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What ails our universities?

That there are problems with our public universities has long been acknowledged. The QS World University Rankings 2013 seem to confirm this, with only Universiti Malaya in the 167th position. By contrast, the National University of Singapore (NUS) is ranked 24.

Several Asian universities from Hong Kong, China and Japan have performed much better. Universiti Sains Malaysia is number 355, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia is number 269, Universiti Putra Malaysia is 411-420, Universiti Teknologi Malaysia is 355, International Islamic University Malaysia is number 501-550 and Universiti Teknologi Mara is number 701+. What are the implications of these rankings for our system of higher education?

Of course, we can be an ostrich and dismiss them as irrelevant on the grounds that our universities are designed to achieve certain national objectives and therefore the QS rankings are of little relevance to us. We can also find fault with the methodology employed by QS, as certainly one can find weaknesses in the assessment criteria used to rank universities. Or, we can take a more positive attitude and ask, what ails our universities?

A glance at the list shows that all universities that most of us consider good are on the list - MIT, Harvard, Oxford, NUS, University of Tokyo, etc. There are no bad universities on the list. So, we cannot simply dismiss the rankings on poor methodology. There is something to be said for the rankings. If a university is not on the list it does not necessarily follow that it is bad or poor. But if it is near the top of the list it does mean it enjoys a certain international recognition for quality.

Our approach should be to use the rankings and the criteria as a base for analysis and designing an effective plan to improve the performance of our universities.

Remedial actions should include internationalising the curriculum, increasing student and faculty diversity, improving teaching competence, stressing faculty research and publication, meritocracy in student and faculty recruitment, and improving rapport with industry and top global universities and research institutions.

That there is a need to review the performance of our universities is not in doubt. While national objectives and aspirations are important, our universities can ill afford to lag behind international benchmarks.

Foreign investments, research and development, innovation, economic growth, social mobility, and political stability are all impacted by tertiary education. The sillicon valleys do make a difference in the highly competitive world of today.

The sillicon valleys in turn cannot emerge without the intellectual capital that flow from top class universities and research institutes. We cannot allow our universities and our schools for that matter that feed our universities to remain mediocre and hope at the same time to achieve national transformation.

The levers of growth and development have changed - they are no longer natural resources or technology but intellectual and human capital. It is only a top-rate education system that can produce the talent needed to plan, innovate and manage change and growth.

So, the QS ratings do matter. We should pay attention to them and not bury our heads in the politics of the day.