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COMMENT | Has our higher education been mutilated?

COMMENT | The quality of education in Malaysian universities has been an issue of serious concern over the last two decades. Public interest in the issue was reignited in early 2021 by a comment made by Arshad Ayub, a highly respected educator and the first director of Institut Teknologi Mara (now Universiti Teknologi Mara), that more than 2,500 of Malaysian professors have still not attained the desired quality standards required of the academic profession.

Most recently, the awarding of 398 PhDs by a public university has raised concerns about the quality of PhD qualifications – traditionally awarded to the most rigorous and knowledge-enhancing work in a particular discipline.

To quote Sharifah Munirah Alatas, an outspoken academic: “In Malaysia, we produce graduates by the container load, and this includes PhDs. The more the merrier, regardless of quality.” In this regard, a close friend of mine cheekily commented, “Now almost everyone can have a PhD.” Another concerned local academic, Teh Yik Koon, has remarked that “our higher education system is on a downward spiral.”

They represent wider concerns that have been repeatedly raised by several quarters regarding the competency of our academics in their subjects; quality of teaching and learning in our universities; publication of articles by academics in predatory journals; the unethical practice of “riding” on articles written by other academics to meet the publication standards required for promotions; and the culture of mediocrity and apple-polishing which has evidently crept insidiously into our universities.

Hence, this article seeks to provide additional personal insights as to whether Malaysian higher education has been compromised by focusing on the following questions:

Has the quality and standards of Malaysian universities been deteriorating over the last few decades? Are our academics hired based upon academic merit and other required competencies or on ethnic-based criterion? Are our universities truly concerned about the quality of PhD theses or has quality been sacrificed for quantity in chasing after key performance indicators? Do examination questions adequately test critical thinking skills of students? How competent are our academics to ensure quality teaching and learning?

Based upon literature review and my interactions with hundreds of academics through my numerous workshops related to effective university teaching, academic leadership and graduate employability, the quality of education in our universities is not something to shout about. The sad truth is that, particularly in the case of public universities, we have sacrificed excellence for mediocrity, meritocracy for an overdose of social reengineering, and quality of graduates for quantity of graduates.

One reason the academic standards of public universities have declined over the years is due to...

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