January 24, 2017
Malaysia: Impact of defunding Public Universities
by Dr. Lee Hwok Aun
Published in The Edge, January 16, 2017
Malaysia’s public universities are headed for troubled waters and it is unclear whether our policy makers and executers are even on the lookout. The university rankings business is a debatable one, but I bring it up here because it is the government’s ultimate performance benchmark, and recent developments underscore the detachment of officialdom from the institutions’ woes.–Dr. Lee Hwok-Aun
Malaysia’s public universities are headed for troubled waters and it is unclear whether our policy makers and executers are even on the lookout. The university rankings business is a debatable one, but I bring it up here because it is the government’s ultimate performance benchmark, and recent developments underscore the detachment of officialdom from the institutions’ woes.
The University of Malaya’s rise to #133 on the QS World Universities score sheet in 2016, its best position ever on this rankings scheme, was greeted on campus with surprise, nonchalance, and a dash of despair. The sentiments are distinct from previous years. When UM inched up the rankings, from #156 in 2012 to #146 in 2015, these small and steady gains brought relief, and a bigger hop from #167 in 2011 to #156 in 2012 infused a sense of accomplishment. Research grants were quite abundant, there was support for internationalization, for recruiting and retaining talent. Universities were basically supported, we seemed to be doing things better; improvement in the rankings made sense.
Then came the funding cuts. Federal budget allocations for universities were slashed by 12% in 2015, 15% in 2016, and 19% in 2017. UM took the biggest hit in 2016, when it suffered a 27% shortfall from the previous year. And here lies the trigger of despair. This defunding spree, coinciding with a major leap in the rankings, might be taken as vindication, and perhaps embolden further budgetary constriction.
The government will be perilously mistaken to do so. Continual aggressive defunding brings three significant deficits on Malaysia’s public universities.
First, a personnel deficit. Severe fund-slashing compels severe cost-cutting, shock therapy induces desperate measures. Contract staff are one of the first on the chopping block because the funds for this specific category of employees have dried up. Many contracts have not been renewed, and they are not substituted with allocations for part-time instructors or new recruits. Financial dispensability, however, does not equate with importance to core activity and service. Numerous academic departments count on contract academic staff to teach core courses and produce research and publications.
As contract staff are ushered out, the same workload gets distributed among the remaining staff, increasing their burden and contributing to the second deficit, in morale. Academics will likely see burdens increased, while concerns toward the funding cuts are typically dismissed by invoking the seemingly non-negotiable policy of reducing public subsidization of university expenditure. The Higher Education Blueprint 2015-2025 outlined new funding formulae, with performance-based allocations and per student funding as appealing new features. This formulae is to be rolled out on a “gradual”, “gate-staged” basis.
ISEAS-Yusuf Ishak Institute Senior Fellow, Dr Lee Hwok-Aun
“Performance funding” is especially contentious. If fixated on numbers and not adequately anchored to the public interest and long-term objectives, as seems to be the case, there is every potential for the system to be gamed, for example, by lowering academic rigour to boost completion rates and student satisfaction, or pursuing quantity over quality of research. Given these complexities, one would expect the policy to be agonizingly deliberated, and gradual and systematic if implemented.
But Universiti Malaya and Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia have already, for 2016 and 2017 respectively, been administered huge funding cuts of 27% and 31%. Why? Enrolments have not fallen precipitously, nor have the universities massively scaled down operations. Have they performed so badly? The lack of coherence and transparency in the targeting of funding cuts, compounded by drained research grant reservoirs, are disconcerting, and cannot be good for morale in the academic community.
Some initiatives with good potential risk derailment. At the University of Malaya, to allow for academics to play to their relative interests and strengths, different career tracks – focused on research or teaching – are also being rolled out. But in the hasty pursuit of extracting more output from less resources, research track targets have been made frighteningly difficult to hit. Few select that option, and some – the more diligent, productive, conscientious ones – have been forced to take it against their wishes, to the detriment of their morale.
What of the next generation of academics? Policy brims with rhetoric of talent development, and reference to the Higher Education Talent Roadmap, but the Malaysian approach diverges from the practices in recognized institutions. Globally leading universities excel by attracting talent, then trusting them, through their dynamism, creativity and self-motivation, to research, teach and contribute to public knowledge with light monitoring. Malaysian universities are increasingly inclined to do the opposite – micromanaging rewards for formulaic outcomes, distrusting the industry and capability of staff, monitoring for compliance and resisting change, which seriously risk repelling and losing talents that are drawn to institutions that safeguard trust, autonomy and freedom.
Which brings us to a third deficit that can grow as public financing shrinks: our international profile. Malaysia’s public universities, having made inroads in internationalization, could see these gains reversed. The public universities are subject to the public services employment scheme, including the rule that a non-citizen cannot be hired on a permanent basis. All non-Malaysian academics are on contract, predominantly short term. The more contracts are not renewed, the less international our profile. Will Malaysia’s public higher learning institutions, especially the research universities, become more domestic, less global? That might happen, and if so, our presence on the world academic stage will fade. A specific recruitment scheme for public universities, promoting secure employment of international academic staff, is worth considering.
The presumption that rebalancing of university funding sources and reducing of government subsidy necessitates budget cuts also warrants scrutiny. These can be achieved by maintaining the federal allocations, while facilitating growth in other sources. There is currently a baffling downward spiral and multiple moving targets. Both the share of government subsidies and the overall expenditure of universities are falling – why?
Suppose a university currently spends RM100 million and receives RM90 million from government, in line with the current 90% subsidization rate. Expenditure of RM120 million in ten years would be a reasonable projection. If the government share declines to 70%, then in ten years – a “gradual” rollout as the Blueprint stipulates – the government’s contribution would amount to RM84 million, or basically holding steady, not dropping steeply.
Will the government assess the impact of the funding cuts and reconsider the policy – at least its pace and severity? This will take courage, since reducing public funding has been high on the higher education agenda for a decade, and the government defends the deep cuts apparently as a mark of its resolve.
But at the rate we are cutting funds, it will be impossible to avoid deficits in personnel, morale, and international profile.
Dr. Lee Hwok Aun is Senior Fellow at ISEAS-Yusuf Ishak Institute.