IN the 2017 QS University Rankings by Subjects, the University of Malaya (UM) is positioned at 26th in the world for Development Studies — moving up from 30 the previous year. The university is one of the four Asian universities ranked under 30 for the subject — with University of Delhi at 16, University of Tokyo (24) and the University of Hong Kong (28).
While a highly notable recognition, a check among the public reveals there is little known about the subject.
Development studies is described as a multidisciplinary branch of social science that examines the theories, practices and policies associated with development at the national, regional and international level.
According to UM’s Faculty of Economics & Administration dean Professor Noor Azina Ismail, the main concern of the discipline is inequalities, disparities and differences in development, why they occur, and their impact on the social, political, economic and environmental dimensions of a nation.
The subject covers a wide range of areas including Economic Development, Poverty, Gender, Education, Science and Technology, Innovation, Public Policy, Land Development, Human Rights, Cultural Preservation, Environment, Rural Studies, Microcredit, Housing, Sustainable Development, Education, Climate Change and Ethnicity.
“UM has a Department of Development Studies at the Faculty of Economics & Administration (FEA), offering a degree programme in economics with development studies as one of the specialisations, as well as a Master of Development Studies programme. The faculty also trains a large group of PhD students researching on topics related to development studies,” she shared.
A research centre, namely, Centre of Poverty and Development Studies has been set up in the same faculty, with an endowed chair, the Ungku Aziz Chair. FEA also has a few leading academics who are highly regarded and produced high impact publications, said Noor Azina.
Apart from that, she highlighted there are many academics from different departments within the university who are conducting interdisciplinary work relating to Development Studies, including Economics, Statistics and Area Studies such as Southeast Asian Studies and East Asian Studies. UM is the Malaysian representative in the regional chapter of the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (a global initiative for the United Nations that supports the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals).
“Some of the most important issues confronting the world today include social and economic inequalities, regional imbalances, human rights, environmental degradation, poverty and sustainable development. These real-world issues are the core considerations defining the curriculum design of the Development Studies programmes in UM,” said Noor Azina.
The programmes provide solid grounding in development from the theoretical, conceptual, historical and contemporary perspectives, as well as a good grasp of empirical research, policy analysis, and development in practice. The programmes take an interdisciplinary approach, and the problem solving, critical thinking, analytical and communication skills are imbued in the training.
“Ability to conduct independent research is a key objective of the postgraduate programmes. Students are exposed to a wide range of areas including development theory and practice, globalisation and development, poverty and distribution, sustainable development, environmental management, entrepreneurship and development, small and medium enterprises and development, inclusive development, community development, institutions and development, economic development and planning, gender studies, and education and development,” Noor Azina said, adding that interested candidates should visit the faculty’s website at fep.um.edu.my.
So what of the prospects for scholars in Development Studies?
Noor Azina said the programmes in development studies are particularly relevant to development scholars, practitioners and policymakers, as well as the non-traditional fields such as the private sector.
“Career prospects are with a variety of settings including non-governmental organisations, international development institutions, academia, consultancy agencies, humanitarian establishments and governmental bodies. Graduates in development studies can take up positions such as researchers, educators, policy planners, project personnel, planning and development consultants or advisors, corporate social responsibility professionals, environmental impact analysts, and journalists, among others,” she elaborated.
Currently, there are 40 students enrolled for the Master of Development Studies programme in UM. Another 30 PhD candidates are specialising in Development Studies. About 20 per cent of the total are international students.
“Our newly introduced specialisation at the undergraduate level in the Bachelor of Economics programme has an enrolment of 18 students for the first cohort of intake. The discipline is gaining more popularity, especially among doctoral students. The number of international applicants for this subject is also on the increase. The Faculty has plans to expand the student intake, both at the undergraduate and postgraduate levels.
“The degree programme with a specialisation in Development Studies with a new curriculum has just commenced. We have launched the new Master of Development Studies programme to enhance its multi- and interdisciplinary features to cater for a wider market, and the programme will start running in the coming academic session commencing in September this year. The Faculty is also expanding the Department of Development Studies by recruiting new staff, and some from abroad. Employability has not been an issue among the graduates in Development Studies, mainly due to the low number of Development Studies experts in the market.”
On UM’s move up the ranks for Development Studies, Noor Azina said UM’s overall score improved by more than two per cent.
“This improvement was mainly contributed by our better international reputation (a rise of four per cent), as captured in the academic survey of QS which targeted academics around the world. Our research work has also gained more attention, both locally and internationally. This is evident from the score for citations of our publications that climbed by seven per cent,” she said.
She noted that the achievement did not come easy in the global arena of education that is increasingly competitive, and in the face of financial uncertainties due to the recent economic slowdown that affected the university’s funding from various sources.
“The accomplishments are due to the strategic plans pursued by UM that strengthened many fundamental aspects of the organisation including the teaching and learning facilities, ICT infrastructure, and research ecosystem. The university has also embarked on the multidisciplinary approach in teaching, learning and research for many years. This has benefitted a multidisciplinary subject area like Development Studies in a long way. The push for internationalisation has promoted many international collaborations in not only research and publications, but also student and staff exchange programmes with other renowned universities. These efforts have also seen an increase in our international student and staff population size, and the emphasis of the global context in the design of our curriculum,” she said.
Asked whether Development Studies is less popular in Asian countries as compared to the west, Noor Azina referred to the details the QS subject ranking system for Development Studies.
“The results provide some indication that research in development studies has not gained the attention it deserves in universities in Asia. Only a small number of universities in Asia offer the programme. The lack of market demand for development studies programmes and the perceived unattractive and limited career prospects for graduates in this discipline among the Asian community in general is perhaps one factor,” Noor Azina commented.
“The trend, however, is beginning to change with the looming problems associated with development that I mentioned above. The field is now gaining more attention as well as recognition, particularly in Asia,” she said.
Dietitian Wong Hui Jie graduated from UM’s Master of Development Studies programme in 2014. Before that, she obtained a Bachelor of Health Science (Honours) in Dietetics.
“During my master’s programme, I did research on poverty and malnutrition. Childhood malnutrition is strongly rooted in poverty. However, the relationship between poverty and childhood malnutrition is rather complex. An increase in household income may not be sufficient to reduce childhood malnutrition if children are deprived of food security, education, access to water, sanitation and health services. The aim of my study was to identify the characteristics of malnourished children below age of five and to determine the risk factors of childhood malnutrition in a state in Malaysia,” she shared.
Being part of the masters programme has been beneficial to Wong. “It helps me to develop higher-level thinking and reasoning skills that can be applied across many areas of work.”
For Mohd Syahir Che Sulaiman, who is assistant vice-president of Strategic Business at Sime Darby Property, enrolling in the Masters programme was akin to an MBA for an economist as it provided experiential learning opportunities with multidisciplinary perspective, covering both theoretical and practical aspects of knowledge on today’s development challenges.
“Its analytical framework enables me to be more critical and innovative in my job, which include the formulation of business strategy, development plan and feasibility appraisal. Its wide spectrum of knowledge allows me to embed the elements of sustainability in my job, and fits well with the philosophy of my company in developing sustainable townships through the creation of economically and socially vibrant communities,” he said.
Mohd Syahir graduated from UM’s Master of Development Studies programme this year, with a dissertation entitled Housing Demand in the Greater Kuala Lumpur: Determinants, Affordability and Ownership. The research aimed to seek a better understanding of the dynamics of property demand in the Greater KL area and its implications on cost and ownership.
Having graduated from the Development Studies Master’s programme in 2014, Sarpaneswaran Subramaniam remains as a researcher at the department in order to pursue an academic career. His research entitled Household Food & Non-Food Consumption Expenditure: A Case Study in Selangor — a requirement for his Masters — kicked off a keen interest in the field of study.
“Analysing the household food and non-food consumption expenditure patterns are important given that it may provide important policy implications. As a whole, the study provides insights to policy makers on the differences in per capita consumption expenditure and its determinants specifically with regards to gender, ethnicity, profession, educational level, stratum and age,” he said.
Sarpaneswaran said research positions which engage both academic and applied research of development issues in the global context and policy positions require graduates to coordinate, advice and accomplish plans for international development corporations like the United Nations and Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “Given that, I would like to initiate my career in the academic platform as a researcher. Meanwhile, with the sufficient amount of training and knowledge, I would engage in providing consultations and training to development corporations.”