UPON assuming the interim post of Education Minister some three weeks ago, Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad recently declared that he’s open to all possibilities, including reverting back to the old system of having two separate ministries on education, namely the Education Ministry and the Higher Education Ministry.
Although both ministries are two sides of the same coin, each has its own tasks. Primary and secondary school education in this country is already complex and varied: national schools, national-type schools, private schools and religious schools.
The challenges are overwhelming. Tertiary education has its own set of features.
According to Prof Mohd Jamil Maah of the University of Malaya, trends in higher education are parts of a giant jigsaw puzzle, which comprise: globalisation and internationalisation; university autonomy; benchmarking via global standard; flexible education; changing roles of the university–socioeconomic impacts; rising cost of education; attract and retain talents; financial challenges; and, graduate employability.
Academicians in universities are not only expected to produce graduates for the job market, but they are also required to generate new knowledge through research and publication, and contribute towards producing new products and processes for economic gains, possibly in collaboration with the private sector.
In tabling the 2020 Budget in October last year, Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng announced the allocation of RM564 million to enhance Malaysia’s Research and Development (R&D) Framework.
“Besides this, the government will establish a Research Management Agency (RMA), with an allocation of RM10 million to centralise and coordinate management of public research resources,” he said.
As in previous practice, most of this R&D funding is channelled to public universities to enhance R&D through collaborations with agencies, both locally and overseas, for high-impact research and innovation.
This is a welcome gesture despite the budgetary constraints that the country is facing. Putting a substantial amount of R&D money into public research universities is common worldwide.
In fact, in some countries, there are dedicated ministries of higher education and research established to foster R&D. These include Algeria, France, Indonesia, Jordan, Tunisia and the United Arab Emirates. And in Japan, there’s MEXT — the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology.
The proposed RMA should naturally be placed under this new ministry.
However, its mandate and modus operandi should be open, transparent and fair, and not to the detriment of other ministries, in particular those that house R&D institutes in their midst, such as the Agriculture Ministry with the Malaysian Agricultural Research and Development Institute); the Health Ministry with the Institute of Medical Research (IMR); and the Primary Industries Ministry with its Malaysian Palm Oil Board, Malaysian Rubber Board and Forest Research Institute Malaysia.
The Energy, Science, Technology, Environment And Climate Change Ministry also has its own allocation for R&D, mainly catering to the needs of the private sector. In fact, many of the ministries have their own R&D budget, although they are not as big as the one allocated to public universities.
Although the intention is noble but in the main, it creates duplication and unnecessary silos among the ministries.
Think how big the potential and how positive the impacts would be if all these funds could be pooled together under the RMA.
We would then be able to initiate multi-million ringgit “Grand Challenges” projects to solve problems facing our country today, such as those named under the 17 Sustainable Development Goals to include climate change, biodiversity loss, emerging and re-emerging diseases, water and sanitation, food security and renewable energy.
We used to be world leaders in R&D at one time. The Rubber Research Institute of Malaysia used to be the global hub of rubber scientists when researchers at the institute made many breakthroughs that were eventually utilised by the rubber industry. The IMR is one of the other centres of excellence in R&D, well known for its research in the diseases of the tropics.
The demise of R&D in Malaysia was well documented in three recent seminal works: the 2011 National Science and Research Council’s assessment on the performance of public research assets led by Prof Khalid Yusoff and Prof Jalani Sukaimi; the OECD Reviews of Innovation Policy in Malaysia published in 2016; and, a study along the same lines by the Economic Planning Unit released in 2017.
All these studies pointed out on the need to break down the silos among various government agencies, better collaboration between academia and researchers in research agencies, and eventually, cooperation between these two groups of players and the entrepreneurs, as well as innovators in the private sector.
The proposed Higher Education and Research Ministry would provide the solution and relief to the pent-up frustration prevailing among many academicians, researchers and industry players in the country today.
The writer is a senior fellow of the Academy of Sciences Malaysia and a former board member of the Global Research Council
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the New Straits Times