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EDUCATION Minister (2) Datuk Seri Idris Jusoh’s opinion piece, defending his description of Malaysian universities as world class (published on Feb 25), is refreshing — and disappointing. Kudos to him for responding to criticisms in this manner, instead of deriding detractors or going into “I was misquoted” hiding.

However, his article merely inflates his original contentious remarks: Malaysian universities are world class because they are a popular destination for international students and Universiti Malaya has a decent spot on the QS university rankings. He hardly brings anything new to the public arena. In fact, some of the evidence he presents refutes his own position.

He also tries to portray critics as having their hearts in the wrong place, instead of fixing his head on confronting their arguments directly.

Idris draws on a Unesco report which appraised Malaysia’s relative popularity as a tertiary education destination. Unsurprisingly, cultural compatibility, low cost and good value feature prominently. Malaysia is considered good for the price, and the price is relatively cheap. This is not indicating that our tertiary education is bad, but it is far from a vindication of high quality and world class.

Idris adopts a simple definition of world class: among the best in the world. It must be noted that we are speaking of universities and education systems, not individuals.

This is an important distinction, because Idris lists out a number of personal academic achievements — award winning professors, inventors, and student debaters — as evidence of our institutions’ world class status. I am not devaluing these achievements, but pointing out an inconsistency in his argument.

Idris applies a selective and self-serving logic. Rebutting the charge that international students in Malaysia are academically subpar, he argues that the presence of a few “bad apple” international students do not taint the whole system.

True, I’m sure we can accept this at face value, although he should furnish us the full details on the quality of foreign students, and as Minister of Education he is privy to an expanse of data blocked to the rest of us.

He then refers to a few individual achievers as evidence that institutions have attained global standing. Now, if we accept that a few rotten apples do not sully the entire harvest, then we also have to concede that a few shiny apples do not glorify the whole crate. They do not necessarily prove the system is world class.

Still, one might argue, how can we have world class persons without world class institutions? Yet Idris makes no effort at all to consolidate the link, suggesting that the link may be absent or at best very weak.

This is not surprising. It is entirely possible, and for many of us believable and even evidenced through observation and experience, that a few Malaysian academicians and students can gain global recognition, while the institutions and system as a whole remain mired in mediocrity, operating at a lower rung and striving in domestic spheres.

Idris steers us to the university rankings. The rankings business typically provokes debate that we don’t need to digress into now. There are a few of these systems, and none are perfect.

However, if one is going to be heavily invested in the pursuit of rankings, one ought to be cautious in reporting the findings, especially when totally relying on the QS rankings while omitting the others. Unfortunately, Idris is overeager to broadcast UM’s performance, much like his declaration of our world class status.

He reminds us that UM is currently ranked 151st, better than Vanderbilt, Exeter, Michigan State, and Georgetown, which he makes a point to note, is where Bill Clinton studied.

However, on the Times Higher Education Supplement (THES) rankings, in which UM has withheld from participating, these same institutions attain very respectable rankings: Michigan State (82), Vanderbilt (106), Exeter (154), and Georgetown (173).

Beware of playing the rankings game, and of name dropping. Curiously, he notes: “Many of our foreign academics who used to serve in our universities are now holding important positions in their home countries, as high as the prime minister (of Turkey)”.

If this is such an honour, why is this mention of a Turkish Prime Minister so oblique and cryptic? Who is this great person that cannot be named? How many Turkish Prime Ministers with affiliation to Malaysian universities can there be?

It’s safe to say he is referring to Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who was conferred an honorary doctorate by the International Islamic University Malaysia.

I’m not questioning the merits of this award, but if Idris expects us to believe that such dignitary name dropping will elevate his viewpoint, he is mistaken.

It is widely known that honorary doctorates are not conferred on academics for service to the institution but for contributions to humankind, and more importantly, it is the university that is honouring the recipient, not the other way round. Of course, in accepting the award the recipient is giving some recognition to the institution, but please, to take this as an indication of global standing is a painful stretch.

Idris also tries to land some hits on sentiment. Idris wants to paint Zairil Khir Johari, the DAP MP, as unkind and discourteous, for describing universities of our international students’ origin countries as “inferior”.

Again, I find it strange that he does not just name the person, when he is clearly responding to Zairil’s public statement (http://www.zairil.com/hardly-any-british-german-or-australian-students-in-world-class-malaysian-universities-while-there-are-28869-malaysian-students-in-those-countries/).

So Idris may prefer to use more polite language. But instead of addressing Zairil’s criticisms he turns the debate into a nice guy contest. Idris asserts, “while I accept that our universities outrank many of those from other nations, I would never label them ‘inferior’”.

Surely our universities’ outranking theirs is a reason they are coming here to study. For the same reason, far more Malaysians attend universities in Australia and Britain compared to the number of Australian and British students enrolling here.

At no point does Idris try to establish that our universities are on par with Australian and British universities. He has defined world class as among the world’s best, but for that to be true there must be second best, next best or lesser ranked, however you want to call it. Somehow he just doesn’t want to acknowledge this and substantiate his boast that Malaysia is among the best.

Idris totally overlooks one of the biggest indictments of the sorry state of our universities — our own estimation of them, when it really comes down to it. Where do we send our top government scholars, at great expense? To foreign, world class universities.

Of course, in the end, if anybody wants to believe Malaysian universities are world class, who is to stop them? Most likely, however, they will end up like Idris, holding that position on faith, because the evidence is thin.

In the end, Idris urges us to strive for betterment. I heartily endorse that commitment. But it is difficult to place confidence in a government that displays an unwillingness to face up to the realities and shortcomings of our current situation — importantly, in my view, the difficulties in attracting capable young academics to build careers, while rankings obsession biases priorities in favour of enlisting high profile professors and visiting fellows.

While he would like to cast us as doom-sayers and gloom makers, many of us who respond to his triumphalism with dismay and disappointment are simply tired of chest thumping and hollow trumpeting, not because we delight in highlighting shortcomings, but because views like the Education Minister’s detract from true analysis of shortcomings and more fundamental policy responses.

DR LEE HWOK AUN

Kuala Lumpur

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