What’s the point of Malaysian universities? University rankings and commercialization

Update (Sept. 15, 2010): A modified form of this article was published by New Straits Times (NST) newspaper today.

Malaysian universities today are very different from those ten years ago.  Today, greater emphasis is placed on research output, a measurable quantity that supposedly indicates the overall quality of research that is done at a particular university.

Joy at graduation! But what is the actual purpose of a university? (photo from lwcheah.spaces.live.com)

Consequently, university lecturers are pressured to publish as many as papers as possible at a rapid rate. Furthermore, lecturers are seen as successful researchers if they can patent or commercialize their research findings. A lecturer’s quality in research work is measured by the number of papers that has been published and where those papers had been published. So a publication in a prestigious, often Western, journal carries much more weight than that published in, say, a local (or from some backwater country) journal. Recently, there has been some talk to introduce two more indexes: number of citations and the so-called H-index. These two indexes indicate the number of journals a lecturer has published and the number of times the lecturer’s work has been cited (referred) in other researchers’ work.

In other words, there might soon be a “pecking order” where every lecturer would be ranked from no. 1 (top researcher) to the last (worst researcher). I find this worrisome because one of the reasons I became a lecturer and not some salesman is because I hated the ubiquitous use of “salesman ranking” in the sales sector, where every salesman has not only a sales target (quota) to achieve but also to be the top dog. No salesman (or lecturer) would want to see their names at the bottom or near the bottom of the league.

Recently, remarks from Prof Datuk Zakri Abdul Hamid, the science adviser to the Prime Minister, appeared in an article in NST about the irrelevance of university rankings. A Malaysian university, rather than competing with other universities (local and overseas), should aspire to excel in its practical contribution to solving problems in Malaysia and abroad. In other words, a successful university is one that puts theory into practice to solve actual, real problems. Matters such as research output, though important, distracts universities from what is actually needed today.

Academic teaching in universities appears to have been unfairly sidelined and has become a secondary importance (even a distraction) to research.

The primary purpose of a university (be it a Malaysian or foreign university) is to help in the development of intellectuals. The university is the highest level from which knowledge can be taught (or learned). Consequently, a successful university is one that passes down the latest understanding from the knowledge frontier.

More importantly, however, a successful university is one that changes and shapes the thinking of students, from a thinking that is narrow and prejudice to one that is broad and tolerant, from ignorance and aversion to cognizance and appreciation, and from phobia and illiteracy to science to passion and strong proficiency in science. These students, after graduation, are forever altered and in turn, contribute in their own way to the positive development of their country and society. A university can thus be regarded like a mental gym where students enroll to exercise and build their mental muscles, so that after graduation, these students carry with them a stronger, more effective, and more potent mental prowess to solve problems around them.

A country full of intellectuals is a successful and peaceful country, in contrast to one that is cursed with irrational, narrow-minded, intolerant, scientific-illiterate, and ignorant thinking people.

The development of intellectuals has been the core purpose of universities in the past, but somehow this noble purpose has been diluted since then. Today, universities are seen instead by the public as “pre-job training workshop”. Universities are supposed to train these people so that they can “hit the ground running” on the first day of their respective jobs. Yes, I agree that universities should provide the necessary training for students for their career interest, but this training is done as part of the students’ intellectual development rather than solely for their future jobs.

Imagine this following scenario: A student has been trained for civil engineering at a university but later decides to be an entrepreneur, opening a restaurant instead. With our current perception of universities, this engineer-turn-entrepreneur is said to have wasted his or her time and money at the university, studying for something not used to earn a living income.

So if you are a member of the public, you see a successful university is one that produces top-notch, ready-to-go job workers, and if you are a member of a university, you see a successful university is one that produces lots of research papers, and patents and commercializes research findings. Both views are correct but not entirely comprehensive, as they miss the fundamental purpose of a university; that is, the development of intellectuals for the good of the society and nation.



  1. Teach and also provide intangible benefits that are often not measured in pure numbers. Citations and number of patents/papers is a notoriously poor indicator of the quality of a lecturer/R&D (I know some professors that fall under this category worldwide). Similarly, I know many stunningly good researchers who are ranked a poor lecturers due to lack of commercialisation of their research. To give a rough timeframe for a simple idea you will be lucky to get something going in the market in 5 years, typically 10+years if it doesnt fail earlier; that goes for research in general.
    We need those who can teach and teach well to foster talent and instill the curiousity and way of thinking to improve our country. Targets/KPIs can come later as they tend to make things worse. Often too, the top researchers are then put into administration positions (deans/heads/etc) draining their time and costing the world valuable science and knowledge.
    Teaching is a completely separate skill from research; both are equally hard to master. A good university has to find that right balance between the two to shape the minds of the next generation.

    • I agree with you. Part of the problem is trying to measure academic and research success. For research, tangible results are used, so the more publications, patents, trademarks, and commercialization you have, the more indicative that you are successful The problem is some research cannot be patented or commercialized. Measuring teaching success is also difficult. One method is feedback from students but that can be inaccurate. Local universities nowadays place much more emphasis on research than on teaching. For research, you can win several awards in a year, and there is no quota for the number of winners. So you can have 10, 20, or 30 winners from a research exhibition, for instance. But for teaching, there is only one award given to one lecturer per university per year. So this highlights very strongly the disparity.

  2. i’m master student in local U. Presently doing research on commercialisation of public university research output. This is only my personal point of view. To me, the measurement of the lecture’s quality, should depends on how many paper publish esp. in reputed journal and number of times paper cited by others ( i do agree with you). But…no.of works/research findings that has been commercialised/ has potential to be commercialised is also extremely very important measurement. Look at the statistic from MOSTI…out of multimillions dollar ringgit spent in research, unfortunatley, the ROI is very low (+- 3% only). The purpose University ask the leturer to do research is to strengthen their fundamental and contribute to the nation and give benefit to the people. What happen nowadays, most of the lecturer does research just to fullfill the university’s requirement and at the end throw the result in the dustbin.High quality lecturer is those that does novel/innovative research and that can be commercialised for the benefit of the people and the income of the country. This is very important. I fully support the recent agenda of the country and university to boost the economy thru research commercialisation.Economy of the counrty is also depends on them. In this age, academic teaching only is not enough. Lecturer must prove something that they have more ability and they can do somethieng extraordinary. My question? how the lecture could imrove their knowledge and skill without seriously involve in research?

    • Thank you for your comments. My blog post was mainly about the *fundamental* purpose of a university. I agree that both research and academic teaching are vital, and I hope my blog did not imply that a university must choose either one but not both.

      Your arguments are polarized because they are heavily skewed to research as an only indicator of the quality of a university and its lecturers. There are many indicators of a good university lecturer, but they can be categorised into three groups: research, teaching, and extension work. Hence, only focusing purely on research as an indicator of a good university is myopic because it tells only one-third of a story.

      You are concern over commercialization because you believe it reflects the quality of a university and that it is only through commercialization that a university is regarded to have contributed to the country significantly. But why is this so? Can’t a university contribute something useful without having to first commercialize it? In other words, is business such an important component in a research?

      What if a team of zoologists goes to Africa and studies about the behaviour of elephants for ten years and makes a startling discovery that elephants communicate with each other using their foot (see http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/2129395.stm)? How on earth can we commercialize such a finding? Hence, would this research be considered useful and important? From a business point of view, this team of zoologists is said to have wasted their funds, studying for something that cannot be turned into a product.

      This ROI measure you mentioned is certainly a valid and important measure, but, again, to use it as if research is a some sort of money-making enterprise is dangerous. If the number of commercialization does not accurately measure the value and contribution of a research, then what does? And that would be part of your Masters. You must also define clearly what makes a “quality” university.


    • A great disaster in academia, when people start thinking about University must make money (roi, efficiency etc. etc.). University must flourishing intellectuals, not behave like money makers or money making machine.

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