In contrast, Singapore’s decision to prioritise research, keeping English as the medium of instruction and a merit-based admissions policy have all contributed to the success of the National University of Singapore’s success, according to “The Road to Academic Excellence,” which studies what contributes to a world-class research university.
The study also noted that Malaysian secondary school students are not well prepared for tertiary education.
It points out that the Malaysian education system promotes rote learning, conformity and uniformity rather than fresh and creative thinking.
The study is led by two scholars — Philip Altbach and Jamil Salmi — while various chapters see contributions from various academics.
Salmi, a Moroccan education economist attached to the World Bank, also notes that “disturbing political developments, from the burning of churches to the whipping of a woman for drinking beer in public,” also cast a shadow on Malaysia’s “image as an open and tolerant society.”
The comparisons between UM and NUS is contained in a chapter entitled “The National University of Singapore and the University of Malaya: Common Roots and Different Paths.”
The chapter is authored by Hena Mukherjee, a former Universiti Malaya department head with a doctorate in education from Harvard University, and Poh Kam Wong, an NUS Business School professor.
According to the study, “at an early stage, the Singapore government realised the universities’ role in sustaining economic growth.
“In contrast, after 1970, UM’s institutional goals reflected the New Economic Policy, an affirmative action plan for ethnic Malays and indigenous groups, put in place in the wake of disastrous 1969 ethnic riots that took the lives of hundreds of people on both sides of the racial divide.,” the study found.
The authors said that apart from the student quota system, the NEP translated into more scholarships to Bumiputeras, special programmes to facilitate their entry into higher education institutions, and the use of the Malay language in place of English in the entire education system by 1983.
“In UM and in government, the policy spiralled upward so that Bumiputera staff members, over time, secured almost all senior management, administrative, and academic positions.
“As NUS kept pace with the demands of a growing economy that sought to become competitive internationally, with English continuing as the language of instruction and research, UM began to inward as proficiency in English declined in favour of the national language — Bahasa Malaysia — and the New Economic Policy’s social goals took precedence.”
The study noted however that there has been widespread recognition that the implementation of affirmative action policies in Malaysia has hurt the higher education system, sapping Malaysia’s economic competitiveness and driving some (mainly Chinese and Indians) to more meritocratic countries, such as Singapore.
In the broader study, the lead authors found that research was an important element in the making of a world-class university, as well as top-grade talent.
“We’re both convinced that serious research universities are important in almost all societies,” Altbach, who is the director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, told the New York Times last week in an interview.
Said Altbach: “Independence, luck, persistence, some kind of strategic vision, adequate resources — usually, but not always, public resources — good governance structures, good leadership, the ability to attract good students and so on. But we have found that the quality of the faculty is really crucial.”
Salmi, who co-ordinates the World Bank’s activities related to higher education, told the same newspaper of their new 390-page study, which will be released later this month, that their advice is like that supposedly given for a rabbit stew recipe: “First, catch your rabbit.” Only in this case the advice would be: “First, catch your faculty.”
“The difference between a good university and great university comes down to talent.”