Chapter 8: Reforming Higher Education
Universities sit at the apex of the education pyramid. In the past they were a filtering system to select those destined for the elite class. They still do. But in a modern society universities serve far greater functions. They are not only the repositories of the nations’ best and brightest but also the critical element and pillar of the modern economy.
Universities produce skilled professionals and others that Robert Reich refers to as the “symbolic analytic workers.” These are the high value-added workers who will propel a nation into the new Keconomy. In the words of the Economist, “Universities are the nurseries of the next generation’s brains.” They and other institutions of higher education are no longer a luxury; they are essential for the economic as well as social growth of a nation.
This chapter contains my proposals for revamping higher education, beginning with the universities.
Public colleges and universities are clearly not meeting the needs of the nation. Consider these facts. Less than 20 percent of high school graduates continue on to post secondary institutions; impressive when compared to Zambia and Papua New Guinea, but not so hot when compared to Japan or South Korea. More and more students, in particular non-Malays, are opting for foreign matriculation examinations, and there is a proliferation of private institutions to cater for this growing market. This is not a reflection of the nation being the “center of educational excellence,” as the authorities would like us to believe rather students and their parents lack confidence in public institutions.
Where there is a tradition of quality public institutions as in Singapore, private universities and colleges have a tough time competing. Only the likes of Johns Hopkins and the University of Chicago dare enter the market; East London University need not bother.
The most damaging indictment is that employers rate graduates of local public universities poorly. Earlier I noted the plight of over 40,000 local graduates unable to find jobs. That’s not all. The performances of public servants, who are mostly products of local universities, leave much to be desired. This last point was highlighted recently by concerns expressed by the Deputy Prime Minister that Malaysian civil servants and diplomats cannot understand much less negotiate effectively treaties and agreements with foreign governments and international bodies. Malaysians abroad who have frequent encounters with our diplomats, especially the younger ones, are not surprised by this revelation. We knew this a long time ago.
In the past, professional qualifications from UM were recognized abroad, thus facilitating the post-graduate studies of local students. The British General Medical Council long ago revoked its recognition of UM’s medical degree. Even Anuar Zaini, UM’s vice-chancellor and former dean of it’s medical faculty, is alarmed at the rapidly declining standard of medical education. The student to instructor ratio in Malaysia, as the good doctor rightly pointed out, is a dangerous 18 to 1; in Singapore and elsewhere in the advanced world, it is 5 to 1 or better.
Few local graduates end up at leading graduate schools abroad, and locally minted PhDs rarely seek or can secure post-doctoral appointments at major centers. The list goes on.
The deficiencies of our public universities are in three major areas: management, academic offerings, and personnel. All three are interrelated, but I will dissect them separately.
Public universities are functionally administrative units of MOE, with the minister making all the decisions, major and minor. He decides who can be invited to speak on campus or become professors and deans. Universities have supposedly independent Board of Trustees headed by such luminaries as sultans and former kings. I am sure they do make some independent decisions, like what to serve at the convocation pageantry and the design of graduation gowns. On substantive matters, they defer to or await orders from the bureaucrats at the ministry.
As the World Bank noted, government should be supervisors, not directors of higher education. It should set general guidelines and then give the universities the freedom to operate within those parameters. Empower the intellectuals and professionals on campus, trust their judgment; if they are not up to snuff, fire them and get others more competent and talented.
In a feeble attempt at liberalization, MOE embarked on a flurry of “corporatization” exercises aimed at giving public universities greater freedom. In theory the corporate structure would liberate them from the oppressive stranglehold of the ministry. Thus far only UM has been incorporated. Unfortunately only its legal status has changed, everything else including policies and personnel remains the same. MOE still calls the shots.
As state-financed institutions, public universities must remain accountable to the body politic. I am not disputing or challenging that. But this control could be achieved without putting the university on a tight leash and strangulating it. The minister could exert control through the careful selection of trustees. Once you have chosen a group of talented individuals to lead the campus, leave them alone. Let the trustees pick the vice-chancellor and other key personnel. If the vice-chancellor does not perform, frits his time away, or wastes valuable funds on gaudy graduation exercises instead of on the library, let the trustees straighten him or her out. If the trustees are not keeping close tabs, then remove or do not reappoint them.
Unfortunately most trustees of public universities today are either civil servants or discredited politicians. This perpetuates the civil service mentality on campus. The next time a vice-chancellorship becomes vacant, I suggest the minister should invite the trustees to convene a select committee with representatives from the faculty, students, and alumni to short list the candidates and make a final recommendation. I have no problem with the minister having veto power over the appointment; that would be considerably better than having him directly appointing the candidate. With representatives from the academic community the committee would more likely select someone highly respected on campus, most likely an accomplished scholar or scientist. Political types usually do not carry much weight among academics. It is important that whoever is selected must have the confidence of the academic community. Civil servants, “has been” politicians, and less than outstanding scholars, the usual staple of ministerial appointments, would have difficulty commanding respect on campus.
The best candidate would be a solid scholar or scientist with exceptional executive talent. But if it were a choice between accomplished scholars with less than capable administrative skills versus capable administrators with no academic bent, I would definitely pick the former. At least then you could provide them with capable administrative assistants.
All too often top campus officials are picked more for their political leanings rather than academic achievements. Ministers rarely seek outside counsel, least of all from academics, in making these senior appointments. Peruse the resume of top campus officials, with rare exceptions they are individuals singularly lacking in scholarly accomplishments. When these academic leaders have not done significant research or published anything original, it is hard for them to appreciate much less respect scholarly pursuits.
In my Malaysia in the Era of Globalization I relate the experience of Ungku Aziz, the distinguished former vice-chancellor of UM, in trying to expand the campus library. The senior civil servant at the ministry insisted that all the books then in the library must be read first! It would not surprise me if that civil servant were later promoted to head a new campus. Ungku Aziz is the rare exception of an accomplished scholar being picked to head a university, but he was of the old era. The key person on campus is the vice-chancellor. If he (thus far they have all been males) does not value scholarly pursuits, then he is not likely to encourage such activities. Nor would he be supportive of intellectuals, scholars, and researchers. More than likely the creative and the productive would be shunted to some remote corners on campus. The whole academic atmosphere would be destroyed.
By actively involving the entire campus community when making top appointments, the authorities are implicitly expressing their respect for the scholars and professors, and value their input.
What I find reprehensible is the disdain and outright contempt ministers and politicians have for academics. This is especially so when those academics dare criticize the authorities. Earlier I mentioned the cheekiness of a junior UMNO functionary Azalina Othman calling for the resignation of UM‘s Annuar Zaini. If we want our graduates to be capable of independent and critical thinking, then we must allow their professors some freedom. If we shackle them, one consequence would be that we would attract only the meek and those with a propensity to ingratiate themselves to the powerful. They in turn would transmit those same values to their students. Before long we would have a nation of sheep, waiting to be herded by the shepherd, unable or afraid to venture out on their own. When one bleats, the rest would quickly follow. That is not a recipe for a competitive society; it is a design for disaster. There would be no one to warn the shepherd that they are all heading for the cliff.
I would throw out the highly restrictive elements of the Universities Act. If academics misbehave, there are enough laws to take care of such miscreants. The Act gives undue power to the minister; and he has not hesitated in wielding it. During the haze of 1977 the minister prohibited academic environmentalists from releasing their studies. Now professors have to get the minister’s permission to publish. Imagine!
Giving universities autonomy means decentralizing their management. Make each campus an independent administrative entity; the equivalent of SBM, with a global budget based on agreed upon performance criteria. This would be more effective way of exerting control instead of the present crude and oppressive mechanisms. Let each university decide how to spend its funds. There is no need for prior approval from the Treasury once that budget is allocated. Surely the university’s accountants are as competent to track the funds as those of Treasury and MOE. If a vice-chancellor decides to waste the funds on lavish graduation ceremonies and ornate entrance arches, let him. Trust the trustees and the greater university community to keep him in line. If the minister does not like the path the university is taking, be patient. Do not reappoint the trustees, and then be extra careful in selecting their replacements.
Presently academics are bound by the same rules as civil servants, right down to the class of air travels they are entitled. I recently met a dean on a study tour of America and was surprised to find that he was given first class air tickets. External examiners at Malaysian universities are also given similar royal treatment. Heck, even Stanford‘s deans do not get such cushy perks. On inquiring, I was told that that was the appropriate status per civil service code. The difference between economy and first class return air ticket between Kuala Lumpur and Los Angeles is over US$10,000, enough to double the campus annual library acquisition! But the university is unable to establish its own priorities. If the dean conscientiously opts for economy travel, the money saved would simply revert to MOE or Treasury, for their officials’ first class travel. The library would still have to beg.
Decentralizing the management would enable the university to escape the stranglehold of both of MOE as well as Treasury. Today every expense has to be approved by these two authorities, and knowing the pace of the civil service, one can imagine how fast things get done.
Independent management would also free the university to chart its own course. Malaysian universities are essentially clones of one another, with little or no differentiation. They do not even select their own students; the ministry does that.
Being a corporation allows the university to enter into partnership with private entities in providing ancillary campus services. Presently substantial resources are directed merely to feed and house the students. The university could free itself of this onerous burden by contracting it out. Marriott, the company that caters to airlines, provides food services on many American campuses. Similarly private developers could lease campus land to build and operate dormitories and apartments. This would not only alleviate the housing shortages but also free the university from the administrative hassles and headache of running these non-academic services. Those can be more efficiently run by private companies, and become revenue sources instead of cost items. The university could then dispense with the position of deputy vice-chancellor for housing, and send him back to the classroom!
Universities should select their students. The present central application process at MOE should be just a data-gathering and coordinating center, with the students stating their preferences of campus and majors. It does not serve the students or the universities to have the ministry do the selecting. It should act merely as a facilitator to avoid duplication of efforts with students having to file separate applications for every campus they aspire. What I am suggesting is similar to the service run by the University of California System.
This would also encourage competition among the campuses to attract students. We would also get a clear picture of what students think of the various universities. Students too would benefit. A student who wants to be a doctor but his or her test scores are not high enough, would want to apply to the less competitive campus.
MOE has enough responsibilities without having the bother of running the various campuses. These universities have smart people; surely they do not need supervision or control from the ministry. All MOE has to do is issue general guidelines, and then use the more effective mechanism of funding and selection of trustees to exert influence over the universities.
Next: Academic Offerings