Saturday, June 16, 2007

UM moving? Probably not

In a report in BT on June 12th, it was speculated that "GUOCOLAND (Malaysia) Bhd, a property developer controlled by Tan Sri Quek Leng Chan, has made a bid to relocate University Malaya from Petaling Jaya to Sepang." This
report was met with objections from many quarters, including the PM and the DPM as well as the UM board and the UM alumni. With this kind of public outcry, it is likely that the rumors would remain exactly as that - pure speculation. For the sake of discussion, let's examine the pros and cons of moving UM to Sepang and redeveloping the current UM site into a commercial zone.

Let's start with the possible pros.

Firstly, moving UM to Sepang might be a good thing if brand new facilities (libraries, labs, internet connectivity etc...) could be built for UM as part of the agreement for 'turning over' its grounds in KL. Many of the buildings in UM are old and no amount of 'upgrading' can make these facilities 'world-class'.

Secondly, there is nothing which says that UM has to be located in KL. Many great universities of the world are not located in capital cities or even in big cities per se. Cambridge is a small, quiet little town in East Anglia, UK. Oxford is a slightly larger, industrial town, but a town of less than 500,000. Warwick university, an up-and-coming university in the UK is located about an hour from London.

Stanford is located in Paolo Alto, about an hour from San Francisco. Cornell, an Ivy-league university, is located in Ithaca, a rural area of New York state, about a 4 hour drive from New York city. Duke, where I'm at, is in Durham, a town of about 200,000. University of Michigan is at Ann Arbor, also a smallish town of about 100,000. ANU is located Canberra, while being the capital of Australia, isn't exactly a thriving metropolis, unlike Sydney or Melbourne. Sepang is only about an hour from KL and would presumably be located near Putrajaya, Cyberjaya and the KLIA.

This being said, I have to strongly disagree with moving UM from KL to Sepang for the following reasons.

Firstly, while there are many examples of good universities being located in smallish towns, almost every major city in the world has at least one university located in it. London has UCL, Kings, LSE, Imperial, City, and many others. Washington, DC, has George Washington, Johns Hopkins and Georgetown. Boston has Harvard, MIT, Boston College, Boston U, Fletcher and many others. New York has Columbia, NYU and many others. Sydney has UNSW and U Sydney. There is something to be said about the positive interaction from having a research university in the middle of a bustling, capital city - ties with industry; exposure to the intellectual and social atmosphere of a major city; greater employment opportunities; and so on.

Secondly, the cost of building new facilities and buildings for UM in Sepang would be prohibitively expensive, even if UM can be adequately compensated for giving up its grounds in the heart of KL. Many hundreds of millions of dollars have already been spent on new buildings and facilities in UM. It is likely that these facilities will be wasted if indeed the current UM grounds are turned into a commercial / residential area.

Thirdly, the reasons for relocating a university should not be dictated on purely commercial grounds. The emotional ties to the university, as exemplified by the outcry from the UM alumnus, should not be neglected. The historical significance of UM's location also should not be ignored.

I'm glad that this move would probably not occur given the political and social outcry emanating after these newspaper reports. But I'd like to end this post by highlighting the fact that UM has not leveraged its position as the premier and oldest university in the country and its location in the heart of KL. I'd like to illustrate this by giving one example.

I remember my time at LSE as being one where I had a pick of prominent speakers to listen to which included world leaders, head of central banks, prominent economists, activists and corporate leaders. Similarly, here in the US, many world leaders as well as corporate leaders would consider it their honor to speak at Harvard or Stanford or Columbia. These universities were considered as destination of choice for many of these world and corporate leaders. UM, as far as I know, doesn't hold the same kind of attraction for many world and corporate leaders who visit Malaysia. These world and corporate leaders are usually ushered to invitation only events usually in posh hotels or in convention centers. Even prominent academics such as the Royal Ungku Aziz Chair of Poverty Studies, Professor Jeffrey Sachs (more on him later in another post), has not managed to find time in his busy schedule to grace the halls of our premier university. So, as the outcry on moving UM dies down, it would do us well to examine how UM can leverage on its location in KL and why it has failed to do so in the past 30 years or so.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

Well, i guess the reason why UM is lagging behind her half sister NUS is because she is run by a group of incompetent monkeys. There isn't enough freedom in administrations, education and research. Almost everything is tied to politics - UMNO. As long as a university is tightly linked to political party(ies), there is no way it can leverage from her current position and become a respected premier university in the world. Thin hope.

Anonymous said...

When new students choose UM for the university of their choice it is primarily because UM is very near to Mid Valley and One Utama.
Its common knowledge after ther drop off their luggage at their hostels they will rush to visit the shopping complex

Fisher said...

I agree. UM should have a stricter grade entrance to filter out the less qualified students and should be free from any political involvement. Maybe that is why public universities in the US so successfull. Because they don't received full fundings from the government.

Anonymous said...

It's quite common that universities, including public universities in many countries that do not receive funding from the government have better access to their own power in decision making (filtering in-take system). But, if this were to happen in Malaysia, students and parents will be the one having to pay more. For instance, I did my first degree in 2002 and I paid almost RM 1,800 per year, but the actual course fee was around RM10,000. Paying RM1,800 wasn't the case of scholarships or any special treatment. Every student on undergrad courses paid very little compared to the actual cost. If the government were to stop funding these universities, imagine how these universities can manage without requiring the students to pay the actual fee. Of course, again, people can claim that certain race benefit more than others, but along the process, others races also benefitted.

A lot of young people in many developed countries are burden with loan debt after their graduation. Those taking loans from PTPTN, unions and etc face small amount of loan debt because the course fees are currently subsidised by the government. An undergrad in art will have to pay back around RM200 a month for 10 years in total of almost RM20,000 student loan. If the full fee is imposed, plus living expenses, how much most parents and students would expect to loan and the pay back would be enormous.

There are pros and cons in ceasing the government's funding, but funding is not the only line hooked on to the freedom of our public universities.

Anonymous said...

The city built its own university in 1900. Ideally situated for University of Birmingham.

Anonymous said...

The comments here have become so disjointed that it is difficult to follow the discussions.
I need to correct some obvious misconceptions or misuse of terms here.
A public university receives operation and maintenance funding from regional or federal govt using taxpayers' money. Actual % depends on how well the economy is doing and how much the govt can afford. Universities will make up for any shortfall by increasing tuition fees, hiring freeze, larger classes, etc.
If a university does not receive funding from the govt, then it is a private university.
This is the same whether in the US, UK, etc. (Research funding from the govt is a different matter because both public and private universities can compete.)
When you receive funding from the govt, one way or another the govt is represented in the governing body (board of trustees, council, etc) of the university.
There is no such thing as being completely free to do anything you like if you are a public university because the primary duty is to serve the public.
In the US, public universities are not ranked as high as private universities because they cannot be admitting only perfect 4.0 students. They need to provide opportunities to as many students as possible because that is their social obligation. In the US, universities are funded by the states and so special treatment is given as much as possible to students from within their states because the taxpayers within that states pay to support the universities. Students from other states are treated just like foreign students and pay higher tuition fees.
So, when you compare universities in the US, you have to consider also whether it is a public or private university.
A lower ranked public university is not because the faculty is incompetent but because it has to serve the public by educating a diversified group of students from various backgrounds. A private university has the luxury of being choosy and elitist because it does not answer to the public. For instance, in the US a private university can be church-based but not a public university because the latter is governed by the policy of separation of church and state.
So, it is not true to say public universities in the US are more successful because they don't receive full funding or do not receive any govt fundings thereby entitling them to have more freedom.

Anonymous said...

Has the UM been corporatized?
There were lots of talks before on it....

Now its UM for sale??

Guess the country is running out of assets to sell to raise the billions needed