Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Observations from Cambridge for UM

A well written letter posted in Malaysiakini that is worth reading.

Observations from Cambridge for UM
Sekar Shanmugam
Apr 13, 07 1:59pm

On Oct 12 last year, I had the privilege to attend a seminar on leadership delivered by the vice- chancellor of the University of Cambridge at the university’s business school.

After all, the recent uproar in Malaysia about the further drop in rankings of my alma mater - the University of Malaya - in the 2006 Times Higher Education Supplement (THES) rankings, I thought I could gather some insights on the running of one of the oldest universities in the world and to share lessons with those responsible in formulating policies for higher education back home.

As the vice-chancellor was introduced to the stage, I quickly glanced through her credentials in the programme leaflet and must say that I was truly impressed even before she started to speak.

Professor Alison Richard was installed as the 344th vice-chancellor of Cambridge on Oct 1, 2003 and incidentally is the first woman to hold the position full-time. An anthropologist with a first degree from Cambridge and a doctorate from the University of London, Richard joined the faculty of Yale University in 1972.

Her academic leadership at Yale culminated in her appointment as Provost of Yale in April 1994. The provost is the chief academic and administrative officer of the university after the president, and as provost, Richard oversaw major strengthening of Yale's financial position and significant growth in academic programmes.

Richard started her talk by dismissing the notion that challenges associated with running a university are distinct from the challenges of running a business. I was surprised by this remark as I assumed that the university - steeped in tradition - would frown upon drawing parallels with the ‘dark’ side that being the ‘non-academic and profit-oriented’ establishment of the business world.

To drive home her point, she elaborated on two areas where the challenges are similar albeit a little unique. These, in fact, are valuable lessons.

Lesson 1 - The measurement of success

While measurements of revenue, profit and shareholder value are typical ‘success’ benchmarks for businesses, appropriate measurements for universities are saddled with ambiguity. She went on to mention that league tables are to be taken with a pinch of salt – and this, mind you, comes from the vice-chancellor of a university that was ranked second in the 2006 THES survey.

There was not even a tinge of self-proclamation of success. Instead, she humbly pointed out that these league tables are merely looking at the present and the past, and give little indication of the future.

The more pertinent measurement of a university, she feels, is how it contributes to the country’s economy. To this, Richard made reference to a report by an independent research firm, the Library House. The research encompassed the university’s technology cluster (that now numbers 900 innovation-based companies) concluded that if Cambridge did not exist, the impact on the UK economy will be a whopping £57.5 billion (net present value) with over 154,000 jobs needing to be replaced.

Lesson 2 - Recruiting the best

The challenge in the area of recruitment is not so much as attracting the brightest talent (the Cambridge name does a sufficient job of that) but in hiring the best candidates. In the university’s context, best means brightest and being able to do both cutting edge research and to impart knowledge to others – that is, to teach at undergraduate or graduate level.

She acknowledges that there will be the occasional missteps but as long as the university has the resources and commitment to hire the best, a strong sense of purpose among the leadership team to make Cambridge great and to have the honesty to examine failures, excellence will be maintained.

As I strode out of the lecture hall towards the refreshment table, I could definitely resonate with most of what she said. After being at a renowned global IT company for the greater part of my career and exposed to how global organisations run their businesses, it dawned on me that the lecture could have just about been by a CEO of a global corporation. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised that it was delivered by an academic.

I definitely sensed that she is all fired up and optimistic of Cambridge achieving its future goals. In fact, she did declare that she will step down to let someone else carry the torch if the flame within her dies down.

It was indeed an eye-opener coming from the ‘CEO’ of an 800-year-old university who has recognised that the survival of the university in the new global platform is not to rest on its past achievements and traditions but to move forward with vigour to maintain Cambridge’s stature as one of the greatest learning institutions of the world.


coleong said...

Very interesting point of view and insightful indeed. This shows how important the quality of a leader to the organisation. A very far sighted and honest speeh, in my opinion.

Anonymous said...

Kian Ming, you only wrote
"A well written letter posted in Malaysiakini that is worth reading."
Is that it? Give lar more commentary. You doing PhD mah, where can merely copy-paste one..hehe

Anonymous said...

To both objectives, (1) Measuring the Best and 2) Recruiting the Best...well...the education officialdom has different "ends" though the "means" may appear similar. For one, they measure their success by churning out in quantity (never mind the quality). For second, they recruit with a political agenda (and not necessarily the best). Lecturers and etc, as long as they speak the same language with politicians, it's OK! Recruiting the best (not in academic terms) but also paying "peanuts" for the best brains. But the biggest weaknesses is the officialdom being the greatest "enemy" towards academic excellence. And Kian Ming, maybe you should do a thesis on "Malaysian Corruption", aplenty of resources here. It is the best laboratory here in the world.

Anonymous said...

Pls forward this to AAB, MOHE ministers and all the VCs and TNC's of local universities
Start by recruiting the proper candidate as VC!

Elanor said...

Hi Kian Ming and Tony,

Sorry for commenting totally off-topic.

Referring to the below comment I got from my blog, and my subsequent response, do you think "Local Options for Graduate Studies" might be an interesting blog topic? Maybe we can harness the power of Web2.0 through the volume of readers on your blog (mine have 3 readers) to get some good comments and advices for prospective students for graduate studies.



Anonymous said...

Totally off topic,

Elanor, can you recommend any good Masters In Economics degree in Malaysia?

I've been mulling on taking it to further my interest in Economics but I am undecided.

How is UM, UKM, UPM or any private colleges offering it?

If you have any friends or knowledge on this, I would appreciate your help.


16 April 2007 20:02

Elanor said...

Hi AW,

I do not think I am the most informed person on this matter, but having met some of the lecturers, I would recommend Nottingham University, Malaysian campus. Unfortunately, they do not really offer pure economics.

Then there is Monash University, which do offer Masters in Economics, but I can't really vouch for its quality.

As for local universities, I would have recommended UM previously, but now I wouldn't anymore. Met some lecturers from other local unis... erm, how should I put it - I think you could afford better quality education elsewhere.

And if you do not mind, Singapore is a good option. Really. Check them out, and keep an open mind.

Lastly, if you really want to, you can explore scholarship options for Masters in UK too. For eg. British Council offers Chevening scholarships yearly to ppl who are passionate in their fields and willing to contribute to Malaysia in the future.

I am unsure how else I could assist you - maybe you could try asking for Kian Ming and Tony P to highlight your question on their blog. I personally deem it to be rather interesting and relevant for young undergraduates - perhaps thru the volume of visitors to their blog, we could harness better quality advices.


Anonymous said...

Try doing economics at OPEN UNIVERSITY MALAYSIA!!

Anonymous said...

I always wonder whether the standard of the public university is really dropping. Well, we all know that the THES ranking shows that ranking of public university is the league is getting lower each year. As the ranking is a relative comparison (to Cambridge/Harvard not sure which one), I wonder the lower ranking could be due to other extrinsic factor. There are at least 3 explaination for the drop in ranking. 1) other universities progressing while our universities is stagnant/no change; 2) other universities progressing faster than we are; and 3) the quality of our university is dropping.

When people look at the THES report, straight away they think that explanation 3 is happening. In fact, it could be that our university is not progressing or progressing slower than other universities. So, which is the real scenario, I wonder. Anyway, regardless, the hard evidence that our universities is losing its global competitiveness is obvious. How should we deal with it ?

Anonymous said...

MERITOCRACY! Thats the answer to all our educational woes

Anonymous said...

Hi Kian Ming, Glad you picked the article up. I just cannot emphasise enough the importance of leadership within our education establishments and policy makers. Cheers. Sekar

Anonymous said...

Who is this Sekar?