Don't discount Malaysia

December 11, 2008

It's too soon for Malaysians to write off their universities ("Malaysian rankings flop 'shames' the nation", 4 December). The national priority is meeting a large pent-up demand for higher education and filling graduate quotas in areas directly having an impact on the economy.

Engagement with world-class research will come more slowly, but the basics are in place: skills, facilities, ambition and a funding system not yet dominated by vested interests. Like their UK counterparts, Malaysian academics struggle to find time for research when faced with huge student numbers and overzealous bureaucracy.

It may be instructive for us that their experiment of separating teaching and research within or between institutions has been a disappointment. Beyond this, the key to progress is finding the confidence to publish in international peer-reviewed journals instead of endless regional conference and workshop proceedings, which provide comfort but insufficient rigour.

There is one structural fault in the system: most Malaysian academics don't qualify at the doctoral level until their mid-thirties, but they retire at 55. That's not long enough to make a mark.

David Bignell, Queen Mary, University of London, Formerly associate professor, Universiti Malaysia Sabah.

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