Financial Autonomy To Universities A Good Start

by M. Bakri Musa

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.

University of Malaya Law Professor Azmi Sharom says it best, “If we love our universities, we must set them free!”

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 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!

California has an extensive system of quality universities and community colleges, yet it has no Ministry of Higher Education. The state government exerts control through the budgetary process and through its nominees on the universities’ governing bodies. Professors and other university employees are not part of the state civil service. Malaysia would do well to learn from the Golden State.

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.

  1. #1 by raven77 on Monday, 18 February 2008 - 9:44 pm

    Financial autonomy must be tempered with good governance of these universities……..which currently is absent. At the University Malaya itself, the university is bogged down by an unqualified and less then inspirational VC surrounded by even more moronic deputies……

    The chairman Anuar Zaini, a Badawi crony sneakily sells off a large portion of the university’s real estate and at the University Hospital, directors have siphoned off millions through hiked up construction, equipment costs, unnecessary IT ventures and overseas trips all at the tax payer’s expense. All these happen because treasurers are in cahoots with university authorities. Basic problem…..a den of thieves running the university…much like the rest of the country.

    If Malaysian universities are to run on large endowment funds instead of government handouts…these same creeps will dry out the fund and leave the university a shell……people are what maketh a university great…..much like anything else…..and there is no place for good people irrespective of colour in this nation nor its universities…….In a country where integrity is a rare word in government or even the judiciary…….our universities are truly cooked…….the days of Oppenheim, Griffiths, Ungku Abdul Aziz, Alatas or Danaraj have long since past …..

  2. #2 by Rakyat Teraniaya on Monday, 18 February 2008 - 9:50 pm

    See Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim’s video on the University issue. It will shed some light on our current drop of universities and why we should take a stand and VOTE FOR DAP, PKR and PAS!

    Visit and see his ceramahs.

  3. #3 by cemerlang on Monday, 18 February 2008 - 11:25 pm

    Malaysia’s education is in a very sad situation. Do the politicians and the people connected to education see this ? Do the people use this financial autonomy to make education on par with other great education institutions of another country ? One intelligent Malaysian student cannot represent the whole of Malaysian students. There should be many intelligent Malaysian students, as intelligent as their counterparts in the best universities of the world, before we can say that our education is of quality. It is one thing to pass exams with flying colours. It is another to absorb knowledge, to use this knowledge and to improve on or to reject this knowledge altogether. We cannot be copying other people’s knowledge or making templates out of them without questioning whether they are good enough. Copying or making templates is actually a way of saying that we do not know. And when we do not know, we become blur and there is no system. When there is no system, there is a tendency to just follow orders. Work becomes robotic when you only have to listen to commands. There should be a benchmark for all universities to follow because without this benchmark, there is no way of saying whether there is a standard. If every education institution is doing things their own way, it is pointless comparing results because there is no set standard to compare the results with. Questions that are different. Answers that are different. So you only get the marks but you cannot compare them between the many education instituitions. In fact if you do compare, you are only wasting time, effort, money and doing things the wrong way.

    Exactly which one is a genuine university ? These days, just about any education institution can call itself a university. This puts down the education standard. The people should put a stop to this. In fact, many small so called universities should merge to form a big university. They should not allow just about anyone to enter the university and it is not right to make extra money from the students especially students who are from families struggling to make ends meet. Sometimes these students are afraid to report about financial matters. They think that they should spend when in fact they are not asked to do so. They think that they can exchange their money for better grades or a secure future but they don’t know that grades are not given by just one person and that a secure future can come about if they study hard and pass. In fact, money seems to be very immoral when it becomes one of the issues in any education institution. There should not be a financially corrupted educator. By this, it means an educator who thinks nothing but money and more money. The money should not be used in any other personal forms other than for education alone. There should not be only one person holding onto the finance. So when it comes to money, even an education institution will find it hard to use it correctly.

  4. #4 by hiro on Tuesday, 19 February 2008 - 12:53 am

    Another last minute sweetener? Sure it’s welcomed, but really insincere, and not fully thought out. And do bear in mind. What is given can be taken away just as easily. My bet is still with the opposition.

  5. #5 by waterfrontcoolie on Tuesday, 19 February 2008 - 1:11 am

    Unless the BASIC POLICY is CHANGED, no way can our universities compete; even in the ASEAN region. With the current group of adminitrators at all the public universities, any endowment would disappear into the thin air. Can you name any one of the current vice Chancellors who can command any respect in the international forum? ZERO! They always forget that quality does not come, just because they announce it. Real Numbs! Some where, I read that the GOMEN had pumped some $1,000,000,000,000.00 into supporting the NEP policy since inception. How much is that ONE TRILLION ringgit! Even at the lowest fixed deposit rate, we would have beaten Singapore by a wide margin! Now, what do we have? Every action taken had gone down the LONGKANG!! So unless the fundamental is correct, all actions to be taken will come to NOUGHT!!!!!!!!

  6. #6 by feimao.mrbb on Tuesday, 19 February 2008 - 5:03 pm

    This is a classic case of too little, too late. By 2020, most chinese parents would be sending their kids to private schools from kindergarden to university level. The less affluent will fight tooth and nail to get theirs into chinese public schools who are well known to be overachieving scholarly.

    The BN government is well known to be top heavy with numerous ministries that are non-functional. Making the universities independent financially can be a double edged sword. If not careful, the universities can go bankcrupt. Imagine the ensuing hilarity to the world of academia. Truly an embodiment of Malaysia Boleh.

    Too little, too late. The only remedy is rid of all VCs and a complete overhaul of the system – from entrance exams to selection of qualified educators. Anything less is window dressing.

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