A mat­ter of pri­or­ity

The Sun (Malaysia) - - SPEAK UP -

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.

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