The decision by Minister of Higher Education Datuk Mustapa to grant financial autonomy to public universities is a good start. He should not stop there however; he should also push to extend academic, management, and other freedoms. Our universities will forever remain trapped in mediocrity as long as they remain within the clutches of the civil service.
It shows how cumbersome the administrative machinery of the government is that such a simple decision would take months if not years to implement. It would involve among others changing the various laws and regulations, right down to employment and procurement practices.
Further, with the coming elections, there is no assurance that Mustapa will remain in his present post. His successor may make yet another policy U-turn that regularly afflicts our education system. Even if Mustapa were to keep his present position, there is no guarantee that he could overcome powerful forces that would resist ceding control of our universities.
Yet those administrative changes, difficult though they may be to execute, would be the easy part. Much more challenging and trickier would be to adjust existing mindsets. Brought up under the present system, our academics and university administrators have long internalized the ethos and culture of the civil service. I am not at all assured that they are capable of leading or even adapting to the change.
Making Public Universities Accountable
Public universities are tax supported; consequently they must ultimately be accountable to the body politic, meaning the government of the day. However, there are other more effective ways to hold universities accountable without directly micromanaging them.
The matrix of the civil service is the very antithesis of academia. In the civil service, following established orders (“Kami menurut perentah” – We await directives!) is valued; in academia, you question established wisdom and assumptions. That is the only way to progress.
The currency of the civil service is the size of your department as measured by the number of subordinates and budget allocation; among academics, the number of publications and frequency of citations.
Meritocracy as practiced in the civil service is a completely different concept from that acknowledged in academia. Thus to have the Director of Public Service Department decide who should be promoted Dean or Professor would be a recipe for disaster. That is precisely the current problem with Malaysian public universities.
As I wrote in my book, An Education System Worthy of Malaysia, the government could exert effective influence on public universities more through the twin macro levers of the governing boards and budgetary process.
Appoint competent individuals with integrity who share the government’s broad policies and philosophy to the governing council of universities. If it is a choice between someone competent but does not share your political views versus someone who shares your views but otherwise incompetent and corrupt, I would opt for the former. It is far easier to convert someone to your viewpoint; more difficult to change or improve on someone who is incompetent and corrupt.
The other equally powerful lever would be the budgetary process, both operating and capital. With operating budgets, the government could tie them to the universities meeting certain prescribed goals. If they exceed the target; they would get bonuses; if they fail, they would be penalized financially.
These goals could be tied to the government’s polices. For example, the government’s oft-stated goal is to increase the number of Bumiputras enrolled in the sciences. Universities that meet or exceed that target would be rewarded financially. Similarly with the policy of encouraging graduate studies and research; reward those universities who award doctoral degrees (especially in the sciences) and whose faculty members publish scientific papers.
Similarly with capital budgets; the government could promise to underwrite 90 percent of the capital costs of any new programs or buildings; the universities would fund the remaining 10 percent. This would encourage universities to seek their own independent t funding.
However we should be careful that such incentives not be too generous that we reduce the vice-chancellors from being academic heads to champion fundraisers, as is happening on many American campuses.
With greater management autonomy, each university could find its own unique and ingenious ways of meeting its own needs. On many American campuses, private developers lease university land to build student residences and faculty housing. Similarly, companies like Marriott provide food services for many students. Such initiatives would free up scant academic resources. We could then send the Deputy Vice-Chancellor for student housing back to the lecture halls instead of wasting his time in making sure that students are being well fed and housed.
Such innovations are just the beginning; we would see many more if only we dare liberate our campuses.
Dispense with MOHE
By liberating the universities, the government may find that it does not need a huge bureaucracy to run them. It could dispense entirely with the massive Ministry of Higher Education (MOHE) and divert the considerable savings to fund campus libraries and research laboratories. We could hire a Nobel laureate to teach at one of our universities for the money we pay for MOHE’s Secretary-General, or the many Directors-General. Imagine the good such appointments would do to our universities.
Come to think of it, this is one reason why I am skeptical that Mustapa’s grand scheme of liberating our universities would be vigorously pursued. It would mean one fewer Secretary-General, and many more Directors-Generals out of a job! Then there are their deputies and assistants!
The central question policymakers should answer is this: How can we make our universities serve the needs of our nation? We do this best by liberating them so they could find their own path to excellence. A mediocre institution serves nobody any good.