to manage these loans (and to collect on them)?

Anyone who is familiar with the credit collections process would be able to tell you that it is a very tricky process requiring dedicated resources and creative ways of pressuring those who have not paid their loans to pay up. I have no reason to think that the PTPTN civil servants are in a better position to chase down these loan defaulters compared to professionally trained staff in private banks who are given financial incentives to chase down loan defaulters. Given this, wouldn't it make more sense from an administrative and efficiency point of view to subcontract loans to university students to the financial sector instead of keeping it as a government function?

If PTPTN does not want to let go of the whole loan giving business, there is also the option for it to subcontract the process of chasing down loan defaulters to recognized credit collection agencies.

Long term, the government has to rethink its role in giving loans to potential university students given that a larger and larger proportion of the population is going to institutions of higher education. I personally don't think that what they are doing now is sustainable. Although there are a lot more complexities involved, I think it makes more sense for the government to allow the private sector to take over this responsibility stepping in only to provide some sort of guarantee or financial subsidy for these financial institutions to give out these loans to students who will only be able to repay them after a lag period.

After all, most banks in developed countries make a good profit from making student loans to potential students, many of them without having any government subsidy or guarantee. Without significant changes, I don't see how Khalid Nordin, the Minister for Higher Education can achieve an 80% repayment rate for PTPTN loans.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

USA For Students Education Fair

USA For Students , a US Education Fair would be held this Saturday, 14th June 10am to 4pm at Wisma MCA.

This event is co-organized by US Embassy, MACEE, American Universities Alumni Malaysia and Discover US Education - KL.

This is the 3rd year such a US Education fair is held in Malaysia, and this year, there will be 51 top US Universities, including Harvard, Princeton, MIT, Stanford etc. A series of seminars would be held too, covering topics from US Education System, Visa, Applications for undergrad and postgrad, interviews, job prospect after graduation etc.

Do check it out at USA For Students !

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Another take on the JPA policy change

This letter was written by a friend of mine, the astute Neil Khor. Many good points raised by him.

Have merit-based system for scholarships
Neil Khor | Jun 9, 08 2:48pm

I refer to the Malaysiakini report PSD scholarships: Publish names, results.

There are many reasons why everyone should be given a scholarship. A student with 11As, who comes from a poor family living in rural Malaysia is definitely someone who deserves support. The government or charitable organisation that supports such a student is uplifting not only an individual but also his family, helping them out of poverty. That is what a government scholarship should ultimately do - better all lives not just the individual.

Which brings us back to the issue of the contentious 45% quota for non-Malays, an increase from 10%. Here is a case of knee-jerk reaction. If urban, mostly non-Malay constituents have rejected the BN, the government - with its great compensatory power - now wants to buy back their votes by giving more non-Malays scholarships. At the same time, this creates an opposite reaction from certain Malay groups, losing them Malay voters.

If the government really wants to take the wind out of the opposition’s sail, they should simply do away with race-based quotas all together. The criteria should be purely merit-based. There must be clear and objective methods of measuring how disadvantaged a student really is. If he or she comes from the rural area, it must be ascertained that the individual deserves the scholarship because of the lack of resources, not merely financial but also infrastructural - lack of good teachers, library etc.

However, if the individual lives in the big city but is the son of a hawker and has to help out in his/her parents, then the individual also needs to be assisted because urban poverty has denied him/her access to the library or facilities at school. Here again, a merit-based system can be implemented. The level of rural or urban poverty can be indexed.

Luckily, Malaysian men are such poor academic achievers and we may not need to provide similar handicaps for Malaysian women, although many deserve such extra help because we still live in a patriarchal society. Attitudes toward female education has changed and here the government can really take some credit for improving the lot of women.

But most importantly of all is quality of distinctions. The education ministry might want to make examinations more stringent to avoid giving the impression that all students are deserving of a scholarship. This does not mean that everyone has to fail but rather the award of a distinction must be of the same quality through time. An STPM distinction in 1992, for example, was regarded as much more valuable than a distinction in the A-Level Examinations in the UK at the time. Similarly, a UM degree of 1996 was acceptable to the Cambridge University for entry into its postgraduate degree programmes.

As for extra-curricular activities, they make for a more rounded individual. But one must be careful not to push people into activities they would otherwise not join simply to earn merit points. Extra-curricular activities give us an impression, particularly at the interview session, of the candidate's maturity and commitment to excellence. The scholarship board can then judge for themselves whether or not the candidate has the right qualities that will ensure he/she actually finishes the degree course.

The BN has to take bold steps to reform Malaysia. No body or organisation will deny a Malaysian a scholarship if he/she has the grades, comes from a disadvantaged background, is an all-rounder and has the track-record of delivery. We are now entering a period of belt- tightening, with less money to spend on development or education as all our resources are channeled to combating inflation. It might be wise for the government to implement a merit-based system that does justice to this new generation of Malaysians.

As for all the various race-based organisations and their detractors, they can still go about promoting race-based scholarships. All they need to do is to set up their own scholarship funds and finance worthy students through those funds. Now that the government has limited resources, it is time to ask ‘what you can do for the nation’ rather than demand for primordial rights. For ‘nothing comes of nothing’ thus by demanding without actually deserving or giving, does more harm than good. There is nothing wrong in wanting to help but it is not right to take away from others just because of the colour of their skin.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Only Malaysian students should be subsidized

I agree with the Khaled Nordin, the new Minister of Higher Education, that only Malaysians studying at our public universities should be subsidized in terms of school fees and not foreigners. He said this in conjunction with a remark that the school fees of foreigners at our public universities will be reviewed.

Let me say why I think only Malaysian students should be subsidized and not foreigners. The subsidies come from Malaysian taxpayers and hence should be used only for the sons and daughters of Malaysian students. I don't see why foreign students, whose parents have not contributed anything into the system should benefit from these subsidies.

A related argument is the fact that Malaysian students who are educated in our public universities will be able to 'give back' to the country in the form of taxes paid as well as providing a more skilled work force. It is less likely that foreign students in Malaysia will remain in Malaysia and do the same.

Foreign universities in the US, UK, Australia, NZ, Canada, have made it part of their business model to charge more for overseas students partly because of the profit motive, partly because govt subsidies are being reduced and partly because of the principles I discussed above. In the US, state universities charge students who are out of state more also based on some of these principles.

Is it ironic that I advocate for this position at the same time as I'm receiving a scholarship from my US university? Not at all. Duke is a private university and is funded by a combination of fees and endowments, none of which comes from the state or from taxes. If there was a private university in Malaysia who wanted to be as generous to foreigners as they are to Malaysians, I would have no problems with that.

I just have a little bone to pick with the minister. He said that fees in public universities cannot be too high because that would dissuade foreign students from coming. I think he should make it a point to improve the standards of our public universities so that higher fees can be justified and won't dissuade foreigners from coming to our public universities.

JPA scholarships - an update

Saw this update on the Star. 161 Indian students received the JPA overseas scholarship, up from 120 last year, an increase of 34% which less than the 400% increase in the quota for non-Bumi students. (from 10% to 45%)

I found the 120 number a little strange. If the previous quota was 10% and only 2000 scholarships were given out, this means that non-Bumi students should have gotten only 200 scholarships. If 120 were given out to Indian students, then presumably only 80 were given out to Chinese students.

The reason I find this hard to believe is that my encounters with JPA students have always led me to conclude that there were more scholarships given to Chinese compared to Indian students. That there would be more scholarships given to Indian students doesn't make sense from an observation standpoint nor does it make sense from a political standpoint. MCA's lobbying power is presumably greater than that of MIC's and as such, it doesn't make sense that there would be more Indian JPA scholars than Chinese JPA scholars.

Please note that I am not making any claims as to who 'deserves' these scholarships more. I'm just trying to look at the figures from a rational standpoint and they don't make sense.

One possibility is that the MIC Minister, S Subramaniam, got his figures for the previous year wrong. Another is that JPA was already awarding more than 10% of the JPA scholarships to non-Bumis. I'm not sure which possibility is more likely.

But if the JPA policy change was implemented this year, then this must mean that most of the balance of the 900 scholarships should have been allocated to Chinese students which is approximately 740 scholarships (taking away the 160 allocated to the Indians). This means that Chinese students are probably the biggest beneficiary of this policy change. If we assume that there were about 150 scholarships allocated to Chinese students before this policy change, this would represent close to a five fold increase!

Remember what I said in this earlier post about some people ignoring the intra ethnic distributional consequences of the JPA scholarship such as the fact that most Malay recipients would be from middle class families? I think that we may also ignore the intra non-Bumi distributional consequences.

It is no surprise to me that the freeing up of this quota system would benefit the Chinese more than the Indians. Not only are there more Chinese in this country, a larger proportion of Chinese are in the middle class, which following the above logic, would be in prime position to capture gains from policy liberalization. Again, this is not an argument for the superiority of one race over another. It's making conclusions based on sound logic.

This story also tells me that we need to be clear about what the JPA scholarships hope to achieve. Is it just to award the top scholars who disproportionately come from the middle classes? Or is it to give a leg up to scholars from the lower classes? There is a trade off between these two objectives. Of course, they can be straddled someone - such as having a proportion of the scholarships means tested - but this trade off will continue to exist.

I'm not jumping up and down just because more Chinese and Indians will receive the JPA overseas scholarship. My thoughts on this topic is well documented in this blog. Most of these scholars won't come back to Malaysia and even if they do, won't serve the government in any way, shape or form. It's still money wasted, in my opinion but since JPA scholarships are not going to go away or be revamped anytime soon, I need to keep writing about it.