University research culture in Malaysia

This article first appeared on DNA here.

I READ with great interest that Multimedia University (MMU) broke into the top 200 in the QS World University Rankings by Subject 2014 for Computer Science and Information Systems. The university credits its research culture for such a credible performance.

Looking at the component breakdown, we find that MMU scored 47.9 for Academic Reputation, 70.1 for Employer Reputation, 78.4 for Citations per Paper, and 68.8 for H-index Citations. Research output would directly affect the Citations and H-index scores.

In comparison, the reputation scores are subjective as they are done through a global survey of industry employers and academic personnel. The questions asked are typically along the lines of “in your opinion, list down the top N universities for XYZ.”

While we find that two Malaysian public universities – Universiti Malaya (UM) and Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) – are ranked in the top 100 of the same subject as MMU, they both scored lower than MMU for Citations and H-index categories, but scored higher on reputation scores.

Therefore, if MMU can successfully maintain its research culture and increase its reputation, it will surpass the likes of UM and USM. This will happen as it becomes more established and its alumni find themselves in senior positions (and get invited to participate in the global survey).

This is no small feat for a university that is less than 20 years old and I would like to congratulate MMU on it.

However, I do have some general gripes about the research culture in Malaysian universities.

Firstly, it’s the lack of such a culture in the first place. Many of the universities in Malaysia are generally considered teaching universities that mainly focus on producing graduates. These universities do little research and what little research they do, is generally of a low quality.

A similar problem permeates our research universities as well. There are many uninspired PhD research projects that do nothing to advance human knowledge but are done to support our Government’s target of producing 60,000 PhDs by 2020.

This target has been set for the universities by way of grants, scholarships and other financial assistance. And due to the generous funding provided, many research projects are driven by the desire to spend the budget instead of the desire to do quality research.

Which leads me to my second gripe: The focus on quantity over quality.

To create a non-existent research culture, many universities turn to Key Performance Indicators (KPIs). These are often measured in terms of the number of papers published, which leads to gaming the system.

Cash is also dangled to encourage researchers to publish. Certain journals and book publishers accept payment for publication and that turns the issue into one of cost. A journal publication can typically net the lecturer RM1,500. If publication fees cost less than that, then it’s a no-brainer.

This leads to my third gripe: The obsession with intellectual property (IP).

A patent can bag the lecturer RM5,000 plus commercialisation royalties. This leads to some weird behaviour as academics and universities incorrectly assume that patents are the way to achieving their financial dreams.

In contrast with prestigious foreign universities, the IP policy for every Malaysian university is one where they own everything produced by both faculty and students. This can actually stifle nascent research culture as faculty are sometimes forced to work around these policies to advance their work.

These policies can also be a source of conflict when engaged in industry-driven research as industry needs to own the IP for commercial purposes. It also hampers collaboration between universities as IP creates walls around knowledge.

The solution to building a research culture is not an easy one.

A typical Malaysian university would have a deputy vice-chancellor of research, running a research office, which oversees faculty research departments that oversee principal investigators who run labs filled with research students who do most of the research work. Let’s start by trimming the fat.

And to build any sort of culture, we must have the right people – from the very top. Culture is not dictated by policy but is built on the collective thoughts and actions of each individual. We need to hire more researchers, not teachers, into universities.

But to do that, we need people with research skills. This is where a Masters comes in handy but if you do a survey, you will find more Structure-A (classroom) than Structure-C (research) ones. We need to reduce the number of classroom-based Masters, regardless of their profitability.

Also, research culture is not merely the domain of grad students and faculty. Everyone in a university needs to get involved, including the undergraduates. Universities should fund undergraduates who publish their work in conferences to introduce them to the culture from their first day.

While I do think that there is a research culture of some form in our local universities, it is my fervent hope that with some changes, we will see more Malaysian universities in the top ranks of the world.

Published by

Shawn Tan

Chip Doctor, Chartered Engineer, Entrepreneur, Law Graduate.

2 thoughts on “University research culture in Malaysia”

  1. Food for thought eh. Even though some of our fellow countrymen/women do not pay heed to these rankings, it will provide an impetus for some good old ‘competition’ to move (some) of our local universities to become better. It is indeed frightening to note that our Government is setting a target of producing 60,000 PhDs by 2020. Just numbers but what about the quality? Hence, you can see a flourishing “business” of providing opportunities to obtain PhDs. While having sufficient PhDs in the workforce is (only) part of the World Economic Forum’s “country competitiveness” equation, we have to be careful to produce a quality workforce that can effectively contribute to the economy – by way of innovation. Unfortunately, I am beginning to see the lowering of standards in the local PhD graduates.

    1. Yes, I’m quite surprised to hear what is happening, from some of our local PhD graduates. Obviously, quality has to be sacrificed for quantity. It’s all a KPI game in Malaysia, now.

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