The performance of Malaysian universities in the Times Higher Education-QS World University Rankings is a matter of "national shame", says a leading politician.
Lim Kit Siang, leader of the opposition Democratic Action Party, warned that the country's universities were losing ground not only to world-leading institutions, but to less illustrious rivals closer to home.
In a speech to party supporters, he said: "Malaysia is losing out in the unrelenting battle for international competitiveness ... Even to Thailand, Indonesia and Philippines, something unthinkable in the first three decades of our nationhood."
He said the failure to register in the top 200 had been compounded by the "ignominy" of falling behind regional competitors. The position of the University Sains Malaysia, which the Government is cultivating as a "world-class" institution through its Accelerated Programme for Excellence (Apex), at 313th place, was "sad and pathetic", he said.
"These rankings should be a wake-up call to the Higher Education Minister and the cabinet of the advanced crisis of higher education in Malaysia," he said.
In an editorial, the newspaper Malaysia Today picked up the theme, saying that "our education system, given its track record and the huge budget allocations these past 50 years, should rightfully be a model for the developing world".
It said: "Malaysians as a whole have to take the blame. Malaysians generally are not interested in the pursuit of knowledge.
"What matters is how much money one can make ... In universities, speculating on what the exam questions are likely to be seems to be the narrow perspective among students. Research and intelligent debates are not our way of life."
Sharifah Hapsah Shahabudin, vice-chancellor of University Kebangsaan Malaysia, which was ranked 250th, said the failure of the University Sains Malaysia to rise up the rankings was not necessarily indicative of a failure in the Apex programme.
She said: "Apex is about selecting a university with the most potential to transform and manage change ... The selection committee never claimed that University Sains Malaysia was already Apex, but was convinced that its performance could match the world's leading research universities once changes are instituted."
The university, she said, was a "guinea pig" for other research universities in the country and predicted that its successful transformation could lead to up to three Malaysian universities breaking into the top 100 by 2015.
Meanwhile, Datuk Rafiah Salim, former vice-chancellor of the University of Malaya, is embroiled in a row with the country's Deputy Higher Education Minister after inferring that her institution's performance in the rankings may have played a part in her job loss.
Responding to Datuk Idris Haron's statement that performance is the yardstick by which to select a vice-chancellor, she said: "How dare he cast aspersions on my credibility and track record. I've had a stellar performance over my 34-year career.
"If they are going to take the Times Higher Education-QS (rankings) as a reference, then they should sack the vice-chancellors of other universities which have been sliding in the ranking."