Sunday, August 27, 2006

Rafiah Salim: Hitting the Right Notes

Anybody interested in Universiti Malaya and what her new vice-chancellor intends to achieve during her 2-year tenure must read the interview conducted by the Sun a week or so back. It's an extensive interview conducted by Jacqueline Ann Surin and Pauline Puah, and I must congratulate them for really knowing their stuff and pushing the right buttons for the answers.

At the same time, Datuk Rafiah Salim, I must admit, hit pretty much all the right notes in the key areas. The Sun team came up with some tough and sensitive questions for her, but with the exception of a few where she dodged with some evasive answers, Datuk Rafiah Salim met them head on. She is after all the head of Malaysia's premier university and I wouldn't expect her to be not at least a little politically correct. Hence, unlike the messages you hear from her peers at other universities such as Universiti Putra Malaysia, I like what I heard based on this interview.

Here are some excerpts of the interview on some of the key points:

On key areas of focus/challenge:
1. Getting the buy-in of UM academics
2. Getting to know the university again
3. Preparing and implementing SWOT analysis and strategy plan for UM
On key strategic plans:
1. Research university
2. Internationalisation
3. Ranking
On transparency and academic promotions:
...I think good governance demands transparency, you know... in fact, [I have asked] the faculty members to nominate who they want as their leaders. ensure transparency, the DVC (deputy vice-chancellor) (for) academic is practically finalising clear criteria for promotion to senior lecturers, to associate professors, to professors. And these will be publicised and it will be on the website, and the staff will know what it is that is needed to be promoted.

...I'm looking into not just making any individual professor's CV made public. If you look at any of the top universities, all the professors' CVs are on the website of the university. And that's the way Universiti Malaya should go.
On Peperiksaan Tahap Kecekapan (Competence Level Examination) which is aimed at civil service (and yes, academics in this country are civil servants): needs to relook at what is the use of the PTK. The PTK is not, and should not, be a measure to assess the technical know-how. You know, because you can't use PTK to measure the level of how a physicist is as compared to an English lecturer... what the PTK is designed, or should be designed, for is to look at maturity levels of the person, leadership level, aptitude, their concern for students, their concern for society, that sort of thing.

[Hence] we are reviewing. We will be. We have not done it yet.
On Universities and University Colleges Act, Statutory Bodies (Discipline & Discharge) Act 605 for civil servants and the Aku Janji pledge:
...some amendments have to happen there. And I believe the government also is looking at the amendment of the (Universities and) University Colleges Act, so whatever I say is just going to reinforce the principle of academic freedom. I think government is fully aware, they are sympathetic to it that universities must be given a reasonable level of autonomy. I'm looking forward to some changes to this.

...obviously some provisions [of Act 605] cannot be applied to academicians. Especially the clause that says they cannot make statements, they cannot write to the press... Because (the) nature of academic world is, one should be in the position to react to situations. For example, what is happening in Lebanon right now. I mean, if you are a true academician, you'd already be holding seminars, making comments, condemning or supporting or whatever.

And I hope the government will relook at that. I really hope they will relook at that.

Aku Janji, whether you sign it or you don't sign it, you are tied by Act 605 anyway. It's exactly what is in there. So, if you join the university, you are governed by that. By Act 605.
On Research & Key Performance Indicators:
...research is our core business, [t]herefore, you do research, you publish or you perish. So, having said that, it means therefore, in the near future we would be introducing KPI (key performance indicators) that includes research... and we are also making sure that, er, sabbatical leave that staff takes would also come with proper KPI for the outcome of it.
On Lousy Pay-Scale of Academics
I think JPA must really look at this, you know. If they want Universiti Malaya and a few of the others to be really an international university, that's one. And two, if they want the ranking of Universiti Malaya to improve, it means that we need to recruit international top brains. And international top brains won't take the job on the pay I'm earning, you know.

So, JPA needs to relook at this. And I hope they will be able to look at this soon because otherwise the universities will continue struggling. Er, or we would be compromising. because if we insist on the upgrading of the ranking, and one of the criteria and quite a big percentage is international staff, then we go and get some half-past-six lecturers from cheaper countrieslah to satisfy that.
On university management's interference with student body elections, and that student elections should be conducted fairly and independently of any group?:
Well, that was what happened in the past. So, I can't answer to that... Should be conducted fairly, yes, yes.
Of course, as mentioned earlier, Datuk Rafiah isn't going to be able to fully avoid being "politically correct", at least in some of the questions asked.

When asked if students "should be allowed greater freedom of association and expression", she argued that there are more beneficial activities for students to carry out. One might as well argue that subjects such as political science and history are useless, and hence all students should be pointed in the right direction to study more useful subjects such as science and engineering!
Again, um, I'm a mother. I'm a taxpayer. I've been paying huge taxes to the government all this time... So, as a taxpayer, I subsidise students heavily. And I want them to spend their time studying and developing their personalities, their, um, abilities. And I think the university provides for all sorts of opportunities.

Last week, I launched this year's AIESEC society... which is both local and global, imagine what opportunities you have there. Just one! So, there's so much of opportunities that the students can do within the campus without spending their time (outside).
And she argued that the Akujanji pledge should be signed for pragmatic reasons (which of course, 98% of the academics in Malaysian public universities are) even though the discipline of the academics are already covered over-extensively in the Act 605. However, to me, having accepting an unjust Act even if the same injustice is covered in another similarly unjust Act only encourages further complacency and encouraging the establishment of other such Acts.
I'm a pragmatist, you know. I know it's already in the law whether I sign or I don't sign, I'm bound by it. What the heck, if I want to serve in the university, that's what I have to do, I'll sign it now with the hope that by and by, the authorities may even abolish it... to me it's irrelevant! This whole Aku Janji is irrelevant. Because it's irrelevant, you ask me to do it, oklah, I give you my signaturelah. What's so difficult?
And on the alleged tampering of grades at the university, she argued that it was "the past", and we should just look forward to do it right. She argued that by digging up the past, the only victims would be the former students. I would disagree for the perpetrators of such tampering activities should be at the very least be given a warning to prevent a repeat of such events:
Where will you find the proof? And then should you find the proof, what? You victimise the student? Withdraw their degree? I mean, the consequences, the result is going to be, er (pauses), that you may end up victimising the innocent. Which is the student.

They're not a party to any irregularities, if any. If there was any hanky-panky, they were not a party to it. So, should we investigate and find out, what? You want the university to declare their Masters or whatever null and void? Is that fair to the innocent third party?

So, instead of digging up things like that, I'd rather look ahead and find ways of minimising. You know, if people insist on hanky-panky, under any circumstances, they will do it. But all we can do is take all reasonable steps to minimise it. And Senate is very, very concerned and very serious about it.
There are of course various niggly points of disagreement with the vice-chancellor. However, looking at the interview in totality, I'm actually quite encouraged. We cannot be expecting UM to be transformed overnight on all its shortcomings. I'm certain we should all be pretty happy if the shortcomings at the university and other aspects of our higher education system can be improved step by step, as long as it's consistently improved. Datuk Rafiah has given herself a period of 12 months for some of the new reforms such as transparency in promotions and governance.

And to quote our dear friend at Universiti Malaya, Dr Azmi Sharom, "local universities should try to be good first, before aiming for “world-class” standards".

So here's looking forward in great anticipation. :)


Anonymous said...

First thing first! Dont get excited by words and promises. Look for the basics. As I keep pointing here...words are cheap and plenty and politicians here and everywhere have tons and tons of words. So hold on...dont get excited

One of the big issue is for example examinations. Examinations should be fundamentally a test of the knowledge and ability of the candidates. Examinations should be strictly followed and the secrecy and confidentiality of exams should be 100%.

Many years ago when a university student sits for his exams, his identity is not known. He is given a random exam number which could be anything...

Nowadays, it is no longer that secure way....students use the same matriculation number year in and year out at every exam..

So if any one wants to try to be funny...its easy to know who the student is....the exam number dont change

What does ISO think of this?

Please lah...dont make me laugh! I dont easily det excited by words or lots of empty promises

Anonymous said...

I agree with you when politicians speak it is filled with empty promises and when they run a university it gets emptier. Sad but that is the modulus operandi of the nation.

Anonymous said...

It appears that this lady does have the intention and ideas to get the basics right again. This is obviously a huge improvement over the disasters of mediocrity and over-politicking of the last VC. However, what does it mean and for whom?

Its good for bumiputera students in general for sure although those at the lower-quarter precentile will find it very very rough.

It makes no difference to non-bumiputera students and maybe worst because it will further cover up their grouses about unfair treatment and discrimination. There will not be really any improvement in their education since they are not in need of getting basics right. In fact, it will further make it harder for them to get further ahead since resources will be even more limited for them especially those that have benefited from the failures of bumiputera students..

Anonymous said...

If Rafeah Salim wants to come clean and prove that she is clean, then she should put everything on the table for every one to see.

First, what is she going to do about the poor quality teaching staff at the Faculty of Computer Science being actively blogged under Lim Kit Siang's Blog?

Second, What will she do about the existing staff in UM being frequently highlighted in this blog and Lim Kit Siang Blog such as Wira Karnain and Koshy Phillip and others? Will the loust teaching staff still remain? It makes a mockery on one hand trying to improve the university but on the other hand the university is not

Third, Will she dare make public all the publications of Professors the last three years appointed? And let the public judged are these professors really appointed through merit with high quality publications in renowned peer reviewed journals? She should know local proceedings and self ediited papers should be a NO! NO! situation

Fourth, Is she willing to find out if the "professors" really write the paper or just as someone hanging out his name on some ones else paper?

What is the point of talking about changing UM, and being transparent till the cows come home? What is her motive for saying so? Will two years be enough? Or is it part of her grand scheme of things to get her contract as VC extended another few years? Only she knows....! We will only know after the outcomes..

All I know, history repeats itself..the blunders continue....:)

Anonymous said...

Have an open mind..not easy to turnaround and restructure ailing companies ..what more the complex case of the national education pride which has seen glorious & much better times in the 60's and 70's..after its grand opening in 1962..

..University Malaya successful turnaround if it happens, should be interesting and maybe could be documented & included as a classic case study in the latest editon of some good Strategic Management textbook..

stand by..for some good learning experience on Academic Leadership

inspired ..

Anonymous said...

In fact, we always have the answers on how our universities can become world class. OUR UNIVERSITY MALAYA before was world class of equal status with NUS or University of Hong Kong. Mind you even our convocation gowns were similar :)

If Rafeah Salim wants to know how UM can become world class again, study back UM history. All the clues are there why UM was world class then.If she got problems trying to understand the history of UM go and have a heart to heart talk with the likes of Khoo Khay Kim or Wang Gang Wu.

These people are scholars and true academics. They got no time to berpantun pantun on the stage or bersilat and wayang kulit!

Listen how they talk! See the amount of reasoning and thinking in their discussions

And if Rafeah Salim wants to know why UM has deteriorated study the extrinsic factors such as politics, loss of quality in interfering with the quality of UM.

The less there is politics the better UM will be. Not to say there were no politics in the good old days, but the politics of today in the campus looks more like some political party preparing for Team A versus Team B.

The campus never have the air of an 'ivory tower' no more, but more a menghijau or membiru process ( if you know what I meant?..

Those days we have the best lecturers and best students that populate the campus. Respect for the professors and lecturers were due to their immense understanding of their fields. Professors were few and highy regard in esteem! They love to teach, they want to teach! They go the extra mile gladly for the sake of imparting knowledge to the young minds.

Do we get these sort of people anymore? No! Instead we get students who aspire to be politicians, students who are not willing to study and really study in the libraries. Students who are acting as proxies for political parties who wants to show their presence in the campus.

If the VC really want to bring back the UM to its former glory...the answers are always there right in front of you. There is no need for ' musical chairs' session

Anonymous said...

I had the opportunity to listen to Rafeah Salim's talk on organizational transformation during the PSMB Conference on the 6th, well..I am pretty much impressed with her....despite the fact that there is a lot of sceptism in this blog towards her appointment, I never really thought that I would be able to listen to her basically, I think she has all it takes to reform UM...her charisma alone is outstanding.

Anonymous said...

depends ..

look at Laurence Summers..he sacked himself from Harvard under much pressure all round..

Charisma he has
Brains too
Experience a lot..tho not so much in academics
Politically connected..

still not accepted Harvard-wide and made blunders..


Anonymous said...

If you think so highly of Rafeah Salim having charisma, you must be listening to her with your eyes closed, ears closed and your brain in " switch off" position!

In the first place she has nothing! Nothing to merit at all being a VC.

Try talking to her why she failed to get her PhD!...then only make your conclusions

Anonymous said...

UM students need feedback from anyone who knows Koshy Philip

Please contribute by giving your comments at his X students' blog