FIVE research universities were conferred autonomy by Datuk Seri Mohamed Khaled Nordin last month. They passed a gruelling audit which showed excellent compliance to the Code of University Good Governance (CUGG).
The CUGG and the University Good Governance Index (UGGI) are landmark tools developed by the governance project team which I was privileged to chair. The CUGG provides guidance on the governance arrangements for the university senate and the university board of directors, the two bodies empowered under the University and University Colleges Act (UUCA), to act on academic matters and those related to institutional governance, finance and human resource management, with full accountability and responsibility.
The audit was independently conducted by the Malaysian Productivity Centre. The results confirm that all five research universities have the leadership and capability to devise and effectively use resources to implement their own strategies as well as the integrity to decide on academic matters.
Now that the euphoria has settled, what next? What does autonomy mean?
It does not mean much if major decisions made by ministries and central agencies are not devolved to the university board and senate. Currently universities face over-regulation and burdensome micro-management resulting in lengthy decisions that are long overdue. This is not the way to achieve accountability.
When presenting the 10th Malaysia Plan, the Prime Minister announced that the government will grant gradual autonomy to the universities on accountability measures (not micro management) such as quality assurance and financial performance. The time has come for the government to trust the universities which have demonstrated good governance practices.
The Higher Education Ministry has established an inter-agency committee, chaired by its minister to facilitate the devolution of the decision-making process. Input from Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) and Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM), the two universities to complete the first round of audit, have helped the committee identify some initial areas for autonomy. The proposal for financial autonomy is quite modest considering the capability and credibility of the board members, one of whom represents the Finance Ministry. It includes raising the ceiling to RM1mil for procurement of supplies and services by quotation, the procedural framework pertaining to quotation, tender and direct negotiation as well as modifications to sections related to investment in the Financial Procedures Act, which will facilitate revenue generation and the accumulation of capital reserves.
Both the boards of UKM and USM have approved the new procedures for Treasury endorsement. To its credit the Public Services Department (PSD) has been the most open to autonomy. The universities have control over the recruitment, selection, appointment and promotion of their staff based on the national salary scheme. The university is free to determine the incentives and salaries of staff on contract. To some extent this has enabled the university to be nimble in attracting renowned talents. However, staffing autonomy is related to financial autonomy as it impinges on issues such as overall salary costs, individual salary levels, tenure and pension. For universities to be more effective in a competitive international recruitment environment, a commission for higher education should perhaps be considered.
On academic matters, four of the five research universities are already self-accrediting institutions of the Malaysian Qualifications Agency (MQA).
With the exception of professional courses, the senate of these universities are deemed to have the integrity to approve and accredit courses and the MQA would automatically enter them into the Malaysian Qualifications Register. In this regard the Department of Higher Education should not apply the many circulars pertaining to course approval and establishment of academic units to self-accrediting autonomous universities. Self-accreditation has enabled these universities to be more entrepreneurial as well as faster in adapting to the changing external demands for education.
The Ministry has also devolved the process of student selection to the autonomous universities. This should make them more proactive in attending to diverse student profiles and to be more competitive in their course offerings. In fact, under the governance project, UKM has been tasked to develop a method for costing educational programmes with the aim of giving value for money. The way funding is allocated should be reviewed to enhance competition, innovation and performance with minimum bureaucracy.
Autonomy does not mean universities can do anything they like. There are rules and procedures to follow. Autonomy and accountability must be cascaded down the entire university system. There must be measures to develop institutional capacity and human resources for leadership as well as efficient and effective management to face the new demands placed on the university. Universities do not become excellent by the simple expedient of being autonomous. It requires the right balance of institutional accountability and commitment from public authorities. Autonomy is not enforced unless there are also reforms in all public authorities involved with higher education.
The relationship between the state and the autonomous universities in terms of the degree of control in the form of formal and informal exercise of authority under laws, policies and rules that articulate the rights and responsibilities of both stakeholders, including the structures and rules by which they interact, will have to be modified. This requires reshaping of the attitudes and values of not only the university leaders, administrators and academics but also policy makers such as in the Higher Education Ministry, Department of Higher Education, PSD and the Finance Ministry. Education and research have a high collective return on investment.
We must make autonomy work so that universities can be more dynamic, competitive, creative, innovative and flexible in achieving educational excellence and societal wellbeing. Autonomy is crucial for fulfilling an increasingly wider and more complex range of needs such as the national transformation programme.
By PROF DR SHARIFAH HAPSAH SYED HASAN SHAHABUDIN
The writer is vice-chancellor of Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia.
Source: The STAR Home Education Sunday February 12, 2011