How public universities can balance finances and academic freedom

There has been much debate and news about the idea of academic freedom and governance, but none looks at the aspect of university strategic business plans as a viable direction towards that end. At the same time, with the country’s economy still on the mend after the disastrous management of the previous administration, public universities will probably be looking at another belt-tightening exercise. Perhaps this is an opportune time to ask the question of what role and future prospect our public universities should be heading towards.

Recently, public universities began opening their student intake with fees matching those of private universities. This may seem like the perfect solution if not for the fact that a chunk of academic staff are now taken away from teaching students who come from mostly low-income families. What then is the effect on the social responsibility to provide opportunities for the social-economic balance in this country?

I would like to propose several ways in which public universities can generate 50% of their budget for staff salaries in a radical mindset shift and economic deployment exercise. As citizens, it is our duty to safeguard our education institutions for the welfare of our children and grandchildren.

With respect to academic staffing, 35,000 academics from public universities are teaching 500,000 students whereas 25,000 academics from private educational institutions are teaching an almost equal number. Thus, there seems to be a slight bloat in academic staff. With respect to support staff, my present faculty which teaches 3,000 students has a support staff of about 10 people whereas my previous faculty at a public university teaching the same student strength had close to 100. There is a need for serious consideration of downsizing or redeploying staff in public universities.

Secondly, public universities could sell off up to 40% of their real estate and acquire a significant amount of money for reinvestment. There are also facilities and land that can be leased out for extra revenue. The campus must be redesigned to be more compact for the ease of students and for low energy-economic consumption. Campus designs in the 1980s were created like rich housing estates. A large acreage of land was allocated and buildings were built and planned like white elephants. Connectivity by bus and cars was an exercise in energy and time wastage.

Firstly, there is a need to change the mindset behind campus design and management to make them more sustainable. A serious redesigning of the campus to be more student-friendly, with public accessibility and more compact distances between facilities would put the university in a different light. Taylors University Lakeside Campus is a model for a vibrant and compact design of a campus catering to thousands of students. In contrast, Universiti Putra Malaysia is in an expanse of forest that could be granted a geographical definition as a separate country.

Student fees can be restructured to include residence and food. When I sent my daughter to Upper Iowa University for a six-month stint as part of SEGi University’s American Degree Program, the fees I paid included food and residence. I think many other services such as laundry and other necessities can be provided by the university with a proper business plan. The student fees can also be slightly increased by 20% to make way for inflation costs.

Public universities can also set up a separate entity operating almost exactly like a private university. About 20% of academic staff and 50% of support staff can be given the employment option of separating from the government’s pay scale. Those in the pension scheme would be allowed to collect whatever amount is due from the number of years of service. This private arm could be given 10 years’ gratis on rental of public university buildings and a 50% exemption from corporate taxes for the same period.

I would suggest that 30% of the after-tax profit from the private arm be returned to the parent university after the fifth year of operation. This way, the public would not have to pay the salaries of academic and support staff, and the profit returns would help ease the financial burden of the parent university. After 10 years, the private arm would work exactly like a private university in terms of self-financing, corporate taxes and other expenses while returning 30% of the after-tax profit. The rest of the profit would go towards staff bonuses and development.

With such strategies in place, we would be looking at a public university with only 50% of the present budget supported by the people of this country. The government could help all private and public-private universities by allowing 50% of the corporate taxes to be returned to the universities in the form of research grants, training costs and scholarships.

With respect to research budgets, there are several sources of funding with which citizens, corporations and individuals can help. The country has seen many millionaires and billionaires who could now give back to the nation. Corporations should provide research grants for tax exemption as well as grants for research investment for the industry. Private citizens, the royalty and rich politicians, can establish endowments for research and fellowship grants.

We must make research exciting, meaningful and easy to understand in order to get the donors equally enthralled at the significance of their contribution. If I were a billionaire, I would not give one sen to public university research because I do not know what they are about, or what their impact would be on society. Academics must learn to communicate effectively with the public in order to secure the funding they seek. If our academics could fight for global causes such as the reduction of poverty, social harmony and education instead of being stuck in a narrow religious and racial mindset, the opportunities for grants all over the world would be at their feet. Public university academics must prevent Malaysia from becoming a “Taliban country” that is rejected by other nations.

Public university researchers can also propose and accept joint research with private universities in Malaysia. Although this act was once unthinkable, private universities have come a long way and are leading research in several areas. Furthermore, many former academics from public universities are employed by private universities to boost their research, publication and teaching strength.

Private universities have been managed in a manner that allows them to have their own private research and publication funds. UCSI University alone commits RM2 million a year for these purposes. Though this seems small in comparison to the funding that public universities have been accustomed to, a small amount is better than no amount. Public universities can offer to share their expensive laboratory equipment and spaces in joint research projects. In this manner, the exchange of cultural and intellectual assets would boost Malaysia’s position as a global education hub.

There has been much talk and debate about “freedom” and autonomy at public universities. With the success of a private arm, competing on a level playing field with private universities, we may see an era of “true freedom” when financial control no longer resides in the Treasury alone.

Public university heads and academic staff must rethink their fate and positions in the new Malaysia. There is an opportunity to work towards a new academic and administrative culture of mixed races, mixed faiths as well as mixed experiences to get away from the present civil servant mindset of arrogance and a less energetic attitude towards the idea of work and contributions.

With this new era of academic-economic culture, our public universities can be brought to realise the social engineering agenda of providing quality education to the lower income group so that everyone will be equipped with the necessary tools for economic development and nation-building efforts.

Tajuddin Rasdi is a professor of Islamic architecture at UCSI University.

The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.