I blogged about this issue earlier here, highlighting some of the positives on the Higher Education Action Plan. Now, I'd like to go into some of the details in particular 2 of the 5 'institutional pillars' of the action plan namely the pillars of 'governance' and 'leadership'.
On the issue of governance, the action plan discusses how, even though administrative power has been transferred to the respective public universities, this has not led to the desired outcomes in practice:
"With regard to university management reforms, the Government has implemented the legal framework to transfer administrative powers to universities. In the Universities and University Colleges Act (Amended 1996), the University Council was replaced by the respective university’s Board of Directors (BOD). However, the amendments have not as yet fulfilled their intended purposes."
As far as I know, the decentralization of powers was intended to make a more dynamic university administrative structure with the university's BOD playing an active role in guiding and helping to 'direct' the university towards a continued path of excellence and improvement. However,
"The current practice of centralised administration is neither practical nor strategic. The BOD continues to function as a university council and has neither the status nor authority to act as a true corporate board. Further legislative amendments may be necessary to properly redefine the roles of the BOD."
Corporate boards have also run into criticism in recent years because they have been seen as rubber stamps for the CEO of the respective companies since many of them were appointed by the CEO or the chairman.
A corporate board is supposed to play an oversight role and a check on the activities of the CEO of a company. If a university's BOD is supposed to play a similar role, then they should not be appointed by the sitting VC and should ideally consist of prominent and respectable members in the public sphere including ex-academics and alumni. I recall the days when the late Tan Chee Khoon was part of the UM's university council and seemed to have played a positive role in ensuring that the internal practices in the UM was fair and transparent. I can think of someone like Raja Nazrin who can play a similar role within the BOD.
In addition, the BOD should also be able to have some power in determining whether the term of the VC is extended or not. As far as I know, the contract of any VC of any public university is extended by the Minister of Higher Education. If the BOD can have at least as much power as the Minister, this will ensure that the BOD has actual 'teeth' and that the VC will be forced to take into account some of input of the BOD.
While the BOD should not have a say in the day to day running of a university, I think they should act as some sort of arbiter involving serious cases of university management including accusations that the management is involved in corruption, abuse of students, rigging of student elections, controversial promotion exercises and so forth. This way, we can ensure that the VC does not have absolute power to ride roughshod over the students, especially those who happen to disagree with the VC.
The issue of university governance in the Malaysian context is particularly complex. From the perspective of the Minister of Higher Education, he or she would want a high performing VC but also one who would listen and follow the orders of the Minister in question, especially on sensitive issues. A smart VC, would try to act to 'appease' or appeal to the Minister in question to ensure that his or her contract is renewed. A smart VC would also know that it's more important to appease the Minister than to make dramatic changes so that the university can move forward in the right direction. A pragmatic Minister would know that it's more important not to 'rock the boat' (for example, by firing 'deadwood' academics) than to make substantive changes for improvement.
With the current state of our public universities, we need visionary VCs who are willing to shake the boat to implement some substantive changes and equally willing Ministers who are willing to accommodate these changes. Having a BOD who can keep the VC on this path of progress and to shield the VC from the political pressures faced by the Minister can be very useful.
Without some of these changes, I don't see how the BOD is anything more than a rubber stamp body with little power, much as what was mentioned in the Action Plan.
On the issue of leadership, I was particularly impressed by the language used in this Action Plan. Here is what the plan said about the position of the VC, the most important leadership role in a public university:
"The selection process must ensure that Vice-Chancellors are drawn from the highest ranks of professionals. They must be fiercely competitive and must focus principally on achieving strategic objectives. They must possess the credentials and track records of proven leadership, and they must earn and command the respect of their key stakeholders.
The position of Vice-Chancellor will not necessarily be subject to internal promotion. It is an open post, which will ensure that the best candidate is chosen for the job. In consonance with this policy, a panel of independent interviewers will select and recommend candidates for these positions whenever the term of a Vice-
Chancellor approaches completion. It is envisioned that this practice will evolve into a selection process by way of public advertisement."
"The BOD, along with the MOHE, will play a more active role in drawing up as well as monitoring appropriate Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) for the Vice-Chancellors and senior management of universities.
If leaders fail to achieve predetermined targets, they need to be prepared to make way for a renewal process to happen. It matters not if they were asked to do more than their peers, their institutions will still need to complete their transformational journey.
The overall leadership process can only be executed smoothly if proper succession planning is conducted. Future leaders must be identified early and introduced to AKePT’s leadership development programme. Proven leaders will enter a leadership channel, and, should the need arise, will undertake greater challenges at other HEIs."
Bold words indeed. We hope that the process of appointing any new VCs in our public universities (and the renewal of existing contracts) in the future will follow these recommendations. Tony has written on this issue here and here and we can only hope that the Ministry will keep to the bold words issued here in the Education Action Plan.
I can already sense that the Ministry is facing some pressure in regards to the appointment of senior positions in the public universities (such as the appointment of two women VCs in UM and UKM and the more recent appointments of a few non-Malays to the positions of deputy VCs). One can only hope that we are heading towards the direction where the best candidate regardless of race, religion and even nationality can be appointed to the position of the VC of our public universities.
In the longer term, I hope that our public universities can move increasingly towards the direction of taking the politics out of our education system. This way, we can ensure that less and less 'compromises' which sacrifice the quality of our public universities are made. One way to do this is to decrease the level of dependence on public finances to run and expand our universities, which is the model that most public universities in the UK and in Australia are taking, and which many public universities in the US have already taken. But this is a subject for another post.
In the meantime, let's hope that the Action Plan items on better governance and leadership can be implemented in the near term.
BOD, must be separate from VC, and operate at the same level as the VC.
The BOD should comprise of at least 1-2 Members of Parliament, 1-2 Senior Counsels, 1-2 CEOs. This will ensure that the Board is good and the Minister no longer needs to worry about appoint of the VC.
The Minister of Higher Education or even the Prime Minister himself, will appoint members of the BOD.
BOD should have the power to:
1) Appoint the VC
2) Determine length of service of VC
3) Question and vote on the finances of the University
4) Question and vote on the direction of all the University policies
5) Question and vote on the proposed changes to University stature and rules.
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