LEADERS BUILDING LEADERS: TOWARDS EXCELLENCE AND
GLOBAL COMPETITIVENESS IN HIGHER EDUCATION INSTITUTIONS
Assalamualaikum Warahmatullahi Wabarakatuh
Beta bersyukur ke hadrat ILAHI kerana dengan izin dari Nya juga, Beta dapat berangkat ke acara anjuran Akademi Kepimpinan Pengajian Tinggi, Kementerian Pengajian Tinggi Malaysia untuk menzahirkan pidato ulung dalam siri “Eminent Speakers’ Lecture”.
It is a pleasure to be among such a distinguished gathering of educationists. In the course of a year, I am asked to share my thoughts on many subjects. The ones that are closest to my heart and which I consider most critical have to do with education. If there is just one imperative that will transform this country and lay the foundation for its continued prosperity and harmony, I strongly believe it is education.
- Countries today are asking deep and searching questions about their ability to cope with the present and to shape the future. This includes not just middle income countries like Malaysia that depend on mastering new knowledge, technologies and skills to move up the value chain, but also those that have already achieved high income status. Questions about global competitiveness invariably lead to questions about the role of higher education institutions – hence reforms and transformations of higher education systems and institutions is the clarion call for most nations.
- Our nation is now at a crossroad and facing a number of significant challenges and new trends in the global environment. We are at a crucial point of national development; trapped as a middle-income nation and with a need to graduate to high-income status in double quick time. These demands and shifts are affecting not only the shape and mode of operation but also the purpose of our tertiary education system. Some of these global trends represent sources of opportunities; others constitute potential threats. But chief amongst the critical dimensions of change is the growing role of knowledge, the information and communication revolution, the emergence of a worldwide labour market, and global socio-political changes.
- Decades from now, when we proudly look back at all we have achieved, and regretfully at what we have not, a large part of the responsibility will fall at the feet of our educators and higher education institutions. If we do not confront the challenges facing us head on, but choose instead to gloss over problems or deal with them superficially, we would have failed countless generations of Malaysians.
- Knowledge creation and accumulation has become one of the major factors in economic development and is increasingly at the core of a country’s competitive advantage, which is itself determined by the ability to innovate in a continuous manner. Our biggest challenge today is how to reform and transform our higher education system and institutions.
- In order to be globally competitive in the years ahead, it is simply not enough for our higher education institutions to conduct Business as Usual. We must explore Business Unusual. We cannot continue to be just consumers. We need to create human capital that are prosumers – a workforce that is able to use knowledge and create innovations across all the sectors of our economy from agriculture to manufacturing to services.
- Higher education institutes must be transformed before they can act as agents of transformation. In order to succeed in transforming higher education, I believe we need to address ways to:
- Expand tertiary education coverage in a sustainable way;
- Reduce inequalities of access;
- Improve educational quality and relevance, and
- Introduce effective governance structures and management practices.
- We cannot afford rigid governance models and management practices that prevent our higher education institutions from evolving. New types of tertiary institutions and new forms of competition are appearing, warranting our traditional institutions of higher learning to review and change their modes of operation and delivery and take advantage of opportunities offered.
- U.S. President Abraham Lincoln once said: “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate for the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty and we must rise high with the occasion. As our case is new so we must think anew and act anew.” I believe this speaks to our present situation. Malaysia can do no less and, indeed, must do very much more. Our future prosperity and security are not and cannot be assured until our citizens are equipped with the capacity to think logically and to act thoughtfully, innovatively and creatively. Only then can we be competitive. We need to understand that higher education, like this country itself, is in a state of transition, a work-in-progress rather than a completed product. As such, active debate ought to be welcomed and encouraged.
- We have, for the most part, had the right vision and conducted many right policies. We have allocated public resources wisely and built up generations of capable educators and administrators. We do not have to apologise for the fact that socio-political objectives have been central in our development plans. Education has been at the heart of our efforts to eradicate poverty and uplift society.
- For this reason, higher education in Malaysia has had much less of an ‘ivory tower’ character than in some countries. It has been more functional, an approach that the advanced countries are now rediscovering. Academic disciplines most in demand have been those that are directly relevant to economic development and wealth production.
- Growing demand for equitable access to limited higher education facilities has, of course, had to be balanced out, with inevitable dissatisfaction from some quarters. As the country has grown, however, these constraints have gradually lessened and more opportunities have been created. Today, close to a million students are enrolled in tertiary education in this country.
- It is also pleasing to note that Malaysia is an exporter of educational services. We have over 70,000 foreign students enrolled in our higher education institutions, making Malaysia the 11th most popular foreign destination for higher education in the world. This is something that would have been virtually unimaginable ten years ago.
- While the situation is considerably better than before, I believe it is still not what one could wish for. Questions are regularly raised about the quality of graduates, relevance of research and development and public accountability, especially of the public universities and polytechnics. Public perception of private universities has improved but the few black sheep do pose problems.
- This broad consensus on issues and challenges is good because it represents a common understanding that compels us to take collective and concerted action. Already, it has led to innovative approaches taken in the National Higher Education Strategic Plan 2020 and the National Higher Education Action Plan 2007-2010 such as the establishment of apex universities, research universities and academic audits. But we must do more, and I will now turn to this matter.
- We are sometimes so enthralled with certain ideas that they become our paradigms or conventional wisdom. One such paradigm is that of linearity, that is, the belief that if we start at a given point and follow a well-structured path, it will lead to a quality-finished product. Peter Senge of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the originator of the concept of the learning organisation, has said that much of our education system has been moulded after the industrial or manufacturing model. This has been the paradigm in higher education. It is increasingly incapable of addressing the realities of a post-industrial world and we are in need of a paradigm change.
- Therefore, when I think about the imperatives for Malaysia, I believe there are several basic questions that we need to answer. First, when Malaysians place demands for educational excellence, what exactly are they asking for? Is educational excellence only manifested in international rankings? Or is it manifested in the ability to produce well-rounded individuals who can participate in a global economy?
- Sir Ken Robinson the famous creativity expert tells us that we have sold ourselves to a fast-food model of education – where everything has been standardised and not customised to our local needs. This has led to the impoverishment of our intellectualism, spirit and energy. Perhaps this is the reason why there is a widely recognised need to discover, or perhaps rediscover, the full potential of Malaysian higher education institutions.
- On the demand-side, Malaysian students, like their counterparts everywhere else, have different underlying motivations and expectations. There are those who pursue education purely for knowledge’s sake. We should hope that there would always be those who have an innate curiosity about things and a need to embark on a journey of personal interest and discovery. Then, there are those for whom higher education is seen as a path to a successful professional career and personal enrichment. These will normally demand the best that they can afford as their degrees are both a means to an end, and an end in itself. Finally, and perhaps the largest category, are those who view tertiary education merely as a way of securing an income for their daily living. The lesser the effort required, the better.
- Obviously, if our educational establishments are filled with the third kind of knowledge seeker – what I call the ‘get-me-out-of-here’ or reluctant student – there can be little demand for serious teaching and learning. Everything will have to be pre-packaged and even pre-digested so that it can be commoditised, delivered and returned with the minimum of fuss. There will be no calls for changing curricula, no demand for graduate schools and research fellowships. If there is to be educational excellence, then there must be a high element of drive, determination and even discomfort, for excellence does not come easily or cheaply.
- Raising higher education standards on the demand-side therefore clearly rests on three broad strategies. The first is to gradually filter out those who are unsuited for higher academic pursuits. For these Malaysians to lead productive and fulfilling lives, ample vocational and industrial training channels should be prepared. We have often spoken about this need but have made little headway because of a deep-seated social stigma against so-called ‘blue collar’ work. We must address this totally irrational obstacle to national progress, not least through public policy.
- A second strategy is to ensure that those who have proven academic inclinations can access and remain within the system to create the critical mass where superior teaching and research can occur. In other words, there must be a system of not only financial but also non-financial incentives that enable those with scholastic ability to realise their potential without lessening their dedication and work ethic.
- A third strategy is to infuse Work Integrated Learning. It is increasingly important that practical relevance must be brought into the core of the curriculum. It is no longer enough today to provide a solid intellectual grounding in a discipline. Linkages to the workplace or at least to practical real world problems are necessary to motivate and make learning an active experiential activity.
Ladies and gentlemen:
- Higher education the world over is in a state of flux. Real world problems are calling for solutions that are not familiar to many. Many institutions will continue to resist change and persist with traditional methods of teaching and research because they find it difficult to adapt to the changing environment. Let me now share some thoughts on some of the many challenges Malaysian higher education institutions face in transforming themselves.
Steering tertiary education
- First, we need to clearly articulate the nation’s expectations of the tertiary education system. Following which we need to align priorities of individual institutions with the nation’s economic and social goals. There is a dire need for finding the proper balance between governmental steering and institutional autonomy. On this matter there is also the imperative to develop institutional governance arrangements to respond to external expectations.
- Turning to the supply-side, the criteria for educational excellence are equally straightforward. We need to put greater efforts in developing close collaboration with the private and sometimes public sectors, primarily in joint research, consulting, testing and training. These measures open up greater opportunities for hands-on involvement and promote a high degree of functionality and relevance that is a signature of educational excellence.
Funding tertiary education
- Second, to ensure the long-term financial sustainability of tertiary education, we must devise a funding strategy consistent with the goals of the tertiary education system. As the international ratings consistently suggest, the best higher educational institutions are the ones with good independent income streams, through student fees, grants or private gifts. Public funding must be efficient and effective. It must be devoted where it counts, that is, significantly raising the quality of teaching, funding R&D and rewarding scholarship excellence.
Quality of tertiary education
- Third, we need to demand a culture of quality of our higher education institutions. The Malaysian Qualifications Agency (MQA) is doing an effective job but I would urge them to follow the best practices of leading Qualification Agencies and provide sufficient space for universities to show their creativity in the design and delivery of their programmes. We must adopt quality assurance practices that encourage diversity of offerings to facilitate Malaysia becoming an international education hub.
The role of tertiary education in research and innovation
- Fourth, as the nation embraces an innovation economy it becomes imperative to foster research excellence. Improving the ability of tertiary education institutions to disseminate the knowledge it creates into commercially viable products and services is vital for the innovation economy. In Spain, universities have helped transform the traditional ceramic tile industry into a leading export. In the United Kingdom, universities provide the automotive technology to boost car production. However, I wish to also emphasize that research into the humanities and social sciences should not be sacrificed at the altar of science and technology, as preserving the Malaysian social fabric is crucial for our nationhood.
The academic career
- Fifth, we have to ensure an adequate supply of quality academics. Malaysian higher education has undergone significant expansion over the past 10 years. The country is today served by 20 public universities, 5 branch campuses of international universities, over 50 private universities and university colleges, 21 polytechnics, 37 public community colleges and 485 private colleges. However, statistics show that the number of highly qualified academics are still lacking in both the public and private institutions. This will definitely impact the quality of learning and teaching. Increasing flexibility in the management of human resource in the higher education sector is vital. We should practise more ‘brain share’ to optimise our human resources. We should also not forget that academics too need to master new knowledge and pedagogic skills to cope with changing demands and technologies.
Links with the labour market
- Sixth, we keep hearing and reading about graduate-mismatch with industry needs. There is also the debate of the role of universities, where some subscribe to the utilitarian notion that the primary role of universities is to produce graduates for the market, while others believe strongly in the utopian role of education for scholarship. Striking a balance is therefore crucial. With life-long learning becoming increasingly important, it is critical for our human capital development that we provide flexible study opportunities.
Internationalisation of tertiary education
- Seventh, it is our national aspiration to make Malaysia an international hub for higher education. This can only be achieved through enhancing the international comparability of our tertiary education institutions. In this respect, a new breed of research universities has emerged that embraces globalisation. The Emerging Global Model or EGM of research universities are ones that operate in an internationalised environment. These universities have a global mission, They compete internationally for students, for faculty, for staff and for funding, and operate across borders, thus breaking traditional political, linguistic and access constraints. China, for example, has adopted the EGM as its strategy to overcome its local limitations.
- In the pursuit of educational excellence and global competitiveness, not only in research, but also more widely, the predominant strategy should be collaboration, convergence and consolidation. These three C’s are worth mulling over because it represents a radically different course from what many of us are pursuing.
- In California, for example, the policy has been to encourage universities to specialise in core disciplines and therefore reduce duplication. To ensure that universities do not suffer from tunnel vision, cooperative efforts between universities are actively encouraged.
- The 47 countries participating in the Bologna Accords aim to create a European Higher Education Area. The 27 constituents of the European Union, in their Lisbon Strategy, ambitiously strive to establish “the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world capable of sustainable economic growth with more and better jobs and greater social cohesion by 2010”.
- These are very significant developments but are only the tip of the iceberg. Other countries from Australia to the United States, from China to South Korea, are focusing on education as a pivotal source of competitive strength and a dynamic sector of economic activity. In Denmark, mergers of universities have taken place with the aim of strengthening institutions and making them world-class. In the Netherlands, Delft University of Technology, Eindhoven University of Technology, and the University of Twente have formed a federation that operates a joint graduate school, accreditation, a common framework for quality assurance for research, and a common scheme for research chairs.
Ladies and gentlemen:
- The multiple and diverse responsibilities of higher education are ultimately the key to the well-being of modern society, but this expanded role adds considerable complexity and many new challenges. Understanding the broader role of higher education in a globalized world is the first step in dealing constructively with the challenges that will inevitably loom on the horizon. If we are to attain global competitiveness and educational excellence, we must work on both demand and supply. I hope that some of the points I have made can be reflected over by policy-makers and academics as well as employers and students.
- I wish you every success and I offer my personal support on this journey towards excellence and global competitiveness in our higher education institutions.