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Decentralise higher education; give public universities more autonomy

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Heng Wen Zhuo shares his views on Malaysian higher education, focusing on the question of autonomy of Malaysian public universities.


In 2012, the five research universities in Malaysia – USM, UM, UKM, UPM and UTM – were promised greater autonomy to better respond to opportunities and challenges in an increasingly globalised and competitive higher education landscape. Unfortunately, poor coordination with the MoF and the JPA has resulted in little real change.

I am now close to the end of my journey as an MA student. As I reflect on the past 18 months and think about what might lie ahead, the thought crossed my mind about the role the MyBrain15 programme has played in making my Master’s studies possible.

Not many may have heard of this programme. It is specially funded by the Ministry of Education for students interested in pursuing a postgraduate degree. The programme ultimately aims to produce 60,000 Phd holders. The hope is that by creating a pool of brilliant human resources, it could then act as a catalyst for dynamic research and innovation practices.

But I wonder if we are focusing too much on the quantity and therefore losing sight of the quality of education. Now don’t get me wrong. I am grateful for the opportunity to further my studies with less financial worries.

But the emphasis placed on the quantity instead of the quality of Phd holders seems rather short-sighted with possible irreversible negative repercussions. These include a loss of faith in Malaysian-produced Phd holders and, most significantly, the loss of the value of the degree itself.

A similar quantitative measurement is also seen in the Ministry’s attempt to increase the percentage of academic staff with Phds. It has been used as an indicator to measure the research capacity of an institution.

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Restricting university autonomy

The unrealistic targets of MyBrain15 lead us to another issue: the current higher education system through its top-down management planning is imposing severe restrictions on the autonomy of the university as an educational institution.

In part, the programme reflects the increasing appetite and need for access to higher education due to the evident advantages.

From an economic perspective, the primary purpose of universities is to produce human capital, meet the demand of the job market and contribute to economic prosperity. But a sense of hierarchy seems to be embedded in the local higher education system, which often practise top-down planning and management.

In Penang, we have a vibrant electronic engineering industry driving the economy and the only apex Malaysian university. Yet, it is doubtful whether there exists a symbiotic relationship between these two powerful drivers of our country’s economy.

One key limitation of such top-down management is that it effectively handicaps the institution from reacting efficiently to the needs and demands of the job market.

While the pursuit of knowledge should not be driven solely by economic and market needs, a closer connection is needed between the research done by the university and the needs of industry.

In technical and vocational degrees where hands-on application is vital, coordination by the state government or local government should be welcomed due to the proximity and presumably close relationship with industry within their own governing areas.

Going beyond the industry, one fundamental function of the university is to pioneer human understanding and solve problems faced by the society. Which brings us to the question, how engaged are our universities with the community? Do they contribute to solving some of the immediate problems or participating in the planning of social policy in its surrounding context? Frankly, the answer is NO.

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This problem might be more deeply rooted than a simply unwillingness to engage or the pride of the academia. The centralised management of university in terms of staff selection, curriculum development and the provision of research grants has contributed to a situation where the national agenda is prioritised often at the expense of the interest of the states concerned.

This leaves certain states that are not favoured by the federal government having to find their own way to fund research in tackling immediate local issues.

An example would be the establishment of the Penang Institute as a public policy think tank of the state government of Penang. Linking back to what has been mentioned above, doesn’t the idea seems slightly strange?

The role of an academic is not to hide within their formidable ivory tower but to actively participate in society, purposefully driving the country to a better state in every possible ways.

Appointment of Vice Chancellors

Another area which directly affects the level of university autonomy is the appointments of vice chancellors. Currently, they are directly appointed by the government, often without consultation with other relevant stakeholders.

This leads to a phenomenon where only pro-government individuals are appointed. These may or may not be the best candidates. Furthermore, this power relationship directly could greatly influence the way a university is governed.

According to Professor Simon Marginson from the Centre for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Melbourne, the capacity of university leaders to act separately will be enhanced if they are chosen by the university’s governing body or community rather than being appointed directly by the government.

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Successful examples of decentralisation of top management appointments has took place in our neighbouring country, Singapore, and in Tokyo, the United States, Canada, and Australia.

In the United Kingdom, for instance, the vice-chancellor of a university is typically appointed by the university’s council with certain universities even consulting their staff, students and alumni as exemplified by the University of Bristol.

It might now be timely to think about whether quantifying the number of Phd holders is really the way forward in pushing our education frontiers. The implications of centralised policy making should also be reconsidered especially in with regard to the connection between higher education and industry in ensuring a robust and sustainable economy.

All of which should start with decentralising higher education and empowering tertiary institutions with more autonomy. As Mai Trong Nhuan, President of the Vietnam National University Hanoi said to the President of Vietnam, “I do not ask you for more money. Give me more autonomy.” It is time to let go of the Big Arms and let these universities and colleges walk their own path.

Heng Wen ZhuoHeng Wen Zhuo is about to complete his MA in in a Malaysian public university.

Wen Zhuo recently participated in the Aliran Young Writers Workshop on Federalism and Decentralisation, supported by the Canada Fund for Local Initiatives.

“Even for someone not very inclined to anything political like me, it has been a great experience to learn how to write a news article while trying to relate it back to our theme,” says Wen Zhuo. “With plenty of stimulating discussions in the hall, over the buffet tables, during tea breaks… my mind has definitely taken a fresh perspective of things.”

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

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Sarajun Hoda
6 Feb 2015 10.07am

Put Universities under State …
Then they will compete and become better. Federal(s) are destroying education

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