This BN government can postpone loan repayments for political cronies but not for low income students

Media Statement by Dr. Ong Kian Ming, Member of Parliament for Serdang and Assistant National Director for Political Education for the DAP, on the 12th of March 2018

In Pakatan Harapan’s Manifesto which was launched on Thursday, 8th of March 2018, one of the promises outlined was to allow students to postpone the repayment of their PTPTN loans until their monthly incomes reach RM4,000. The next day, PTPTN chairman and MP for Lenggong, Datuk Shamsul Anuar Nasarah criticized this proposal as being unrealistic and irresponsible.[1] He also said that the practice of allowing PTPTN borrowers to defer their repayments for as much as 36 months before they find a job is a more ‘reasonable’ proposal.

What is ironic about the statement of the PTPTN chairman is that the government has given far longer extensions on loan repayments due to cronyism and corrupt deals. For example, in 2007 the government gave a RM4.6 billion soft loan to the Port Klang Authority (PKA) to fund the scandal ridden PKFZ deal.[2] The full servicing of this loan was postponed to 2011 but in 2011, PKA was not in a financial position to start the full repayments.[3] In 2013, the cabinet decided to give another ‘grace period’ to PKA for another 4 years and to allow PKA to start servicing this loan only in 2018.[4] In total, PKA was allowed to defer its repayment for 10 years as a result of the PKFZ scandal. In other words, students who cannot find jobs get a maximum deferment of 3 years but if you are a government owned company who squandered billions of Ringgit because of a corrupt business deal, you can be given a 10 year loan deferment! Barisan Nasional boleh!

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The Ministry of Higher Education (MOHE) should not be overly obsessed with global university rankings but instead focus on locally developed indicators to improve our universities

Media Statement by Dr. Ong Kian Ming, Head of Penang Institute in Kuala Lumpur, on the 8th of September 2017

The Ministry of Higher Education (MOHE) should not be overly obsessed with global university rankings but instead focus on locally developed indicators to improve our universities

The Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings for 2018 were released earlier this week. The initial headlines focused on the fact that two United Kingdom universities, the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge, topped the rankings coming in at number one and two respectively.

Malaysian universities, however, did not fare so well. Universiti Malaya (UM) was the highest ranked Malaysian university at the 351-400 range. Universiti Tunku Abdul Rahman (UTAR) was the next highest ranked Malaysian university at the 501-600 range. Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM), Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM), Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM), Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM), Universiti Teknologi Petronas (UTP) were all ranked in the 601-800 range followed by Universiti Tenaga Nasional (UniTEN) in the 801-1000 range and Universiti Utara Malaysia (UUM) in the 1001+ range (See Table 1 below).

Table 1: Ranking of Malaysian Universities in the Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings 2018

Rank Name of University
351–400 University of Malaya
501–600 Universiti Tunku Abdul Rahman (UTAR)
601–800 Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia
601–800 Universiti Putra Malaysia
601–800 Universiti Sains Malaysia
601–800 Universiti Teknologi Malaysia
601–800 Universiti Teknologi Petronas
801–1000 Universiti Tenaga Nasional (UNITEN)
1001+ Universiti Utara Malaysia

The position of Malaysian universities in the THE rankings stand in stark contrast to the 2018 QS World University Rankings where five Malaysian universities were ranked in the top 300 with UM occupying the 114th position (UPM was ranked 229, UKM was ranked 230, UTM was ranked 253 and USM was ranked 264).

If we examine the Shanghai Jiao Tong Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) and the US News and World Report’s Best Global University Rankings, two of the other well-known global university rankings, we also find Malaysian universities being ranked outside the top 300. For example, in the ARWU rankings for 2017, UM and USM were ranked in the 401-500 range while UKM and UPM were ranked in the 501-600 range and UTM in the 701-800.

In the US News 2017 ranking, UM was the highest ranked Malaysian university at 356 followed by USM (576), UTM (639), UPM (670) and UKM (783).

Figure 1 below shows the difference in the rankings achieved by Malaysian universities in the QS World University Rankings versus the other three global university rankings – THE, ARWU and the US News ranking.

Figure 1: Latest Global University Rankings of the Top 5 Research Universities in Malaysia (2017/2018)

What can explain the differences in the performance of Malaysian universities in the QS rankings versus the other well-known global university rankings? One likely reason is that the QS rankings allocate the lowest percentage of its overall score to research and citation based measures. Table 2 below summarizes the components of these four global university rankings and calculates the overall weightage which is given to research and citation based measures i.e. the publication output of a university. The QS ranking only allocates 20% of its overall score to research and citation measures. In comparison 60% of the THE, 70% of the Shanghai AWRU and 75% of the US News rankings are allocated to research and citation measures.

Under the QS rankings, academic reputation and employer reputation account for 50% of the overall score. These are subjective measures which can be heavily influenced by the sample of respondents surveyed. For example, in the latest 2018 QS rankings, the representation of Malaysian academics in the academic survey is unduly large, considering that Malaysia makes up merely 0.41% of the world’s population yet its representation in the academic survey is 3.7%. The percentage of Malaysian respondents in the academic survey is even greater than countries like China (1.7%), Germany (2.9%) and Japan (3.2%).

The percentage of international academics and students make up 10% of the overall QS score and discerning universities which want to improve their QS ranking can increase these figures without necessarily increasing the quality of teaching, of academic research or of student quality. Indeed, one should not forget that the QS rankings[1] in 2004 ranked UM at 89th in the world because Chinese and Indian Malaysian students and lecturers were mistakenly classified as foreigners thereby artificially inflating UM’s International Faculty and Student scores.[2]

Table 2: Components and Weightage of the QS, THE, Shanghai ARWU and US News Rankings

Ranking Components Weightage Research & Citation Based Weightage
QS Academic Reputation 40% 20%
Employer Reputation 10%
Faculty Student Ratio 20%
Citations per Faculty 20%
International Faculty 5%
International Students 5%
THE Teaching: the learning environment 30% 60%
Research: volume, income and reputation 30%
Citations: research influence 30%
Industry income: innovation 2.5%
International outlook: staff, students and research 7.5%
Shanghai ARWU Alumni of an institution winning Nobel Prizes and Fields Medals 10% 70%
Staff of an institution winning Nobel Prizes and Fields Medals 20%
Highly cited researchers in 21 broad subject categories 20%
Papers published in Nature and Science* 20%
Papers indexed in Science Citation Index-expanded and Social Science Citation Index 20%
Per capita academic performance of an institution 10%
US News Global research reputation 12.5% 75.0%
Regional research reputation 12.5%
Publications 10.0%
Books 2.5%
Conferences 2.5%
Normalized citation impact 10.0%
Total citations 7.5%
Number of publications that are among the 10 percent most cited 12.5%
Percentage of total publications that are among the 10 percent most cited 10.0%
International collaboration 10.0%
Number of highly cited papers that are among the top 1 percent most cited in their respective field 5.0%
Percentage of total publications that are among the top 1 percent most highly cited papers 5.0%

The Ministry of Higher Education’s (MOHE) decision to benchmark Malaysian universities using the QS World University Rankings is thus short-sighted and faulty since the QS rankings do not give much emphasis on research output. MOHE is fooling itself and the Malaysian public if it continues to use the improvement of Malaysian universities in the QS rankings as a sign that our universities are improving, especially on the research front.

This does not mean that we should rely on the other global university rankings which give more weightage to research output. The other ranking systems are also not without their own weaknesses. For example, the Shanghai ARWU rankings gives too much weightage to the science subjects and publications and also to universities with previous winners of Nobel prizes and Field medals. A Malaysian university can conceivably improve its Shanghai ARWU ranking by giving short term fellowships to a few Nobel prizes and Fields Medals winners but this may not improve the overall research output of that university.

Rather than be obsessed with the ranking game, MOHE should instead work to improve the existing academic indicators and measures which have been developed locally by the Ministry and the Malaysian Qualifications Agency (MQA) to assess the quality of local public and private universities such as the Malaysian Research Assessment Instrument (MyRA), the Rating System for Malaysian Higher Education Institutions (SETARA) and the Discipline-Based Rating System (D-SETARA). Currently, there is very little transparency or disclosure on how the data for these measures are being collected and even less discussion on how to improve these measures so that they can be used by the public to evaluate the quality of these institutions and for these institutions to benchmark themselves. For example, MySetara loses much of its value if the majority of our private and public universities are given five stars (out of a possible six). How do we differentiate between these universities in terms of the quality of research output or the standard of teaching, just to name two?

The Penang Institute in Kuala Lumpur has published a report entitled “An unhealthy obsession with Global University Rankings?”[3] as a way to increase awareness on the strengths and weaknesses of each global university ranking system and to make the argument that MOHE should not be overly obsessed with Malaysia’s performance on these rankings but instead focus on improving the local measures of university quality developed by the MOHE and MQA. If we focus on improving our universities according to more suitable locally developed indicators, the output of our universities in terms of the quality of research, the quality of teaching and the quality of graduates will also improve. And if a by-product of this improvement is that our rankings rise in these global university rankings systems, then this can be seen as a bonus.

[1] This was when these rankings were published jointly by QS and THE. They started publishing separate rankings in 2010.

[2] http://rankingwatch.blogspot.my/2012/08/universiti-malaya-again-in-many.html#links

[3] Authored by Lee Zi-Sheng, an intern with Penang Institute in KL and Dr. Ong Kian Ming, Head of Penang Institute in KL. A copy of this report will be uploaded to the Penang Institute in KL website: http://penanginstitute.org/v3/research/penang-institute-in-kuala-lumpur

Datin Seri Rosmah should save taxpayers’ money and go to Singapore to learn how to get more Malaysians into Oxbridge rather than travel to the United Kingdom

Media Statement by Dr. Ong Kian Ming, Member of Parliament for Serdang, on the 16th of August, 2017[1]

Datin Seri Rosmah should save taxpayers’ money and go to Singapore to learn how to get more Malaysians into Oxbridge rather than travel to the United Kingdom

Datin Seri Rosmah Mansor, the wife of the Prime Minister, received much criticism for a trip she took to the United Kingdom earlier this month. In response, Rosmah said that her trip to the UK, including a visit to the University of Oxford, was not for a holiday but to ‘pave the way for children under the PERMATA early childhood education program to join the university’.[2] If PERMATA is under budget constraints, as claimed by Rosmah[3], I suggest that instead of visiting the United Kingdom, she can take a trip across the border to Singapore to learn how the top institutions there help their high achieving students to get into Oxbridge.

The latest statistics show that there are currently 290 Singaporean students at the University of Oxford as compared to only 145 Malaysians. At the University of Cambridge, there are currently 351 Singaporean students compared to 239 Malaysians. (See Table 1 below)

Table 1: Number of Singaporean and Malaysian students at the University of Cambridge and Oxford (Undergraduates and Postgraduates)[4]

Oxford Cambridge 2016/17
Singaporeans 290 351
Malaysians 145 239

Sources: https://www.ox.ac.uk/about/international-oxford/oxfords-global-links/asia-south-east/asia-south-east-country-statistics?wssl=1#content-item–6 (Oxford), http://www.prao.admin.cam.ac.uk/data-analysis-planning/student-numbers/snapshot-nationalitydomicile (Cambridge)

Singapore sends 9 times more students to Oxbridge[5] than Malaysia on a per capita basis. Given Singapore’s success in sending so many more students to Oxbridge than Malaysia, it would make sense for Rosmah to visit Singapore to learn more about the ‘secrets’ of their success. She would just need to visit the top 5 ‘A’ level institutions in Singapore – Raffles Institution, Hwa Chong Institution, Victoria Junior College, Temasek Junior College and National Junior College – which are responsible for sending most of Singaporean students to Oxbridge (as well as a number of Malaysians). If she did, she would find the following:

1) High academic achievements across the board

In most schools, only a handful of students, perhaps the top 5%, would get 4As for their STPM. Those with 4.0 CGPAs are even rarer. In a top A level college like Raffles Institution, the percentage of students in a cohort with the equivalent of 4As was 53% for the class of 2016[6] (629 out of 1162 students). Basically, if you were to throw a stone into a crowd of students in this school, you would have a more than 50% chance of hitting someone who scored 4As.

Having a larger number of academic high achievers means that you have a larger pool of students who can potentially apply to places like Oxford and Cambridge. While we can discuss whether or not academic results are the best reflection of intellectual potential, there is no escaping from the need to have good academic results to gain entry into Oxbridge. Offers from Oxbridge are usually given to students contingent on them obtaining a certain academic result. Most entry offers are contingent of students obtaining 3As or 4As for their A levels (or the equivalent).

The question which Rosmah has to answer, as the patron of PERMATA, is how many of its pre-university students obtain straight As for the A level exams (or its equivalent)? What does PERMATA need to do in order to reach similar academic standards as the top pre-university institutions in Singapore?

2) Exposure to Various Intellectual Challenges

Students in these top A level institutions in Singapore are given opportunities to expand their intellectual horizons beyond their normal academic syllabus. Students who show greater aptitude in certain subjects such as Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Geography and Informatics, are given the training and the opportunity to compete for selection into the Singapore team for Olympiad competitions at the international level. The Olympiad infrastructure which exists at the school[7] and national[8] levels has allowed Singapore to improve its performance in these international student competitions over time. For example, Singapore has placed in the Top 10 in the International Math Olympiad since 2011.[9] Many of the students who participate in these Olympiads will go on to gain entry into top universities around the world, including Oxbridge.

The exposure to various intellectual opportunities goes beyond training and participating in Olympiad competitions, which are only open to a relatively small number of students. Students who show interest in other fields, including the arts, public policy, scientific research and information technology have access to specialist programs in these fields.[10]

In addition, students who want to gain exposure to university standard courses can opt to take H3 level papers for their A-levels (This is an addition to their ‘normal’ A level papers which are called H2 level papers). Students who take H3 level papers are better prepared to ask more insightful and critical questions in their field of studies which would also help them when writing essays and answering questions during interviews for Oxbridge entry.

This is perhaps one of the intentions of Permata Pintar’s Nobelist Mindset program which is a program to give Malaysian students a sense of what it takes to have the mindset of a Nobel Prize winner.[11] But from the following description of the Nobelist Mindset program, we have a long way to go in terms of producing graduates who can write proper sentences in English, let alone Nobel Prize winners:

“This workshop was held for 5 days at the PERMATApintar Center. Students are divided into 12 groups and will be taught by two instructors in the classroom. Students will learn and be exposed sciences to become a scientist and features a prize winner. The workshop was also attended by the students of the boarding school from the outside (SBP, BPT, SKK and so on. The highlight is the selection of students and Young Scientist who managed to qualify for Londo trip. The trip to London was to provide an opportunity for participants to visit special laboratories relating Nobel there.”

3) Having well-trained Academic Councillors

Gaining admissions into a top overseas university is not as simple as merely getting good academic results. It requires well-written application essays which can make you stand out from the crowd. It requires good reference letters from credible sources. It requires extra preparation for Oxbridge courses which require subject exams. It requires knowing what questions to anticipate and how to converse with professors from Oxbridge during interviews. Most of the top A level institutions in Singapore have well-trained academic councillors whose full-time jobs are to help students prepare their applications to these top universities.[12] This is one of the reasons cited as to why Raffles came out top in terms of number of students accepted into Cambridge.[13]

As far as I know, PERMATA Pintar does not have any full-time academic councilors to help guide students on their higher education options. The closest item I found was a research mentoring program whereby a student can be mentored by a UKM academic in an area of his or her interest.[14]

4) Having well-qualified and well-trained teachers

Many of the teachers in these top institutions are Ministry of Education teaching scholarship holders. This means that they were sponsored by the Ministry of Education to study overseas before coming back to Singapore to teach. Some of them have studied in top overseas universities including Oxbridge. There are also expatriate teachers in these top A level institutions with experience in teaching in some of the top secondary schools overseas including schools in the UK which send a high number of students to Oxbridge.

Does PERMATA have a similar cohort of teaching staff who can create the right academic environment for the geniuses who are studying at PERMATA? Do the staff have the right experiences which can help these students to not just do well academically but create a mindset among the students which can enable them to apply to some of the top universities overseas including Oxbridge? The evidence does not seem to confirm this.

The onus is on PERMATA to create a high achieving environment for its high IQ students. The environment at PERMATA should be one where high performers are created across the board. The last thing we would want is for places at Oxbridge to be ‘bought’ in exchange for visits and special donations to Oxford or Cambridge by Malaysian dignitaries such as Rosmah.

Rosmah does not have to take a contingent of 30 or more people to the United Kingdom to help future generations of PERMATA students gain entry into Oxbridge. She should just go across the border to Singapore with a few of the PERMATA top management and teachers. If she wants to save even more money, she should visit some of the top A level colleges in Malaysia which routinely send many students to Oxbridge including KYUEM, Kolej Tuanku Ja’afar (KTJ), Methodist College, Taylors College and INTEC Education College in Shah Alam.  Then she wouldn’t have to ask her husband, Prime Minister Najib for more funding for PERMATA.

Ultimately, regardless of the number of overseas trips which Rosmah takes, on behalf of PERMATA, I’m not sure if she will learn a much more basic lesson – which is that programs for ‘gifted’ students such as PERMATA cannot be the launchpad to promote one individual’s agenda or to make one person look good but must be built on strong institutional foundations in order to make the program sustainable and successful.

Dr. Ong Kian Ming
Member of Parliament for Serdang

[1] Disclosure: Dr. Ong Kian Ming did his ‘O’ levels in Raffles Institution and his ‘A’ levels in what was then Raffles Junior College under the Asean scholarship

[2] https://www.malaysiakini.com/news/391057

[3] https://www.malaysiakini.com/news/391059

[4] These figures may underestimate the number of Oxbridge entries the Singapore education system is responsible for since some of the Malaysians who go to Oxbridge also studied in Singapore.

[5] Abbreviation for the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge

[6] https://rafflespress.com/2017/02/24/a-level-results-2017-rafflesian-excellence/

[7] https://rafflesmatholympiad.wordpress.com/programme/

[8] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Singapore_Mathematical_Olympiad,

[9] https://www.imo-official.org/results.aspx

[10] http://www.ri.edu.sg/#Page/RafflesProgram-36/

[11] http://www.programpermata.my/en/pintar/nobelist

[12] http://www.ri.edu.sg/#Page/Student-45/ for Raffles Institution; http://www.hci.edu.sg/advantage/future-after-hci/tertiary-education for Hwa Chong Institution; https://sites.google.com/a/vjc.sg/the-vjc-scholarships-guide/scholarship-programme-at-vjc for Victoria Junior College.

[13] https://www.crimsoneducation.org/au/blog/cambridge-acceptance-rates-schools

[14] http://www.programpermata.my/resources/download/RESEARCH-MENTORING-PROGRAM-2013.pdf