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Why Malaysian Universities Are Performing Poorly – Analysis

Location of Malaysia. Source: CIA World Factbook.

Malaysian public universities have dropped in the Times Higher Education University Rankings over the last few years. Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) made 87th position in 2013, but as at 2015, no Malaysian university made the top 100 Asian rankings. Malaysian public universities have also shown mixed results in other rankings like the QS rankings, where three Malaysian universities had slight rises in their rankings, while Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM), Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM), International Islamic Universiti Malaysia (IIUM), and Universiti Teknologi MARA (UiTM), all slipped in rankings from previous years. No Malaysian university made the top 100, According to the QS ranking profiles, Malaysian universities have lost significant ground in academic reputation and tend to be weak in research, where no Malaysian university reached the top 400.

Public Universities Vice-Chancellor/Rector Committee chairman Dr. Kamarudin Hussin, who is also vice chancellor of Universiti Malaysia Perlis (Unimap) claims that the ranking methodologies favor older, more established universities. Yet many universities within the THES top 100 Asian universities were established relatively recently. Hong Kong University of Science and technology, ranked 7th was established in 1980, Nanyang Technological University, ranked 10th was set up in 1981, and Pohang University of Science and Technology, ranked 11th, was established in 1986.

When comparing performance to Malaysia’s neighbour, Thailand, King Mongkut’s University of Technology, established in 1960 made 55th place, and Mahidol University came in with 91st placing.

In addition, a number of universities from countries which are not democratically governed like Sharif University of Technology 43, Iran), Isfahan University of Technology (61, Iran), Iran University of Science and Technology (69), King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals (71, Saudi Arabia), and King Saud University (72, Saudi Arabia), all made the THES top 100 Asian university rankings last year.

Dr Kamarudin accepts that Malaysian universities have “many issues that must be resolved….(and) there are plenty of oversights that must be fixed”. However, unfortunately, he didn’t mention what they are, or offer any solutions.

World Bank economist Dr Frederico Gil Sander agrees with Kamarudin’s comment that the “stakes are high”, when he says that the poor state of Malaysia’s education system is more alarming that the country’s public debt. The talent needed to develop the Malaysian economy is not being produced.

Probably the tone used by Dr Kamarudin used in his article hints at the first problem with Malaysian public universities. That is, the view of authority over the rest. Kamarudin asserts that ‘academic freedom’ exists, yet this should be subject to the views of the ‘so called’ majority’, which could be read as authority. In August last year, he was one of the strongest opponents of students attending the Bersih 4 rally, threatening disciplinary action, such as suspension or even expulsion of students who attended from university.

Suppressing independent thought, is counterproductive to creativity, critical thinking, and problem solving, the very mindset that Malaysian universities espouse to develop. Among the characteristics of society required for progression are people who are knowledgeable and have the right to choose.

This attitude by university leaders doesn’t appear to be isolated. Hazman Baharom called their attitude ‘aristocratic’, in reference to the partisan political leanings of Professor Sahol Hamid Abu Bakar, former vice Chancellor of Universiti Teknologi MARA (UiTM). This institutional arrogance can be seen in the proposal to educate students about the ills of ISIS. The underlying assumption being that Malaysian students are easily led and cannot think for themselves.

Malaysian universities begin to lose the plot where their leaders are glorified with unnecessary ceremonies that make a mockery of academia, and tend to dominate the persona of universities, rather than act as facilitators for people to excel.

This leads to a lot of unnecessary expenses such as lavish dinners with highly paid entertainers to celebrate this event and that event, this award and that award. Some of these dinners are very extravagant at some universities costing up to hundreds of thousands of Ringgit. Vice Chancellors make lavish trips both domestically and internationally, where the benefits of these trips to the university have not been scrutinized, except for MOUs that are never acted upon.

This is in a time when university budgets are being slashed, the minister has directed university management to be frugal with spending and seek funds outside government allocations, and the public are suffering economic hardships through the economic downturn, GST, and depreciated Ringgit.

The waste goes much further. Within the few parts of the Malaysian Auditor General’s report that is released to the public, the 2012 report cited Universiti Malaysia Sabah’s (UMS) mishandling of its computerized maintenance management system. After spending RM400,000 on the system between 2008 and 2012, the auditor general found that data was not keyed into the system and the person responsible for managing the system had no IT knowledge.

The cost of three building projects ballooned 8.9% at Universiti Tun Hussein Onn Malaysia (UTHM) due to delays and inexperience of the contractor.

The auditor general further found at Universiti Malaysia Perlis (Unimap) that funding allocations didn’t take into account the basic needs of students in the planning and construction of its main campus. Despite RM438.64 Million allocated for setting up Unimap under the 8th Malaysian Plan, only 25% of these campus plans have been completed, which university management blamed on budget constraints.

What is even more startling according to the AGs report is that Unimap made the first payment to the contractor working on the permanent campus before the contract was fully negotiated and signed. The report further states that workmanship is extremely poor, where cement in many places is cracking and crumbling, roads and parking areas where inappropriate, and much of the equipment supplied is not functioning.

According to the AGs report from 2002 to 2012 the university has no hostels of its own, and has been renting them and ferrying students to campus instead, which cost RM138.4 Million. As of 2015, Unimap entered into an arrangement with the Proven Group of Companies to supply additional privately owned accommodation at Titi Tinggi, some 35kms from Kangar and 40kms from the main campus at Ulu Pauh. Details of this agreement have never been made public, but Unimap will pay rent for 15 years for the use of this accommodation, but ownership will remain private after this period.

The Unimap-Proven venture is contrary to the Education Ministry’s vision of universities earning income through hostel rental to students. Thus in the medium to long term the university will be restricted in the ways it can earn revenue to fund future budget cuts.

Similar issues exist at Universiti Malaysia Kelantan (UMK) where the lack of student accommodation has led to severe overcrowding at hostels.

Mismanagement and waste is one issue, but outright corruption is another.

If one has spent any significant time within Malaysian academia, stories about corruption within the institution will no doubt arise. However, most, if not all of these remain hearsay, as there are few reports of corruption to higher authorities and very few charges are ever made, with no convictions made in this area.

Just some examples that have come to the writer’s attention are consultancy companies run and operated by a faculty, where directors and shareholders are the dean and deputy deans. Students have come forth and told the writer in confidence that examiners at master and PhD level ask outright for payments to pass. A particular dean of a new faculty, used a company owned by proxies to supply equipment. University cars have been sent to workshops for repairs that don’t exist. Academics are paying for articles to be published in academic journals without peer review, and the heavy use of research grants for travel that is questionably related to the research topic it was granted for.

University staff tend to be fearful of their superiors, most are extremely hesitant to speak out and whistle-blow on their peers and superiors. In an interview with a state director of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission, the writer was told that the MACC would provide a neutral and discrete place for those who wanted to remain anonymous and report corruption. However those few that came forward faced hurdles with the MACC that were almost insurmountable, such as being requested to file a police report which would jeopardize anonymity.

A major problem is the leadership of Malaysia’s public universities today. Vice chancellors tend to be domineering, not allowing too much room for dissent from their own faculty and university members. Often, staff are selected upon loyalty rather than merit, breeding a culture of gratitude within their institutions. Strong vice chancellors can browbeat the university board, and senate, getting their own way on operational issues, due to the transitory nature of university boards.

Universities within Malaysia have become dominated by vice chancellors who are intent on micromanaging their universities. The strong power-distance relationships that develop between the leader and subordinates in Malaysia is powerful enough to destroy many of the management checks and balances that exist to prevent mis-management and even abuse of power.

It’s time to re-organize Malaysian public universities from the top down. Not only is new leadership needed, but heavy reform of the university organization so that these institutions should function how they are really meant to. All importantly, vision beyond self-glorification is desperately needed by public university leadership.

Make this change and Malaysian universities will very quickly feature in the top 100 Asian university rankings.

About the Author

Murray Hunter
Murray Hunter
Murray Hunter has been involved in Asia-Pacific business for the last 30 years as an entrepreneur, consultant, academic, and researcher. As an entrepreneur he was involved in numerous start-ups, developing a lot of patented technology, where one of his enterprises was listed in 1992 as the 5th fastest going company on the BRW/Price Waterhouse Fast100 list in Australia. Murray is now an associate professor at the University Malaysia Perlis, spending a lot of time consulting to Asian governments on community development and village biotechnology, both at the strategic level and “on the ground”. He is also a visiting professor at a number of universities and regular speaker at conferences and workshops in the region. Murray is the author of a number of books, numerous research and conceptual papers in referred journals, and commentator on the issues of entrepreneurship, development, and politics in a number of magazines and online news sites around the world. Murray takes a trans-disciplinary view of issues and events, trying to relate this to the enrichment and empowerment of people in the region.

44 Comments on "Why Malaysian Universities Are Performing Poorly – Analysis"

  1. Interesting. Would love to have more info on this kind of wirk

  2. right on spot! Highlights the WHY on VC, dean, HODs and high posts are filled with the ‘one coloured skin” . The ‘KULIT-fikation versus qualification dilemma in apartheid malaysia!

  3. definitely true. the work and knowledge culture cant survived in Malaysian universities.
    too much political interference that disturbing the whole systems.

    need to revise and revoke the whole systems if we want to be top 100

  4. Hong Kong University of Science and Technology is established in 1991 not 1980’s as mentioned in the article.

  5. The so-called “Dialogue with Vice Chancellor” session had been carried out in certain universities for students to raise their issue, however the session is unidirectional. Each student can only raise an issue once, then the Vice Chancellor would respond. However, the student can’t even ask for clarification if they think the Vice Chancellor didn’t really answer the question or the answer was unclear.

    Apart from that, the university authorities are charging students who undergo industrial training for tuition fee and other fees for services/facilities that students would not possibly use, such as laboratory material fees.

  6. In certain universities, the students who stayed in hostel are forced to pay large amount for lavish dinner of so-called residential college dinner.

    Apart from that, the attitude of university authorities towards financial is quite questionable. When the students haven’t paid all the fees MUCH earlier than the dateline, the university financial department would start to send notifications FEW times as “gentle reminder”. However, when the university financial department need to refund to students or the student society need to withdraw money from their own society account, the response is MUCH later than the dateline although the student / student society had sent email few time MUCH earlier than the dateline to notify, just to avoid the delay. However, delay still occur.

  7. Fauziah Ahmad | January 7, 2016 at 2:28 pm | Reply

    U have pointed out on one good perspective, the mismanagement of the universities. It would be interesting if u can point out other greater influencing factors that determine the ranking as well such as the graduates’ quality, employability, etc.

    • Im Malaysian but have been educated in the UK. I am glad that due to positive discrimination in Malaysia I had the option of have a British Education. I recently have been looking for Universities in Asia where I could do a Masters Degree program and I would never consider doing it in a Malaysian University even if accepted. The qualification in the end would not be worth the paper its printed on in my opinion.

      • Puteh Jerineh Ramli | September 11, 2016 at 3:30 pm | Reply

        You should have improved on your grammar whilst studying in the UK. It’s a waste of funds, government or your own, not to have done that in an English-speaking country. What is ‘positive discrimination’? Don’t drop your apostrophes. At Masters level, your success depends on your own research and writing ability. You become an independent scholar. Your professors play a supervisory role. So what you are saying is that you cannot do proper research and writing in Malaysia. That’s not true in this age of information technology. All you need is wifi or broadband. Have some respect for your own country. Do not make sweeping statements; that’s the first thing a UK education would have taught you. The second thing is to have original thought.

        • You over rate the Malaysian education system. Whilst vocabulary May be important, it is the content which is more important. I experienced the same discrimination here. The doctorates awarded in Malaysia are laughable, just like the Tan Sri’s, Tun’s and Datuk Seri’s. Money gets titles. Reports of corruption does not get acted upon if you are high ranking enough. Any criticism of the establishment is viewed as seditious. Independent thought is not encouraged…need I go on?

  8. Justice Lover | January 7, 2016 at 5:22 pm | Reply

    well what i can say is that Malaysian’s they dont specifically give the education to those who are talented or deserves it better on whom they found to be worthy but they give priority to the quota system or so called racial issue , and when you do that , than we will find lacking of new (RND) productivity to the country. When Malaysian starts to give priority to the needs than it will rise r else ,,,,,,

  9. I remember when UM was ranked the top 100 universities in the world. Now, the quality is deteriorating at such worrying pace that the university don’t even rank at top 200 in the world. Even more worrying thinking that with the budget slash, does the university can even out perform its counterpart in other countries when one was given high privilege while other thrives on their own. With current management in the country, it is not a surprising fact that Malaysia has gone down to a level where one look frowned upon. Gone are the days that we appreciate & instill good knowledge to the citizen, it is such a pity that this developing nation is going down at an alarming rate.

  10. Good one indeed!

  11. its all caused by najib hahahaha

  12. um stud experience | January 8, 2016 at 12:39 am | Reply

    if you do a survey on how they developed their PhD students, it will be bring even more truth to the downfall of the education.

  13. Education is a passionate topic for me and with due respect, many points written are nothing new. Nevertheless, the article is a great compendium summarizing the harsh realities of Malaysian education that has plagued the country and robbed its future. I don’t see any marked improvement in the near future, not the next 20 years even though a total annihilation of the pathetic system and policies is initiated today. The pressing urgent need is affirmative actions to arrest the causes of the problems, a multitude of them that stem from one single source, the Minister of Education himself and perhaps the contributory factor behind this reality. Over the years, we see Tom Dick and Harry helming the Ministry with no strong relevant qualification or experience. Policies developed have high racial tendency laced with religious contempt and aggravated by personal greed for legacy. To substantiate this allegation, let’s take the flip flopping policies on English priority for example, or the bias university entry practice or the systematic legitimized manipulation of history etc etc. I substantiate these claims with the pathetic facts and outcomes that are often made excusable with lame reasoning that only they themselves see light to it. For example, after billions of Ringgit spent and countless number of blueprints developed over the decades, poor mastery of English is still blamed on unprepared teachers especially in urban areas.

    Funds allocation is another issue. In general, education funding is often bias. With the so-called financial regularization of the public universities, education funding will be reduced and eventually God knows better what will happen, in the mockery of financial independence adopted from foreign universities. Yet in 2016 budget, more than RM2 billion sourced from common taxpayers from all walks of life, is allocated to one particular ‘religious’ university with exclusive entry policy. Now that the funding is bias and unequally distributed, academics in general are now burdened with financial KPI to make time and effort to earn more money for their universities through non-academic works like doubling up as trainers and consultants for the industries. While the effectiveness of ‘theoretical knowledge’ is questionable, the standard of education will definitely be compromised with the lack of attention on developing education excellence.

    As the education system continue to deteriorates, albeit to the wonderful statistics churned out by the authorities (of course unless and until we scrutinize the protocols and methodologies), an alternative education approach called the vernacular stream was established. This vernacular stream, in particular the Chinese vernacular stream (without prejudice but for the purpose of substantiation), though recognized by many many world renowned universities including Harvard, is ironically not recognized by our very own Government. As a result, talents are scouted even before they complete their Form 5 or O-Levels and promised scholarships and PR elsewhere. Meanwhile, sentiments are fanned by some quarters and tolerated by the Government to pressure on the abolishing vernacular schools, established with proven superiority in inculcating moral, hardwork and discipline while excelling in science and mathematics. These are not an arrogant claim but a fact recognized even by the Malays themselves with increasing number of Malay enrollments yearly!

    These issues are nothing new and will continue to plague the country in the expense of its future. Racial politics have infected all aspects of governance, and the education is not spared either. The only solution is a painful daring action for the betterment of the country – remove the present governance.

  14. Just one word: Malay

  15. The author is right on all account. However, he missed the fact that academic promotion in Malaysian public universities is based on affiliation to authorities rather than performance merits. I think if the author research on this, he will find more pertinent reasons why Malaysian public universities failed.

  16. University malaya us ranked 29,usm 49..mahidol 44 and check your facts.

  17. Dear John, there is no such thing as ‘positive discrimination’. Discrimination in tertiary education will definitely lead to eventual bankruptcy in a country.

  18. I think the writer miss the point. Our unis are doing a great job. Churning out blind supportig voters for current administration. It is both by design and consequence. A thinking population is bad news for political opportunists

  19. The root cause is UMNO

  20. Someone in this comment section here mentions about the dark stories of getting a PhD in Malaysian so curious as to what is it as i’ve heard from few of my friends whos in research saying something about it too, but only vaguely as they dont wanna risk being found out by their superiors.

    also, i’m interested to know about the issue of vernacular schools. im in two minds about this. i admit and agree that chinese vernacular schools churn out good quality students especially and STEM, however having vernacular schools in one way undermines the national unity project. I am envisioning a school system where you can have the good techniques and discipline from the chinese schools and incorporate it into the national school system, and allow (as is the case now) for students to learn their own mother tongue. Will this do?

  21. For three weeks, I was trying to see a director in our university to help and forward this your words to the university leadership “Suppressing independent thought, is counterproductive to creativity, critical thinking, and problem solving, the very mindset that Malaysian universities espouse to develop. Among the characteristics of society required for progression are people who are knowledgeable and have the right to choose”, but she was too busy to see me! Solution: ASK THE STUDENTS THEIR PROBLEMS WITH THE SYSTEM!!!

  22. international student | January 10, 2016 at 5:56 pm | Reply

    As international students studying in Malaysia , we are really worry about the Malaysian universities and its reputation and this is because our certificates are from those universities. we had an experience of facing some problems during our period of study.In public universities, staff, who are in the operational level of management are so problematic and they don’t show any kind of respect to international students. Moreover, they don’t follow the strategic , vision and mission of the university and even the direction of their top management. For instance, vice chancellors, deputy vice chancellors like to bring many international students but a lot of obstacles appear from the operational level staff such delay in getting offer letter, visa procedures where some times students have submitted 3 months prior to the registration date but they still can’t managed to get the approval !!!
    Anyway, we hope the best for Malaysia and its institutions

  23. Not only university failed but worst primary education are long being monetized.

  24. Absolutely true 101%. You should extend to staff promotion that involves cronyism and bias to certain group of people so called “VC’s man” . The said university should be investigated by an independent body why the campus has never been completed after so much tax payers money channeled by the goverment being abused.

  25. Joseph Sparrow | January 27, 2016 at 2:37 am | Reply

    Bah….humbug article by a white guy who had a short stint at Unimap. Clearly, he lacks in research and is biased.
    Most probably bcos he was fired from his job….

    • Clearly biased and full of errors, but also contains some truth. Let’s not be sombong. There surely is room for improvement, but there are also top scholars and top institutions in many Malaysian universities.

  26. Haha, Asia University also can be Asian top 100 universities, this private University is not even top10 in Taiwan, lousy ranking system. Lol. Not reliable.

  27. I am an aged university administrator of more than 50 years, involved with university management and administration of several universities in this region in the second half of the last Century. I had already predicted as early as in the early 1970s that universities in Malaysia would never be the same as what the University of Malaya had been in its good old days -from 1949 to 1961 for the University of Malaya in Singapore (the predecessor of the national University of Singapore or NUS) and the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur from 1959 to 1970.This was because of changes made to the public university system. From 1970, young academics have been appointed as professors and many just vy and lobby to be appointed as full-time but pro tem (2 years at a time) deputy vice-chancellors, deans and directors of Centres/Institutes. Vice-Chancellors are government appointed. Administrative staff are not well trained and do not seem to know much about university ideals.There are a lot of waste and most staff are arrogant. Building costs have soared. Imagine, from 1963 to 1967, the late Prof.Tan Sri Chin Fung Kee, the late Prof. Tan Sri T.J. Danaraj and I were able to oversee the planning, design, building and setting up of the entire Medical Centre for the University of Malaya for just Rm72 million. This included the cost of building the Faculty of Medicine, the University Hospital (now UMMC), staff quarters,clinical students’ hostel, Nurses’School and hostel, equipment, etc but excluded land cost). Rm72 million will now just give us a small street. As see it, it is useless for anyone to say that we can achieve this and that within a short period. The university system is unlikely to redeem its past glory for the next several generations if policy makers remain the same.

  28. Our public universities need to be bankrupted…or completely privatised or sold….no other way to solve the problem. Most Malaysian Deans and VCs are absolutely corrupted….and more then 50% live on jet plane paraditing on university grants ..industry sponsors or big pharma…at any one time…half the lecturers are on leave…Sick leave…doing their PHds for another 10 years…moonlighting…or jet setting….the new Minister for Higher Education is well aware of this…best solution pull the financial plug and see how these bastards survive….

  29. Prof Hans Dieter Evers | September 11, 2016 at 10:56 am | Reply

    Has anybody met Murray Hunter. His name is not listed on the official UNIMAP website

  30. Some of the issues raised here are not relevant at all. While some of the issues here are valid there are a number of reasons why Malaysian Universities are ranked low and will remain low. The Times ranking looks at five areas, namely,
    Teaching, Research, Citations, International outlook and Industry income.
    First of all, a reputation survey accounts for a major percentage of the first two areas and like all surveys are based on perception and can be subjective. Malaysian Universities also will always rank low on International-to-domestic ratios for both student and staff. This will need a major policy change and might have an adverse impact on private universities. Finally, the technology transfer from Universities to the private sector and collaborations is negligible as compared to Universities in the West.

  31. Singapore universities students are not allowed to have rally, they are motivated to study hard and perform well in exams, that is why they (Singapore universities) rank high among the top 10 in the world. Your point that the Malaysian government restrict universities students to do demonstration or rally does not make sense at all as far as ranking is concerned!

  32. Underpaid lecturer | September 12, 2016 at 3:26 am | Reply

    As an independent part time lecturer having taught colleges and universities for over 8 years, I can tell you the problem lies in BOTH management and students. I’m a postgraduate from Australia and have over 7 years experience in the industry

    First, Management is always thinking about how much money they can make. This includes filling up classes with too many students per lecture and teaching subjects that don’t reflect real world demands. And because they need to maximise profits, management also ALLOW many weak students to enroll in subjects clearly not intended for them. As long as tuition money is paid up of course. I had a hard time trying to balance teaching students who have no interest being in my class and those who really want to learn.

    Secondly, Students I teach are always on FB even during lecture. Oh and they really LOVE to talk loudly during lectures too. I basically have to raise my voice (management constantly tells us we are not supposed to get angry but be buddy with students) to get their attention and tell them to stop surfing the net during my lectures. Unfortunately they also resort to “politics” when not happy with lecturers. They will report to management (which is their right) but management will usually stand by them, regardless. Management reminds me that these students pay….so im suppose to keep a blind eye on these issues. There are many more reasons I can give for our poor our performance but I don’t have enough space here… I hope My input helps.

  33. The question here is, are the right people being put on the wheels of these universities? If we put ‘Professor Anngguk’ up there, then well get the ‘angguk’ result. So, why the fuss.

  34. ahmad mazlan osman | September 13, 2016 at 10:11 pm | Reply

    An Engineering University in Pahang can come out a Hysteria kit!!!
    That shows the mentality of the university senate in approving the grant for research.Too many religious bigots around.

  35. Overall, the university ranking is correlated with the international image of the country, how well run, economic sustainability, political stability, cultural munificience and freedom of expression. Tackle all these one by one and sooner or later the image and ranking shall go up.

  36. And why don’t you mention about the University of Malaya? Because we’re in the ranking folks

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