The development of university autonomy within Malaysian public universities has had its twists and turns. Prior to the 1975 amendment of the Universities and University Colleges Act (1971), public universities in Malaysia were self-governed with a structure comprising three principal governing bodies of the Court, Council and Senate.
Yet, public universities were almost fully funded by the state. However, the 1975 amendment became a watershed moment when the self-governing structure was dismantled, and this redefined the relationship between universities and the state.
In other words, universities lost their autonomy. Fast forward to 2012, the then Minister of Higher Education announced that five public universities – after having undergone an audit process – were ready to be self-governed and were therefore granted autonomy status. Autonomy has been operationalised in the academic, finance, human resource and institutional spheres. To date, 17 of the 20 public universities have received autonomy status from the ministry.
However, academics interviewed in two of the public universities that have received autonomy status were of the view that regardless of their seniority, position, gender or discipline, there is no autonomy. This strong assertion is commonly justified in three ways. First, as public universities continue to rely on funding from the government, there can be no autonomy because the government holds the purse strings. Second, many of the academics pointed out that the autonomy status is “guided” or “restricted”, in that the universities are still required to seek approval from various parties including the Ministry of Higher Education, the Public Service Department, the Treasury, and the Ministry of Finance, pertaining to academic, finance, human resource and institutional matters.
The analogy used for “restricted” autonomy is one of having freedom but with one’s hands cuffed behind their back. Third, some academics argue that autonomy cannot be fully realised until and unless public universities have the authority to decide their own appointments to top management positions. Even with autonomy status, the appointments to the Board of Directors (the Chairman and its members), the Vice Chancellor and Deputy Vice Chancellor remain the prerogative of the Minister of Higher Education.
Although academics have opined on an absence or lack of autonomy, many of them, particularly those who have been in the university for a relatively long time, highlighted that leadership has been a critical factor in the interpretation of autonomy. In the two universities which formed the case studies in the research project, the leadership of the Vice Chancellors had a strong bearing on the vision, branding, and the ways in which the university handles the relationship with key stakeholders – and, importantly, the extent to which the university can be self-governed. In other words, academics differed as to how autonomous their universities had been in relation to the state under the leadership of different Vice Chancellors.
With regard to exercising autonomy, in theory, the university has three options pertaining to whatever instruction, circular or regulation issued by central agencies such as the Ministry of Higher Education.
One option is to adopt the circular in its entirety. The second is to adopt it with amendments. The third option is not to adopt it all. But since university leaders are appointed by the Minister of Higher Education, it is clear why the third option is rarely exercised, if at all, the degree of autonomy then according to which of the other two options are chosen.
FINANCE AND FUNDING
The lack of autonomy of public universities has been strongly associated with their reliance on the government for funding. However, given that allocation from the government to public universities has been slashed by 15% in 2016 and 19% in 2017, the lack of ability of public universities to generate their own income has been a major stumbling block in the exercise of their autonomy.
However, the financial constraint has, in a way, prompted public universities to exercise their
autonomy in generating income. One particular creative initiative undertaken by one of the two universities in this study was to privatise some of the student hostels. Several blocks of student hostels were rented out to the university’s holding company at a similar rate for students, and in turn, the holding company renovated the hostels and equipped them with air-conditioning and hot water showers to be rented out at a higher rate (equivalent to the out-of- campus market rate). This initiative was well-accepted by students, and at the same time, generated additional income for the university.
According to the Vice Chancellor, this initiative was initiated before the severe budget cut took place, and is now made possible due to the autonomy granted to the university.
In theory, public universities with autonomy status have the prerogative to decide on staffing matters.
However, due to the dominance of the public service human resource framework, universities have only been able to exercise their autonomy in limited ways. First, public universities have, traditionally, rehired academics who have passed the mandatory retirement age of 60 on a two- or three-year contract based on their last pay grade. Yet, with autonomy granted, these two universities have developed their own schemes for retired academics. One of them provides a lump sum payment for specific tasks; for a retired full professor, the package is RM10,000 (US$ 2,260), with the condition that he or she must teach two courses and supervise one doctoral student. Conversely, another university, because of budgetary constraints, was only able to offer honorary positions without a stipend, albeit with access to university facilities.
Second, autonomy has also allowed universities to provide additional incentives to attract talent. As one of the two universities is perceived to be less prestigious, and unable to attract talent, especially professionals in critical disciplines, the university has developed a scheme for internal promotion – but to a non-pensionable position – for some of its academics. For example, an academic may be holding the position of Associate Professor as his pensionable position, but in order to compensate him better, the university offers him the salary of a Professor, but on a non-pensionable arrangement.
Although 17 of the public universities have been granted autonomy status, our study of two of these institutions suggests that its leaders and academics are still grappling with the ways in which they can exercise their autonomy and introduce positive changes to the governance and management of their institutions. Coupled with the current financial constraints faced by these institutions, developing strategic ways to navigate around the frameworks and bureaucracy within the larger higher education environment will become even more crucial for these universities to leverage on the rapid changing dynamics at the systemic and national policymaking level.
WAN CHANG DA
Chang Da Wan is Senior Lecturer at the National Higher Education Research Institute, Universiti Sains Malaysia.
Morshidi Sirat is Director of the Commonwealth Tertiary Education Facility, and was Director-General of Higher Education of Malaysia.
Benedict Weerasena is an economist at Bait al-Amanah, and was a research assistant to the project on university governance, on which his co-author article is based.