Malaysia’s private universities join their public counterparts in a strong rise in world rankings

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Kamal Nasharuddin Mustapha
Kamal Nasharuddin Mustapha

Malaysia’s universities disappointed in the first world rankings back in 2004. As a result, its government took a bold step to re-evaluate its higher education ecosystem and delivery. Dato’ Professor Ir Dr Kamal Nasharuddin Mustapha is vice chancellor of Malaysia’s Universiti Tenaga Nasional (National Energy University), also known as UNITEN. Professor Kamal explains to Tony Martin how UNITEN and the private higher education sector in Malaysia have contributed to the country’s advance in university quality.

In Malaysia, private universities are a relatively new entity with public universities forming the established core of Malaysian higher education. In what key ways does the contribution of the private universities in general, and of UNITEN in particular, differ from that of the public universities? And has the emergence of the more successful private universities impacted on the role of the public universities? If so, how?

In 2007, Ministry of Higher Education MOHE launched its “National Higher Education Strategic Plan (2007–2020) that contains overview on strategies to drive higher education institutions (HEI) in the country towards achieving world-class status and regional education hub by 2020. It includes the important contribution of private higher education, greater student mobility and the establishment of research universities. This is further supported by launching of National Education Blueprint (Higher Education) 2015–2025 that aims to produce holistic graduates regardless of geography, gender, or socioeconomic backgrounds. Private universities play that vital role in providing opportunity and access for local students to enrol in the courses of their choice as public universities have limited spaces. As of July 2017, the total number of private higher education institutions including universities (53), foreign university branch campuses (10), university colleges (35) and colleges (397) is 495 (MOHE Statistic, 2017) as compared with 20 public universities.

In terms of programmes offered, Malaysian public universities offer comprehensive programmes that range from arts to social science to engineering and technology. On the other hand, private universities are more focussed. However, the emergence of private universities complements the public universities by offering specific courses that support industry needs such as culinary, graphic design, offshore engineering etc that might not be offered by public universities. Most of private universities are leveraging on English as medium of instruction to attract international students to enrol especially in pre-universities and undergraduate programmes.

The establishment of twinning programmes with partner foreign universities by private universities and foreign university branch campus provides the opportunity to both local and international students to opt to study in Malaysia at a lower cost. This had helped to accelerate Malaysia’s aspiration to become the regional education hub in Asia.

In the case of Universiti Tenaga Nasional (UNITEN), we are linked to the largest utility company in South East Asia namely Tenaga Nasional Berhad (TNB) and we focus on three major programme specifications i.e. engineering, business and accounting and computer science and information technology. Until today, we are the only private university that offers undergraduate degree in power engineering to fulfil industry need. Our power engineering graduates have served not only TNB but also local and international power utility companies. This strong industrial linkage allows UNITEN’s research to focus on energy across a broad range of areas that includes energy economic, internet of things (IoT), renewal energy, energy big data analytic, power quality, hydropower etc. This is our unique preposition as compared with public universities.

In 2004, when world university rankings were first published, it came as a shock to many that top Malaysian universities did not compare favourably with those of a number of its neighbouring countries. How has Malaysia met the challenge of upgrading its universities?

When QS first launched its university ranking in 2004, Malaysian universities were taken by surprise. It was a wake-up call for Malaysian universities, particularly public universities. The Ministry of Higher Education took a bold step to re-evaluate its higher education ecosystem and delivery. One of the action plans to improve the university rankings by the government was the establishment of five research universities to lead national research initiatives where emphasis is on quality research, development and commercialisation, journal publications and citations. The government empowered the research universities in terms of funding, and introduced Malaysian Technical Universities Network (MTUN) and Higher Institution Centres of Excellence (HiCOE). This was further enhanced via Malaysia Education Blueprint 2015–2025 (Higher Education) in 2015 that identified university rankings as a vital platform for the purpose of benchmarking and university reputation building. We are proud to see that the initiatives have impacted public universities positively, with the recent 2017 QS World University Rankings result showing the five research universities among the world’s top 350 universities.

Universiti Tenaga Nasional – “tenaga” meaning “power” or “energy” – has the double benefit of being owned and governed by Tenaga Nasional Berhad, SE Asia’s largest energy company, and of having a name that defines its speciality. How important has this business model been for UNITEN’s development? On the other hand, does the strong association with engineering and technology restrict the university’s scope?

UNITEN has been very honoured to be owned by the largest power utility in South East Asia, Tenaga Nasional Berhad or TNB. Since the establishment of UNITEN in 1997, TNB has invested a vast sum of monetary support in the university’s physical and IT infrastructure development. In addition, TNB has also sponsored prospective UNITEN academic staff to pursue postgraduate study via its sponsorship arm better known as Yayasan Tenaga Nasional, YTN. Recently, TNB has also injected more than RM 300 million in upgrading UNITEN teaching and learning as well as sports and religious facilities, and including a student accommodation and student centre on the campus.

The strong linkage with TNB allows UNITEN researchers to have access to almost RM 120 million per year for research funding. Furthermore, UNITEN has the added advantage of conducting both applied and fundamental research that focus on areas of energy and solving power utility technical and non-technical problem. This is our competitive advantage whereby UNITEN has strong academic-industry linkages. UNITEN research institutes research areas include sustainable energy, energy infrastructures, power engineering, energy economic and policy and energy data analytic. Hence being associated with engineering and technology does not hamper UNITEN’s role in other areas, instead it empowers UNITEN to explore nontechnical aspects of the energy sector, such as energy economic, energy social economic and environmental impacts.

In terms of student learning experiences, TNB encourages UNITEN students to embark upon internship and industrial attachment at its offices via “Better Brighter Internship Programme (BBIP)”. The students have the privilege of being taught by academic staff who possess energy industry work experience, which makes lectures more relevant and interesting. UNITEN has also recruited TNB top management as our adjunct professors and industrial advisory panel (IAP) members, who provide input and advice in the development of academic programmes.

In summary, being associated with TNB provides a competitive advantage to UNITEN. It does not restrict UNITEN in offering only engineering and technology courses, as energy industry requires business, accounting, finance and economic graduates as well.

UNITEN’s vision is: “A leading global energy university that shapes a sustainable future”. What are the main tenets of its strategy to fulfil its vision?

Through its vision statement, UNITEN aims to position itself as a globally competitive, energy-focused university by the year 2025. A strategic plan known as BOLD2025 has been developed in order to ensure that UNITEN would achieve this aspiration, whilst maintaining its current status as one of the most sought-after universities in Malaysia. BOLD2025, an acronym for “Building Opportunities, Living Dreams 2025” has three strategic goals at its core – teaching and learning excellence, research excellence and financial sustainability. These goals define the direction of where UNITEN is heading as a university, and they are supported by ten strategic objectives and 30 strategic initiatives. The initiatives include adopting blended learning in curriculum delivery, creating exceptional student environment, establishing research niche that is in line with TNB needs and developing new businesses as part of diversifying the university’s revenue stream, to name but a few. It is hoped that by undertaking these initiatives, UNITEN could propel itself as one of the leading institute of higher learning in the world.

So far, few Malaysian private universities have progressed strongly into world and subject-specific university rankings. What are UNITEN’s achievements so far and its further ambitions in respect of rankings?

Universiti Tenaga Nasional (UNITEN) first participated in the QS Asian University Rankings in 2012. In 2016, UNITEN was ranked at #300 in Asia. In the recently released 2018 edition, UNITEN has improved its ranking to #243. In 2017, for the first time, UNITEN was ranked in the QS World University Rankings by Subject, where UNITEN reached the 371st position globally and the 8th in Malaysia in the field of engineering and technology. The three subjects ranked were electrical and electronic engineering (201–250), mechanical engineering (351–400) and computer science and information systems (451–500).

Based on our BOLD2025 strategic plan, UNITEN is aspired to be in the top 200 in QS Asian University Rankings by 2020, and among top 150 in electrical and electronic engineering in the QS World University Rankings by Subject by 2025; as it is our vision to be a leading global energy university that shapes a sustainable future by 2025. Being a wholly-owned subsidiary of Tenaga Nasional Berhad, one of the largest electricity utility companies in the region, it is important for our flagship programmes, electrical power engineering and electrical and electronic engineering to be ranked among the best in the world. Other subjects are equally important for us, as all our programmes are designed to cater for the demand from our parent company and other utility companies in the region. It is also our aspiration to be included in the QS World University Rankings by 2020.

We read that UNITEN is giving higher priority to research than most of Malaysia’s private universities. What opportunities and challenges does this represent? And how are you addressing them?

To overcome hurdles and address the challenges faced in research, UNITEN needs to capitalise on opportunities and strengths that will allow the university to soar upwards. Being in a budget-constrained period, support for research may not be seen as an investment. UNITEN, however, has recognised the positive impact of research and research remains a priority, as manifested in the framework of BOLD2025. UNITEN has laid out plans through its research roadmap to rapidly strengthen its talent excellence. Under the pipeline of new talent, we provide opportunities for postgraduate scholarship, appointments of postdoctoral researchers and recruitment of world-class, international professors. The number of postdoctoral researchers working for our five research institutes has now multiplied by ten-fold. TNB, UNITEN’s parent company in a highly supportive move has given direct seeding fund access to UNITEN to the amount of RM 24.5 million a year. The stature of UNITEN in research can be measured with the percentage of staff leading a research project, surpassing 70%. Our roles would be strengthened through world-class research partnerships, and UNITEN would continue to build reputation in energy research. We view each challenge as an opportunity to improve and would always be committed and driven by knowledge.

Engineering and technology are traditionally the preserves of male students, yet generally females tend to form the majority of undergraduates in universities in newly developed countries. What is the gender balance within UNITEN? How important in Malaysian society is it that females are trained in engineering and technology?

At the present time within UNITEN, 30% of total students in engineering and technology are female while 70% are male. Female students comprise 22% of the total of students in the engineering programmes, whilst in computer science and IT, the percentage of female students is 37% of the total. Hence, the gender balance is still skewed towards male majority for UNITEN engineering and computer science and IT student population.

In general, the engineering and technology profession is neutral and there should not be a gender bias. However, there is still a small number of people in the Malaysian society, though decreasing, who still view engineering and technology as a male-dominated profession and thus the reason for the lower enrolment of female students in engineering and technology programmes throughout Malaysia. Nevertheless, it is still important for Malaysian females to be trained in engineering and technology as women certainly have important roles to play in development of the nation and can enhance the engineering and technology profession.

Dato’ Professor Ir Dr Kamal Nasharuddin Mustapha has been vice chancellor of Universiti Tenaga Nasional (The National Energy University), also known as UNITEN, since May 2015. He has had a spectacular journey in academia since 1984 and served in various management positions at UNITEN for over nine years. Professor Kamal, who was born and bred in Kelantan, Malaysia, received his PhD in structural fire engineering in 1995 from University of Aston, Birmingham, UK. He obtained his master’s degree in structural engineering from Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh, UK, while his first degree was obtained from University of Sheffield, UK. Professor Kamal was UNITEN’s dean of College of Graduate Studies (COGS) from 2010 to 2011 and deputy vice chancellor (student affairs, alumni and management) from 2011 to 2015. Prior to joining UNITEN, Professor Kamal was the director of UNITI Sdn Bhd (1996–1999) at Tanjung Agas, Port Dickson and CEO of Kolej UNITI Port Dickson (2003–2005). He holds a number of national positions, among which are the advisor of Majlis Sukan IPTS Malaysia (MASISWA) and director of Yayasan Canselor UNITEN, and sits on Malaysia’s Engineering Accreditation Council. Professor Kamal’s research interests lie in forensic engineering and civil engineering.