What new initiatives is Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) currently involved in?

OSMAN: The initiatives that we are looking at for Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) include the creation of road maps of what we would like to do and deliver within the next 10-15 years. Currently, most of the initiatives we’re involved in are under the first rolling plan of the Apex Programme, which will end in 2013. We at the university have decided that before 2013 we will outline new initiatives that will address how USM will move in tandem with the nation’s aspirations in the context of higher education and the economic well-being of the country. Further, we’re looking at how to position USM as an institution, which is relevant in the broader context of the development of higher education institutions worldwide. This initiative will be divided into 3 main tracks. First, we would like to focus on how we can make the research program at the university reach a level where we will be able to assist in the capacity building of the nation. Second, we will work to position USM to become the leader of, or at least at par with, other institutions in terms of teaching, learning, and the overall academic program. The third, and most important, track is to identify the pathways that will lead us to be recognized and referred to as a top tier institution nationally, regionally, and globally. Essentially, we are striving to become more relevant and using the talent and resources we currently have. I strongly believe this can be achieved.

According to the World Economic Forum's Global Competitiveness Report, Malaysia ranks a low 44th on a list, which ranks "educational and technological readiness" and states that there's room for improvement in technological adaptation by businesses and the population at large. What role do universities play in addressing this challenge?

OSMAN: This relates back to the three tracks, or pillars if you will, of what we’ve been working on for our 10-15 year plan. The three pillars will be focused on academics, research, and positioning. We will also be looking at the nation's aspirations in terms of capacity building. Capacity building is not just about having good publications to refer to, but also about actually producing intellectual capital at the highest level. We are now beginning to examine the research programs that will lead to producing more doctorate students, including doctors of business administration, which will lead to a higher level of academic achievement and more quality research programs. In the last five years we reached an output of 1,000 PhD students. This is an achievement that years ago many Malaysians were not confident could be achieved. Now, we have put in initiatives that we know we can achieve progressively. Most important to that end is whether or not our resources are fully utilized; we are looking seriously at how to actually make more of our resources and to use them productively.

What major research initiatives are currently ongoing at USM? How much of a role does the research arm of the University play in defining USM as a science-focused institution?

OSMAN: Most of the output that we have lies within the life sciences. Engineering is becoming more important as well. We are moving into the next phase where we are pushing the social sciences and humanities to the forefront of our academic program alongside the life sciences where both will combine symbiotically. We've got 2 research grants over 4 years, which look at local knowledge and combine the essence of the arts and the humanities with the medical sciences program. This will serve to bring together the social scientists and the medical people around here. In the next 4 years we'll be increasing our capacity in that regard. We are also working on an international program called The Research in Hajj Practices together with some universities in Saudi Arabia. We also received some research grants for this program. Apart from that we are quite heavily involved in materials science. One of our strengths is in materials science. It is well known in Malaysia that materials science is a forte of USM. We are well entrenched in molecular medicine and some work is being done on producing vaccinations which are non-bovine based. Another one of our strengths is in medical sciences. We are now encouraging more of our clinical professors to work together with the scientists to undertake applied research that will be relevant to producing more clinical physicians. Research output will be part of the knowledge base that is necessary to produce medical professionals.

Which other educational institutions has the university developed strategic partnerships with, on both the research and academic fronts?

OSMAN: Many of the things we did before were on an ad-hoc basis. This year I put in a team to look at how we can position ourselves better and we have provided resources to make sure that the work that we do with external institutions is well founded upon a framework of collaboration. We have now established one laboratory with RIKEN in Japan. We are going to go into further laboratory work with RIKEN and we are working hard to convince RIKEN to setup a center here at USM. We have very good collaboration with RIKEN. We also have a good relationship with the Finlay Institute in Cuba. In a way, we move into areas that are non-traditional. I see this approach as how we can position ourselves differently from other institutions. Saudi Arabia, and the Middle East in general, are partners and the potential there remains to be tapped. We have been working for the past 5 years on many projects with partners from the region. I think the strength of Saudi Arabia and other Middle East institutions is very underestimated. There is a wealth of talent there to facilitate serious collaboration. Of course, we also have a very good academic program that offers a double PhD with one of the French institutes. We are working closely with some institutes in Britain as well. We are now beginning to look seriously at institutions in Australia. Japan is ranked first in terms of collaboration of overseas institutions with USM. In the past 5 years, we have sent our lecturers to 3,025 universities all over the world. That has translated into a few hundred collaborations in terms of one of our projects or continued collaboration based on MOU and MOA. Now, we are shifting to a country-based focus and we will be having our Ambassadors Summit at USM next month; we're calling 16 ambassadors or their representatives to make them aware of what our university is doing. This is one of the initiatives that we are working on to position ourselves on the worldwide scene.

In what ways do you interact with industry and local businesses?

OSMAN: We have joined what we call a CREST setup, Center for Research in Engineering Science and Technology, which is spearheaded by 9 multinational companies in Malaysia, together with the Northern Corridor (NCIA) and USM. The government supports the program with $30m funding over the next 10 years. It will focus on 2 key areas: collaborative research with industry and capacity building in electronics and engineering from all over the country to make graduates suitable for work in the multinationals. Additionally, we are collaborating with the Institute of Pharmaceuticals, The Rubber Board of Malaysia and MARA (Majlis Amanah Rakyat or the Council of Trust for the People), which is also an institution that works relentlessly on capacity building in higher education.

Of your more than 20,000 students, what is the ratio of local students to international students? What are your future projections for enrollment?

OSMAN: Our full time undergraduate student body is about 14,000. We have about 6,000 full time off-campus, lifelong learners and we have about 10,000 postgraduates. Of the 10,000 postgraduates, there are about 3,000 foreigners. The biggest number is actually from Indonesia. There are about 400 of them here at USM. The second largest representation is from Thailand. The third is from China and the fourth and fifth from countries in the Middle East. We have students from over 60 countries at the university either on a full time basis, in the summer program, or on an exchange program. Many from Thailand and Indonesia also come over on the non-graduating program in English. One of the main points is that we have reached capacity with regards to the ratio of international students to local students. At the postdoctoral level we are currently working under a program with the Third World Academy of Science (TWAS). We have more than enough applications but we don't have many funds. Currently, our postdoctoral program stands at nearly 100; if there were more funding we would have more. We have just embarked on the Global Fellowship Program for excellent international students, specially dedicated to bring in more international students. What I would like to see as the Vice Chancellor is to have more international collaboration in terms of funding for international postgraduate students and if we can have that along with some research programs, it would make our university leap very fast in terms of international prominence.

What is your outlook for higher education in Malaysia? Which indicators are showing the most positive trends and which present challenges?

OSMAN: The biggest challenge is to get the right talent enrolled in the university and to have that talent concentrating on what it is that they’ve chosen for themselves. The way we have done this for the last four years is to have a dedicated entry program for incoming students, which is different from other universities, and we are seeing the results. The students enter a program because they want to be in that particular program out of their own choice. This is the differentiation that USM has made to the higher education scene in Malaysia. This simple, but very important factor has been a guiding principle of the university. Students pursuing higher education must be taken in on the basis of what they want to do for their future, and not what their parents want to do for their future. Their future must also be related to the nation's planning and we are succeeding in that endeavor. We take relevant, qualified, students and not necessarily the best of the best. The best of the best doesn't necessarily fit well into what the degree program was designed for. The future of higher education lies in the way the academic program is designed. It is important that the academic program is interesting to the younger generation. We hope to make our university an institution of knowledge that is current, but which also produces the future worker, the fifth column worker if you will, that will work for themselves and their families on the basis of bringing their families to a higher level of economic gain. Further, we hope that these future workers will work for the nation to make sure the nation becomes more developed, relevant and competitive. Most importantly, USM must work to produce graduates suitable for the future of our country and for the future of the world.