MALAYSIA: Struggles on despite break with MIT

The Malaysian University of Science and Technology or MUST was reportedly close to insolvency earlier this year and is having to restructure and reinvent itself after a much-vaunted collaboration with the US-based Massachusetts Institute of Technology fell apart. Despite a target of some 500 students, just over 200 are currently enrolled - although this is an improvement on the nadir of just ten students in 2007.

"MIT insisted on having control over the curriculum in Malaysia and its delivery, and it also insisted on having control over the admission of students. There was not enough adaptation to local circumstances," said a former MUST staff member who would not be named.

"You can't necessarily blame MIT because it has its world reputation to protect but it was simply not compatible with the situation on the ground. Where were the postgraduates to come from if there are not enough undergraduates doing science and who could meet MIT's steep requirements?"

MUST was founded as a postgraduate institution in 2001 in partnership with MIT and backed by former Malaysian cabinet minister Effendi Norwawi. The main funding was from the Ehsan Foundation, of which Effendi was a trustee, and a RM100 million (US$33 million) grant from the Malaysian government.

A decade after the partnership to establish MUST as a postgraduate science institution began, and five years after MIT walked away, MUST is still struggling to attract students, particularly postgraduate students of high quality - a crucial for a top science university in Asia where many of the best are enticed by the best institutions in the West, often with generous funding.

"We wanted our faculty to do research from day one. If they were involved with undergraduates, research may not have been such a high priority," said Fred Moavenzadeh a long-time MIT professor who helped set up the original collaboration with MUST.

But just over 170 students have so far graduated from the MUST-MIT programme - most from the earliest intakes. Nowadays most of its students are undergraduates, with a foundation degree (pre-university) programme also bolted on, in part to train up more students to the level where they can undertake science and technology degrees.

MIT had insisted that, to attract the highest quality student, MUST needed to offer substantial scholarships. That meant student funding became a considerable drain on the university budget, in particular because funding for a science and technology student is around three times more than students of other disciplines.

"The first 100 students were very good students, like at MIT," said Moavenzadeh. "But then MUST made the decision they would not fund full scholarships. As a result the number of students dropped to 15-20."

Dr Leong Choong Heng, President of MUST since March to help turn the institution around, admitted the university leadership might have been too hopeful: "We were optimistic as we thought we could get a few hundred students in our first three years," Leong told the Star newspaper in Malaysia.

"However our (admissions) application process was more stringent than what most other universities would practise at that time and some students were jointly interviewed by MIT and MUST staff. We could not accept
anybody and even first-class honours students found the going tough," Leong said, adding that some students dropped out after just a few weeks."

Sources in Petaling Jaya where MUST is based said the MUST-MIT collaboration also incurred huge expense in bringing top-flight MIT professors to Malaysia.

"They helped us develop the curriculum and sat in classes to ensure things were on the right track," Leong said in local interviews. "Although our students benefited immensely, bringing them (MIT faculty) over and taking care of their needs was not cheap."

MIT insisted that MUST needed high quality faculty. "Both the government and MUST accepted that," Moavenzadeh told University World News. But the now-president of the Masdar Institute of Science and technology in Abu Dhabi, another postgraduate institution developed in collaboration with MIT, said MIT staff costs did not come out of the MUST budget.

"Our relationship with MUST was that we would help them build a university of science and technology. We also made it clear that it is very difficult for MIT itself to receive government funding so the MIT portion of the funding came as a gift from the Motorola Corporation. MIT did not receive money either from the Malaysian government or from MUST," he said. Nonetheless, the government kept a close eye on all costs. "We were very, very heavily scrutinised by the Ministry of Science."

But a change of government also meant a change in fortunes and there was no prospect of a government bail-out when financial problems arose a few years later and the MIT agreement finally lapsed in 2005.

"The funding ended earlier than expected but there were still students in the system so the programme continued in a way," said Leong.

The students, mainly undergraduates, now pay tuition fees and other non-science courses have been added. There are claims the changes mean MUST is beginning to look like any other private university and observers question whether Malaysia can sustain so many similar institutions, even if they hope to attract students from overseas.

Despite recent local news reports that MUST had almost run out of money and was on the verge of collapse, Leong told University World News the university was continuing, although he refused any comment on the financial situation. "We are expanding and looking for new collaborations, possibly with the UK. But because of the changes going on, it is too early to comment."

MIT has not given up on Malaysia. Last November, it announced a hydrology research collaboration with Universiti Technologi Malaysia. And it is involved in a new supply chain education and research centre in Shah Alam, near Kuala Lumpur, modelled on a similar programme at MIT.

Zaini Ujang is Vice chancellor of Universiti Teknologi Malaysia. Speaking with University World News during a recent conference of Asian university leaders in Singapore. Ujang sad: "We signed with MIT and accepted to work with them - it was the best branding we knew. We are not only committed and qualified but we have the resources for research. Our experience with universities in the UK and US is that you have to spend millions of dollars before you can be connected with their programme. In the case of MIT, you have to show what projects are involved and make sure all the expenses are covered.

"Some people tie up because of branding, because they want to be perceived as standing higher than others but we have a different strategy: we are doing it because want to build up local capacity. This is very important because we don't want to rely on foreign partnerships for (course) content."

But even Ujang said it takes time to build a successful science and technology university. "There are limits to science and technology, the number of applicants is limited. Even we are still below our student targets."

There may also be too many science and technology institutions given that many overseas students are now able to attend a local science university. "Many governments have realised that an institute of science and technology is no longer a luxury, it is a necessity for economic development and to develop local capacity and human capital and research and development infrastructure," said Moavenzadeh.

Organisations hoping to collaborate with Asia in science and technology will be drawing lessons from the abandoned MUST-MIT venture. But Leong said MIT was not a waste. "We inherited a good curriculum and a good faculty and our undergraduate students will benefit from this."

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