Monday, 16 November 2015

Public universities feel the pinch

Brave New World (The Star)
28 October 2015


DEAR, oh dear, Budget 2016 has not been kind to public universities at all. There has been an average cut of 15% for all university funding. Some unlucky ones have their budget slashed by as much as 27%.
Naturally, there have been some rumblings, namely that such cuts are inconsistent with the Govern­ment’s claim that we are going to produce world-class universities, on par with Oxford no less.
How can such a thing be done if we spend less money on our universities?
Actually, this cut does not come as a surprise to me at all.
The Government has been saying it wants to do this for many years already. In fact, we can expect even more cuts over the next few years.
One of the reasons why they want to spend less money on universities is because they believe that universities should be autonomous.
This may sound a bit weird and that is because it is.
You see, when one talks about autonomy in the context of higher education, what it means is that institutions of higher learning are relatively free to manage themselves, determine their academic policies and have their own educational values free from state interference.
However, when the Government talks about university autonomy, what they mean is that the universities are free from government funding.
I kid you not, they view economic autonomy as a value in itself.
Therefore, by cutting university funding, universities are less dependent on Government for money and they become more autonomous; isn’t that what academics have been screaming for all these years? We should rejoice.
Of course they say nothing about the increase of any real academic autonomy with the reduction of funds; where the poorer we become, the less they will interfere in our campuses.
But then, that would just be asking for too much.
Therefore, we have a situation where universities will get progressively less money but the Govern­ment will still have all sorts of influence in our affairs.
It sounds like a wonderful situation for the powers-that-be.
Right, now that we have got all that weirdness out of the way, let’s look at the situation with a dose of pragmatism.
Money is being cut. What can universities do?
They can try to raise their own funds. You can see this happening already.
Public universities are experimenting with setting up private higher education institutions. They are also planning to do things like establishing private medical facilities.
These are all plans to fully utilise existing expertise in moneymaking ventures.
I don’t like this development because I think there is just so much we have to focus on just to get our universities up to “decent” (let alone Oxford) standards instead of trying to be financial moguls.
But I don’t blame the university administrations, as what choice do they have, really?
If funds from the Government are going to dry up, you need to survive somehow.
At the end of the day, is all this going to make our universities better? Honestly, I don’t think so.
Most universities in the world are largely dependent on public funding.
Only the United States has a very extensive system of private universities. But then they also have a long-standing tradition of getting money from alumni and other forms of fund-raising.
Throwing us into the deep end and expecting Malaysian universities to be as self-sufficient as US private universities is really asking for too much.
One of the major sources of income that private institutions have is the very high fees they charge students.
Is this the path we want to go down? I know that most of my students are not from wealthy families. It would be unacceptable to charge them fees which are too high.
Let’s not forget that we are far from being a high-income nation. Besides, people with money tend to send their children abroad anyway.
This tendency to send our children overseas is something that foreign universities are happy to exploit.
For example, in Britain, where public funding is being cut as well, some universities have tried to make up the shortfall by taking in as many foreign students as they can, for these students pay more fees.
Can we follow their lead?
Are we able to provide the sort of prestige education that foreign students are willing to pay through the nose for?
I don’t think we are at that level yet.
Foreign students come here because we provide affordable education and once that is gone, I doubt we can attract many.
To conclude, the cutting of funding to our public universities is not going to help us make our universities better.
We are at a stage where we don’t have the experience of fund-raising and we are not good enough to charge what we like.
And neither are our people wealthy enough to pay astronomical fees.
The Higher Education Ministry has said that there will be no increase in fees despite the lower Budget allocation, but how long can that be sustained?
Therefore, the situation in which public universities find themselves at the moment, I fear, is simply untenable.

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