Spend on agriculture research, not another university

Posted on: November 3, 2013, by :
One of us wrote this piece on theantdaily in response to the rejection by The Sultan of Selangor to the plan to open an agriculture university.
Last updated on 05/11/2013 – 08:09

Posted on 03/11/2013 – 15:36

Chow Yong Neng

COMMENT: The Sultan of Selangor Sultan Sharafuddin Idris Shah has said that there is no necessity to set up a new agriculture university in Malaysia. His opinion and wisdom should be most valued by everyone.

Malaysia, with a small population of 28 million, on a per capita basis has one of the largest numbers of institutions of higher learning. From the Department of Higher Education of the Ministry of Education’s directory of private colleges and universities, we can see that there are no fewer than 485 establishments in Malaysia, with 67 having the status of university, university college or branch campus of a foreign university. In the public sector, there are 20 public universities, 32 polytechnics and 86 community colleges. With these many institutions – with many in the public sector having adequate research infrastructure and many private institutions having excess capacity – it just does not make any economic sense to set up yet another public university catering to agriculture and agro-based industry.

To put the cost into perspective, the Universiti Industri Selangor (Unisel) was established at a cost of between RM285 million and RM1.5 billion, depending on whose figure you take. Unisel will be in the size range and land allocation that an agriculture university should have. Even the lower figure of RM285 million is still a lot of money. This sum of RM285 million can fund at least the tuition fees of 5,000 undergraduate students for the entire duration of their degree studies at private institutions.

As rightly pointed out by the Sultan, Universiti Putra Malaysia, or more appropriately, its previous name, Universiti Pertanian Malaysia (UPM), has good infrastructure already in place to teach and do research on agriculture. In fact, it would be most cost-effective to channel resources to re-emphasise the teaching, learning and research work of UPM. However, relying on just one institution for a strategically important sector as agriculture is risky. Thus, the resources and funding that have been earmarked for the setting up of a new agriculture university can be used to establish or strengthen agriculture faculties in regional universities in Sabah, Sarawak and Pahang.

As an agriculture graduate, I can attest to the vast resources required in having a full-fledged agriculture faculty. You will need ample supply of land for experimental agriculture in crop husbandry, animal husbandry and, of course, plantation management. Land, animals, crops and machinery are very costly to acquire and maintain. The expertise required, as agriculture is a very broad field, is again very extensive. You will need experts from all the branches of agricultural sciences (soil science, botany, animal health, entomology, to name a few), plantation management, agro-biotechnology, agricultural business and so on. Thus it may be good to set up centres of expertise in different universities to spread the load. Plantation management is in fact the most important. A lot of research and development work is being done by the Malaysian Agriculture Research Institute (Mardi) and research institutes of the Malaysian Palm Oil Board (MPOB), which collectively have a broad range of expertise required. I think the strengths of Mardi and MPOB can be tapped to extend the teaching and research of the agriculture faculties of universities. I was in fact taught mostly by scientists and researchers from an institution akin to Mardi where I learned my rope in agriculture in Northern Ireland decades ago. So this can be done easily.

I would suggest that we do not stop at the public institutions. Large plantation companies like United Plantation, Felda, Sime Darby and IOI have all been doing lots of research and have collectively amassed a great deal of expertise in their respective research laboratories; most are not only research-based but of production scales as well. The government should not reinvent the wheel; it should tap into the expertise and research (as well as teaching) superiority of these companies to ensure that Malaysian agriculture graduates are skilled in plantation science and management as well. Plantation science and management is one of the very few areas that Malaysia can claim world-class expertise. Spending on enhancing and developing our expertise further is a no-brainer.

The government should also allocate some of the resources saved from the infrastructure cost of the planned agriculture university to encourage private colleges and universities in Malaysia to teach and conduct research on some areas of agriculture, agro-based industry and plantation management. Nottingham University Malaysia (NUM) has already set up a research centre named Crop for the Future Research Centre to look into underutilised and neglected crops. Funding should be provided to private institutions of higher learning with university status like NUM, Taylor’s, SEGi, HELP, Unisel and so on to establish and operate research centres specialising in different areas of agriculture and plantation science and  management to broaden the scope of expertise within our nation.

Another area that is closely related to agriculture but has been neglected completely is in the taxonomic studies of plants and animals. With expertise in these two fields, Malaysia has the chance of finding the next oil palm or rubber as a plantation crop or new species of animal  for farming or other economic exploitation.

The only issue left is whether the power-that-be will listen to common sense and realign the path to achieving its objective of harnessing and nurturing agriculture and plantation science and management expertise for the country in a more cost-effective and broad-based manner.

Dr Chow Yong Neng studied and earned a Bachelor of Agriculture degree from the Queen’s University of Belfast, Northern Ireland and holds two postgraduate qualifications, a Master of Science and a PhD from the University.

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