A matter of priority
ON MY way out to speak at an International Intellectual Dialogue last week, I met a group of young academics heading for an innovation conference abroad. All equipped with their exhibits and posters to be displayed at the conference, they were very enthusiastic to share their creative work and ideas citing the Malaysian Blueprint for Higher Education urging universities to be balanced, innovative and entrepreneurial.
They looked resolved to ensure the universities deliver on the promises set forth in the blueprint. However, as the discussion got a little more frank, the mood turned sombre when they began to voice out some basic unhappiness. A few lamented that they were no longer supported by the university in their innovative pursuit allegedly because of budget cuts.
One observed that the university had just purchased at least 10 new foreign cars, and sounded baffled as to where the priority is? If it is a financial “crunch” why buy so many vehicles in one go they asked? Feeling cheated they confessed that whatever achievements are obtained from the innovative foray abroad, it will remain out of the university’s reach and radar. It did not matter if the university’s “performance” slid as a result in comparison to the others. Allegedly it was felt this is the only way to get the university to pay more attention to the needs of young academics who are struggling to establish a good career track, and of the university too. But the latter must first show interest as well.
Fortunately, not all have the same luck. As the “newer” universities seemed to be able to “sponsor” their young academics to attend the same conference. This makes the situation more baffling as to how priorities are being decided between universities. In this case, the “newer” universities are more academically inclined.
But that is not all according to them. Universities are facing tough decisions over the renewal of “contracts” for their staff, citing a shortage of funds as the main reason. Some staff, however, were symbolically “rehired” with mere offers to share rooms and some facilities thrown in at their disposal with no payment whatsoever. Not wanting to be retired, some staff took the offer because of their love for the vocation as any “true blue” academic would; others left for better offers from the private sector. Still somehow it does not seem fair to lose tried and tested staff, especially when even the “younger” public universities allegedly are able to provide some token “payment” at least to recognise the talent that they need. Hence, the same question was raised again – where is the priority? What is the basis of decisions on such crucial issues that are likely to affect the academic standing of the institutions concerned. Otherwise it can lead to an imminent slide due to an unfavourable student-staff ratio.
On a different level, a handful of universities have also frozen the payment of overtime for the lower ranking staff across the board. Yet, ironically some jobs were said to be opened for outsourcing. Such apparently contradictory decisions yet again baffle many, especially the affected staff. Why outsource, when staff are ready to do the job on a (re)negotiated terms. After all the muchneeded income can help sustain them during the hard times.
In the recently released “ranking” exercise where the University of Malaya continues to lead followed closely by three others in “soaring upwards”, its vice-chancellor did caution that “fund reduction over the two years” did exert some influence on the eventual placing of the universities. Notwithstanding, four of Malaysia’s more established universities were exemplary, especially Universiti Putra Malaysia which leapfrogged more than 60 places to end up second among Malaysian universities. Perhaps it is not so much about the drop in funding resources per se, but more so about setting the right core academic priority to deploy the limited resources for the best academic yield so to speak to achieve the most optimal impact as it were. In short, it is only when the decision-making process is flaky and the priority is academically misplaced that the shortcoming of funding is more likely to translate into a competitive “disadvantage”. This in turn can translate into an apparent slide relative to the other counterparts when it comes to the “league table” game.
The analogy that some academics advance in this case is of a premier soccer league, where the manager would have taken the ultimate responsibility and decided to step down as a matter of priority. Maybe there are some lessons here that our universities and the ministry need to mull over.