A balanced view

Sunday May 25, 2008

A balanced view

The Star

The rating system announced recently provides the first objective snapshot of where Malaysian universities stand in relation to each other.

WE now know where Malaysian universities stand, following the release of the Rating System for Malaysian Higher Education Institutions (Setara) 2007.

Mohamed Khaled (fourth from left) holding up a copy of the Setara 2007 report .Looking on are his deputies Datuk Idris Haron (left), Dr Hou Kok Ching (right) and other Setara committee members.

Setara provided a contrast to last year’s Academic Reputation Survey (Ares). Universiti Malaya (UM) got the highest marks under Setara, whlle Universiti Sains Malaysia scored the most marks under Ares.

Higher Education Minister Datuk Seri Mohamed Khaled Nordin, who released the Setara results on May 16, said that a rating system provided a more complete and impartial picture, compared to ranking.

For Setara, a total of 17 public universities were rated in three categories – research, broadbased and specialised. No university earned the highest rating – six stars. UM was the only institution to score five stars in any of the three categories.

Mohamed Khaled said that Setara would enable universities to measure their strengths and weaknesses with a view to improving their standing in international rankings. Funding might also be linked to the universities’ Setara score.

There were six domains of measurement with different weightage for each category of university: academic staff reputation, student selectivity, research, academic programmes, resources and management. (See chart)

The ranking was based on 2006 data and was compiled by a team headed by Prof Dr Che Husna Azahari from Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM). It was coordinated by the Malaysian Qualifications Agency (MQA).

The other panel members were Assoc Prof Ir Dr Othman A Karim, Assoc Prof Dr Siti Rahayah Ariffin, Dr Wan Rosmanira Ismail, Wan Mohd Zulkhir Wan Hassan (all from UKM), consultant Dr Zulkifli Senteri (who was formerly from MQA) and Laily Kamariah Mohd Jamil from MQA.

Three universities – Universiti Malaysia Kelantan, Universiti Darul Iman Malaysia and Universiti Pertahanan Nasional Malaysia were not included under Setara because they were new, and did not have sufficient data.

As a benchmark, the compilers also visited the National University of Singapore, University of Melbourne, Indian Institute of Technology, Mahidol University and University of Technology Sydney to test Setara against those institutions.

UM’s Prof Kurunathan Ratnavelu said that the introduction of Setara was a welcome move by the ministry.

“With the ever increasing focus in recent years on the quality of Malaysian universities in rankings like The Times Higher Education Supplement (THES), we should view Setara as part of the process to benchmark ourselves.”

He added that in this age of globalisation, the introduction of a competitive element among local universities was a good thing.

“I think there should be no envy between the universities as our focus is to build world-class institutions.

“This will not happen overnight but within a 15- to 20-year time-frame. The introduction of Ares and Setara are positive steps in this direction.”

However, Prof Kurunathan said that Setara should include ratings for the different disciplines, like Arts and Humanities, Engineering and Information Technology to provide better insight into the quality of research and teaching in these courses.

He said that potential undergraduate and postgraduate students would then be able to use Setara as a guide for applying to the best universities in these disciplines.

“These measures would have a strong spillover effect on creating a truly world-class Malaysian university by 2025.”

Prof Kurunathan added that the process of compiling Setara must be beyond reproach and teams that conduct such exercises must be seen to be transparent and impartial.

USM Academic and Administrative Staff Association president Wan Abdul Manan Wan Muda also brought up the question of neutrality and impartiality.

“We shouldn’t have a majority of people from the same university on the committee. People might question – however unfairly – the validity of Setara’s results because of this.”

Wan Adnan also said that some of the domains evaluated under Setara, such as resources, might unfairly disadvantage smaller and newer universities.

“Things like academic reputation are important to students and parents and it is valid to measure them.

“Ultimately, Setara should play a role in attracting good students and good academics to a university,” he said.

Another academic, however, did not see much point in releasing Setara unless the report came with major changes.

“Now that UM is declared five-star, can it also charge five-star prices?

“Will academics in the highly-ranked universities be paid more, and will students, too, have to pay higher tuition fees to reflect this?” asked the academic, who did not want to be named.

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