Monday 29 April 2013

Higher education that makes a difference

Posted by on March 15, 2012 in Education, Higher Education, Human Resources, Interviews 
Professor Dato’ Omar Osman, USM’s Vice Chancellor

Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM), the second oldest university in Malaysia, is known for its special approach to higher education where students can reach a high degree of specialisation by combining related subjects and organised courses. Fields that USM promotes and develops are natural sciences, applied sciences, medical, health and pharmaceuticals, building technology, social sciences, humanities, and education. Inside Investor spoke with Professor Dato’ Omar Osman, USM’s Vice Chancellor, about the structure of this educational strategy and its focus on benefiting the people.

Q: Could you give us an overview of the major milestones that USM has passed in building its brand credibility in the local education sector?

A: We as a university did not reach the half-century mark yet, but I believe the progress we have made is already beyond that because we have come to a state where we can easily say that we have reached maturity, reflected through the nation’s progress. We started later than the nation, but I think we have moved alongside Malaysia. We have linked with 300 universities worldwide in 90 countries over the years. That reflects the network of our faculty members in a global scenario. Now is the phase when we need to focus and direct our resources to areas where the value for money will be higher. We are stepping up strategies so that studies that we have, research that we do, and commercialisation that we invest in, will bring economic benefit to the university and to the country.

Q: What are the study opportunities that USM offers to foreign students?

A: For foreign students there might be some limitations because some courses are only held in our language – however, it is easy to learn but we require some conditions to be met for Bahasa Malaysia. We run our undergraduate programmes in sciences and core courses in English, but for other courses, Bahasa Malaysia is a prerequisite. Our priority is on local students, but we do invite those from abroad who are interested to come if they meet certain conditions. For the postgraduate studies, we can go up to 25 or 30 per cent share of foreign students, but even then we are moving away from quantity to quality for both domestic and overseas students. The resources need to be expanded and investment needs to be made, including into the students that come in, so that we get the good ones and the good ones will graduate. In terms of increasing the numbers, we now want to focus on areas that we are lacking in terms of capacity. If we have to invest into courses for foreign students, it has to be an investment that is worthwhile. That means that there must be a purpose of what we do at the stage we have reached now. It is not that we would take foreign students because the pay more fees, there must be a purpose for them to come and they have to be good students. As of now, many of them have been contributing very significantly to the university.

Q: How does USM differentiate itself from other learning institutions, especially in the science courses? Is there something unique that other private or public universities do not offer?

A: Yes, we are different. We make sure that what we do is an investment that is worthwhile. We are focused at sustainability issues across the board. We are consistent, persistent, and focused on the many things that we do. Now, we have embarked on undergraduate courses on sustainability which are compulsory for all, as we did for master courses and MBA courses. We look at sustainability research that benefits the people at the lower end of the population, the bottom billion. We do not focus on high-end products for high-end people. We are not going to spend millions of dollars to build facilities for the rich to exhilarate themselves. But we will invest into the areas that will benefit more people, such as programmes that relate to medication, vaccination, and diagnostics, and we want to encourage a lot more of our researchers to move into the source technology that benefits more people rather than going into high technology that benefits less people. Of course we could go into high technology that benefits more people, but this would require more money. Our country does not have that abundance of money to spend to get into that. For example, we have started with research on green sustainability years ago when nobody really paid attention to it. We have done our part in creating that awareness, and we were very jubilant when the government created a Ministry of Green Technology. Now, we want a Ministry of Sustainability. That’s where university should happen. We should move beyond the realms of practicality and show the way forward. We know that we have brought the nation partly on that track.

Q: How about foreign partnerships? Is USM collaborating with foreign partners in research and development and academic programmes? Please give some examples and brief details of the collaborations.

A: We have collaboration projects with many universities, for example in Japan, Saudi Arabia, and the UK, including some of our WHO acknowledged laboratory collaborators. We are doing collaboration on a beneficial basis. We are going there to give. In Saudi Arabia, one of the flagship projects we have been involved in was research on the Haj pilgrimage, in detail the management system of the Haj, the transport issues and the comfort level during the Haj and Umrah seasons. In Malaysia, we estimate that we have 150,000 people doing the Umrah and 30,000 doing the Haj every year. However, we have many more collaborations with a lot of other universities.

Q: What is the message you would give to the GCC about the standard of education in Malaysia as opposed the West?

A: Malaysia has established itself as a country that is focused in quality and proper benchmarking at an international level. We are not better, but we are not worse than any other educational institution in the world. We may not have the best facilities, but we definitely have all the necessary infrastructure and academic tools as well as progressive research. Perception is a manageable issue. Currently; over 20 foreign universities want to come to Malaysia. This country provides an ecosystem that is balanced, no matter if you are a Muslim or a non-Muslim. Furthermore, the standard of living is one of the attractive points of Malaysia, you get more value for money here than somewhere else. The education system is now well developed, not only in the private sector, also in the public sector. Malaysia provides a variety of choices. If you opt for vibrancy, religious tolerance, security, or else, it is all packaged into one in Malaysia. If Middle Eastern students want to come here, they cannot expect a Western atmosphere, but an Eastern atmosphere. They have choices, they can go for the best and the most exclusive university or a more comprehensive one where it is all about real life, or they can choose a private university that has only a few hundred students or they can come to our university which has 30,000 students. We provide an ecosystem, a platform of knowledge for people who want to experience the real life. And I don’t think our quality is less superior than the quality of any other institutions. We don’t have Nobel Prize winners, but Nobel Prize winners don’t teach undergraduates. Malaysia is a place where you can have a non-Western education based on Western standards.

Q: What opportunities do you see for GCC investors into the education system in Malaysia?

A: We welcome GCC investors here, as we have a high potential of research such as water security, food security, and the like. We actually would need a lot of philanthropic organisations to come and move us, not only in the fundamentals, but also in the commercialisation of products. That actually benefits more people. If we have a fully commercialised business entity to come, this would be a big shot. For example, the Qatar Foundation would be indeed welcomed a partner for strategic initiatives.

Q: The university organises various programmes such as “Kampus Sejahtera”, “The University in the Garden” etc. to enhance its learning environment. How can these programmes benefit the students?

A: It’s an idea to get the campus community involved with daily efforts, through pragmatic solutions and proposals, giving it into their responsibility. It’s about wellbeing and sustainability, the “Campus in the Garden”. We want to incorporate this in the mind of the community of 30,000 on our campus. Doing this, we give impact to 200,000 other people over multiplication. The community follows what the students believe. It is positive empowerment. We cannot do what everybody is doing. We are doing things different.

Q: What is the APEX programme?

A: It is the Accelerated Programme for Excellence, a programme to be excellent in an accelerated way. In doing so, we push our resources to the limit. Part of this is the strong teamwork among the community. We say: let us spend more money to build ourselves rather than spending more resources to make ourselves recognised temporarily. We benefit more people and are not making few people rich. A university given apex status is one that has the greatest potential among Malaysian universities to be world-class, and as such, would be given additional assistance to compete with top-ranked global institutions

Q: Are you looking to get additional funding for the commercialisation of the universities research?

A: Funding from the government has its limitations, and we need to look at generating other forms of income, this is why we are looking for investors. Commercialisation of products is a painful and difficult process, and we need partners for this. For example, for halal products, we need someone who can provide the supply and sales chain.

Q: What is the share of academics in Malaysia compared to other nations in the region? What would be a desirable percentage to boost economic growth? What role does science and technology education play to reach these goals?

A: I can’t give you the numbers now, but it is clear that the country needs to produce a high-end cohort group of PhDs and other specialists. We want to increase that, but this takes time. The academic community in Malaysia needs to be given a status. If the government works on this, Malaysia would have a high rate of academics in about 20 year. But this needs more investment into higher education. Differentiation needs to be done, then the commercial sector follows, and the students will be nurtured. A pole position has to be taken.

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