Monday, November 07, 2005

Leadership Revamp Needed at UM

The University of Oxford and Cambridge in the UK are two well known and world class universities. Tony read PPE (Politics, Philosophy and Economics) at Oxford and I got my MPhil in Economics at Cambridge (after getting my BSc in Economics at LSE). It is hard to question the reputation of these two universities but yet these two universities have come under considerable pressure of the last 10 to 15 years.

Many of their best academics have been poached by leading US universities who can offer more research funding and higher salaries. By many accounts, among the academia, they have been overtaken by the top US universities in many fields and will continue to lose its competitive edge unless something drastic is done.

These two leading universities are hemmed in by a few things. “National service” is one of them since there is significant governmental pressure on Cambridge and Oxford to accept students from a wide variety of backgrounds (read: class). Funding pressure is another one since the maximum amount of school fees that they can charge their students is capped at a ridiculously low level (up to 3000 pounds in 2006) which isn’t anywhere near the cost of providing that education. In addition, because Cambridge and Oxford runs a college-based system of education at the undergraduate level, the cost of education per student is much higher than that of other public universities in the UK.

Both universities have in the recent past, appointed new vice-chancellors to meet these serious challenges. In 2004, Tony’s alma mater, Oxford, appointed Dr. John Hood - a New Zealander -to the VC position. His suggestions for reforms including subjecting academics’ work to closer scrutiny and linking pay to performance as well as introducing external trustees to oversee the governance of the university, has been met with disapproval from many of the Oxford academics. While one may argue against his methods or philosophy, it is clear that the senior leadership at Oxford recognizes the gravity of the situation and the need for reform if Oxford is to continue as a world class university.

Cambridge is watching this ‘experiment’ closely and if the reforms are successful, look for them to follow suit in the not too distant future. In the meantime, they appointed Professor Alison Richard to the position of vice-chancellor in 2003. While she was born in the UK, she has been in the US, specifically Yale, for the past 30 years, including 8 years as Provost (something like a chief academic officer).

Her mandate is not as controversial or extensive as that given to Dr. John Hood. It seems that she was brought back to Cambridge because of her fund-raising skills, an area in which the UK universities are mere amateurs compared to their US counterparts.

But make no bones about it, these two leading UK universities are more than aware of the pressures of international competition. Oxford has been the more daring of the two universities, indicated by their willingness to take on the ‘dons’ there – who some criticize are more interested in preserving and living in the ‘tradition’ that is Oxford rather than producing world class and cutting edge research.

The UM VC should take emulate at least the courage of Dr. John Hood by making real reforms - starting with improving the quality and accountability of the teaching staff – instead of patting himself on the back by erecting huge billboards promoting UM’s world class ‘recognition’. And the prime minister should give him the mandate to initiate these reforms and to see them through. If the UM VC cannot or is not willing to take this responsibility, his job should be given to somebody who will.


Anonymous said...

The problem with UM and all Malaysian public universities is very simple. The top administration are terrible. Firstly they are appointed by the government. This means that they have an agenda which is political and not academic in nature. For example, the UM VC was supposedly appointed based on his promise to bring UM students into the government fold. This they did by highly unethical and immoral practices during student elections. Until we get truly sound VCs and DVCs, who are chosen purely on academic and administrative merit, not on political loyalties, race or gender, only then can we improve. So, in this light, your suggestion for the UM VC toi emulate Oxford is a bit like asking an ape in a zoo to appreciate Van Gogh. You are asking too much dude, it's not within his intelectual or professional capacity.

Maverick SM said...

There's always a nice saying:

"Even if the body is willing, the spirit can't".

What more if the spirit is not willing?

Anonymous said...

it's simple really: universities forms leaders for the future generation. Guess why the government wants to interfere.

Anonymous said...

"it's simple really: universities forms leaders for the future generation. Guess why the government wants to interfere."

Because they want to feed the ego of the Malay race and keep them 'happy','educated' and also buy their loyalty.

Anonymous said...

I fully agree that the NEP, as it has been implemented over these years, is the root cause of the unfavourable economic and racial unhappiness that exists in the country today.

It was supposed to improve the economic status of the bumi and thereby restructure society with every community benefiting.

But has this aim been achieved? Definitely not.

Instead, what we have achieved is a high rate of corruption, an inefficient and arrogant civil service, a failing education system plus racism and a feeling of despair among the minority communities. There is so much favouritism that those really deserving are not given their dues.

The NEP has also resulted in severe mistrust and jealousy among the races in the country. Unless the NEP is abolished and replaced with a policy of fairer distribution, this unfavourable climate will continue with the future looking bleak.

The NEP has to be done away with, especially so in an era of globalisation where all citizens regardless of race should be given an equal opportunity to allow them to give their best towards national development.

UM can become a top university once again as it was in the 60s and 70s. In addition to good facilities, this would require a dynamic and capable university administration, good faculty members and with English as a key medium of instruction.

USM also has an obsession with increasing its graduate student population. The trade-off has been the lowering of standards of admission. As a result, admissions of foreign students, especially ones with the means to pay, have gone up. Lecturers are given the impossible task of passing some of these students, who are not even qualified to do any graduate work in the first place.

The answer to the deterioration lies from within. Why be extravagant about hiring a foreign consultant? Isn't this itself telling of the lack of faith in the products of your own system? We do not have to wait for the annual THES ranking to know that our higher education system is long in need of a change.

We need courageous people to do this, not political party-hacks who masquerade as half-baked academics and shallow thinkers.

For all this to happen, the NEP would have to be sacrificed. Is the government prepared to do this? The recruitment of a significant number of capable non-bumis as administrators, faculty members would be required.

There is abundant talent and capability in the Malaysian population which remains to be tapped in the interest of Malaysian public universities. It would be imprudent to ignore such a large pool of resources when one wants to achieve excellence.

Putting it another way, it is in the interest of the Malaysian public universities (and their large malay student population) to engage the non-bumi talent and exploit their capabilities in all aspects and dimensions.

The non-bumis would also benefit from such an exercise, but the far greater beneficiary would be the bumi students and Malaysia as a whole. It is simple logic.

H J Angus said...

I would extend this topic upwards and say
"Leadership Revamp needed for Nation."

At present the VC is a political appointee like all the heads of local councils that are described as secret societies.

Similarly, the VC in the local U also degenerates to being able to bow and scrape.

Let's keep race and politics out of education for it has turned a once quality system into one that everyone tries to avoid.