Autonomous Universities – Are We Ready?(6 October 2018)

Muhd Fadhil Abdul Rahman, CIVICA Research Associate & Senior Research Officer, Merdeka Center

The idea of having autonomous universities is to empower universities in decision-making, to produce generations of employable graduates according to one’s focus and capacity, and to reduce reliance on the federal government – especially in terms of funding and infrastructure.

May 9th signified a momentous occasion in Malaysia. The rapid, unexpected change delivered overnight, sent shockwaves throughout the country – but as time passes by, the ups and downs indicate a tumultuous, yet unpredictable future ahead.

A similar aura of uncertainty is taking shape across our education sector, as the recent announcement regarding autonomous universities highlighted the forward-thinking Pakatan Harapan government’s desire to witness greater self-control within each institution.

A desire, which needs proper, adequate, controlled measures to be implemented.

The move, unprecedented and widely embraced at once, is a push in the right direction, enabling greater participation among local stakeholders – university’s management, staffs, students, alumni and community alike.

Despite the autonomous status accorded to all 20 public universities, clarification is required on key aspects, particularly in the post-BN era[1]. The idea of having autonomous universities is to empower universities in decision-making, to produce generations of employable graduates according to one’s focus and capacity, and to reduce reliance on the federal government – especially in terms of funding and infrastructure.

The buck stops here, or will it?

It is important to recognise the level of financial independence, or lack thereof, of our public universities. The embedded culture of prying upon federal funds for management, maintenance and R&D purposes lead to the sad state of endowments in universities.

A startling revelation by the former Higher Education Minister, Datuk Seri Idris Jusoh presented a worrying trend. As of June 2017, the total endowment of all public universities was RM 1.85 billion, with Universiti Malaya heading the pack with a collection of RM 1.6 billion (86.5% out of the total).

Next in line was Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM), with an endowment of RM 71 million – a far cry from the leader[2].

As Malaysians await 2019 Budget Presentation on November 2nd, all eyes would surely be etched on the allocations for public universities – but this annual bout of nervousness requires long-term rectification if we are serious about establishing world-class tertiary institutions, those brave enough to seek alternative methods to secure resources, moving forward.

Discussions on the key areas of paradigm shift, strategic planning and innovation must be complemented by internal commitment as well as utmost dedication displayed by the public universities, in crafting their own success stories.

Commitment to self-sustain, dedication to innovate, initiative to collaborate – driven by motivation to be the best, and stay at the top.

By now, the term ‘Malaysia Baru’ could be interpreted as an afterthought. Conversely, the quest for our public universities have just began, as we take baby steps towards greatness.

1.         Introduction

  • Impact of May 9th to the nation
  • Perspective of higher education – before and after, expectation

2.        Backdrop of current higher education outlook (govt and pvt)

  • Statistics
  • Employability
  • Starting Salaries etc
  • Management of govt and private institutions

3.         Issues with current system – public institutions

  • Funding
  • Self-dependency
  • Innovation
  • Bureaucracy
  • Internal politics
  • Aim to move forward

4.   What to expect with new status, and what is the government’s role at present?

  • Autonomy – in what sense?
  • Timeline, readiness, student output, financial sustainability, goal-setting

5.         What should be done, eventually?

  • Clear projection
  • Set reasonable goals (finance, student enrolment, industry engagement, long-term focus)
  • Do’s and dont’s

All 20 public universities (UA) in the country have been accorded autonomous status after six UA received their autonomous status letters from the Education Ministry.

The ministry in a statement said the autonomous status gives power to the University Board of Directors (LPU) and the University Board of Governors to make their own decisions.

“The autonomy is a delegation of power to enable universities move more effectively towards excellence and empower these institutions towards global level.

“The autonomous status also enable universities to be more flexible in making decisions to determine their direction including finance and human resource management,” it said.

According to the statement, even though UA have the power to management their resources without referring to a central agency, UA should adhere to basic principles as UA autonomy is not absolute and they are still subject to the government and ministry policies and strategies on higher education.

The UA autonomous programme had been introduced since 2012 under the National Higher Education Strategic Plan for paradigm shift of UA towards more effective higher education management.

“The delegation of power was conducted in stages as it required negotiations between the Education Ministry and other central agencies,” it said.

Before this, 14 UA have obtained their respective autonomous status.

The six universities which received their autonomous letters are Universiti Sultan Zainal Abidin (UniSZA), Universiti Malaysia Kelantan (UMK), Universiti Pertahanan Nasional Malaysia (UPNM), Universiti Perguruan Sultan Idris (UPSI), Universiti Malaysia Sabah (UMS) and Universiti Malaysia Perlis (UniMAP). –Bernama

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(This article was first published on October 6, 2018.)

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