“It is not about just the ranking of the universities but it is also the expertise in the knowledge of the local environment.” -- ALICE GAST, Imperial College London president.

“KUALA Lumpur has a lot to be admired with its tremendous, interesting infrastructure,” said Imperial College London president Professor Alice Gast as she takes in the view of the Golden Triangle landscape from the 24th floor of Mandarin Oriental during a recent exclusive interview with Higher Ed.

“I am impressed with the built environment here; it represents the culture of the people who are not afraid to try new things,” she added.

Gast heads Imperial College London, a tertiary institution ranked among the world’s top 10 universities with a focus on science, medicine, engineering and business.

With exceptionally strong ties to Malaysia, Imperial College has 573 Malaysian students — the second biggest group of non-UK students — and has collaborated on 655 research partnerships with Malaysian institutions in the last five years. To date, there are 2,300 alumni members in Malaysia.

International partnerships between universities are crucial today, at a time when forming those links has perhaps never been simpler. With unhindered communication channels and inexpensive travel, such partnerships can contribute to academic and scientific progress.

In our own backyard in Johor, for instance, researchers at Universiti Teknologi Malaysia’s (UTM) Centre for Low Carbon Transport (Locartic) work with world-class researchers from Imperial College to develop the next generation of low carbon transport technologies.

Led by Associate Professor Dr Srithar Rajoo from UTM and Professor Ricardo Martinez-Botaz of Imperial College, the team of researchers from both institutions is working to make cars more efficient, including reducing the size of engines without sacrificing performance.

On what Malaysian universities can learn from Imperial College to improve further in the world rankings, Gast said: “One thing that is really important and Imperial College is really good at is collaborations.

“If you look at our research publications, for instance, three quarters of our publications have a co-author from another institution and over half of research publications are co-authored by those from other countries.

“So, partnerships across institutions within the country as well as around the world make a big difference. The reason is different perspectives from different cultures and backgrounds; and you look at scientific problems with different perspectives to come out with more creative solutions when you have international collaborations.”

She added: “Our publications with international core groups are usually highly cited, giving higher impact, and that is the metrics that goes into ranking.”

However, excellence at universities should not be limited to rankings only. The ability to scrutinise, debate and share experience is essential for academic and scientific accomplishment through collaborations.

“Ranking does provide extra validation of progress but it is only a one-sided measure of excellence. The focus for universities should be in the form of excellent education through the programmes and students doing great research.”

International partnerships between tertiary institutions are beneficial to all, from the staff and students to the world as a whole. Constructively challenging accepted opinions and ideas is central to any development, and international collaborations help to facilitate this.

For Imperial College, collaborations such as those with Malaysian institutions, for example, are very important for it because it also learns from colleagues in other countries.

“It is not about just the ranking of the universities but it is also the expertise in the knowledge of the local environment. When you get into scientific and technological issues which are the crux of certain policies, for instance, sustainable forests, you need the local connection through academics here who may be advisers to the government.

“Most governments will not want foreigners telling them what to do. Governments want to work with their own talent. We, on the other hand, benefit from being able to collaborate and understand how they get things done in the country with local scientists.”

Collaborations work in many ways; academics look for excellent programmes through international and scientific conferences. Sometimes, it can be through relationships forged with international students.

Locartic, for instance, will strengthen collaborations between UTM academicians and enable some of Malaysia’s best doctoral graduates and postdoctoral students to undertake research at Imperial College.

The centre’s existence came about through Malaysian students who studied at Imperial College, with the first Malaysian postgraduate student in the Imperial College Turbocharger Group in 2003 followed by another six Malaysians.

After they graduated and returned to Malaysia, they kept the collaboration going through research, consultancy and publications; and now there are one laboratory working on engines and transport solutions here and another in the United Kingdom.

The Stability of Altered Forest Ecosystems (SAFE) project is another Imperial College-Malaysia collaboration led by Dr Rob Ewers from Imperial College’s Department of Life Sciences. The project includes researchers from Universiti Malaysia Sabah.

One of the world’s largest ecological experiments based in Sabah, the 10-year study is designed to understand how forest ecosystems are affected by humans and examines what happens when a forest is logged and then fragmented.

“SAFE scientists are also studying many species in the rainforest to gather information that can be used by palm oil producers on the island to make their plantations more mammal-friendly, and assess whether saving patches of forest within such areas may be beneficial for Borneo’s biodiversity.

“It is really a very exciting project because it takes into account the fact that Malaysia needs oil palm plantations, which involve logging, but it can do it in a more sustainable fashion if the plantations plan how to make those forests recover to prepare for regrowth.”

Other vital research includes tropical wildlife corridors along rivers as the land is converted. Six of these corridors are being investigated to see how they connect local populations of wildlife, including orangutans, which have become isolated by their fragmented habitat.

Gast also serves on the Malaysian government’s Global Science and Innovation Advisory Council set up to boost the country’s efforts in science and innovation. Chaired by the Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak, the committee includes other global industry leaders, key Malaysian government figures and academics.

“It is admirable that the government has created this international advisory council because not many governments seek experts from all over the world.”

When asked if the functions of the university have changed, she said universities must rise to the challenges the world is presenting.

“To keep going, we do not only need a combination of student fees and government research funding but also corporations to fund research and education in areas of their interest. Partnership through collaborations not only has an impact on the direction to make things happen — that won’t happen otherwise — but is also vital for the future generation of students.”

With the different cultures that lead to many perspectives, Gast said Malaysia will benefit by keeping the flow of international partnerships open, not only at universities but through start-ups.

“The start-up culture can be quite vibrant here. There are already international collaborations at other global cities and in the country.”

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