Budget Axe Falls on Malaysian Universities

One of the key sectors in government to face budget cuts last October was higher education. Hidden under the populist measures of the BR1M people’s aid scheme, higher pensions and a widening of zero-rated items under the goods and services tax introduced last year, education cuts are just starting to be felt.

The education institutions’ budgets were slashed by RM2.4 billion (US$1 billion at current exchange rates) from RM15.78 billion in 2015 to RM13.37 billion for the year 2016.

The cuts have not been uniform, ranging from a high at Universiti Malaya of 27.30 percent down to Universiti Malaysia Sarawak at 1.05 percent. Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia actually got a budget increase of 5.05 percent. University Spending Cuts % Universiti Malaya 27.3 Universiti Malaya Terengganu 23.76 Universiti Teknologi Mara 23.72 Universiti Pendidican Sultan Idris 20.78 Universiti Utara Malaysia 19.31 Universiti Sains Islam Malaysia 17.14 Universiti Teknologi Malaysia 16.53 Universiti Pertahanan Nasional 16.29 Universiti Sultan Zainal Abidin 13.42 Universiti Malaysia Pahang 11.18 Universiti Putra Malaysia 11.41 Universiti Teknikal Malaysia Melaka 10.78 Universiti Islam Antarabangsa Malaysia 8.11 Universiti Malaysia Perlis 3.64 Universiti Tun Hussein Onn 3.71 Universiti Malaysia Sarawak 1.05

Source: Malaysia budget

One of the immediate problems with these budget cuts is the degree of them over such a short time. This gives universities very little time and latitude to adjust their spending patterns.

This could lead to crises in some areas like teaching hospitals. The renowned University Malaysia Medical Centre (UMMC) which has been providing medical treatment to people who can’t afford private insurance, will according to Universiti Malaysa’s Dean of Medicine Professor Adeeba Kamarulzaman, be forced to cut back on both medical services and teaching.

The present crop of vice-chancellors are used to managing their respective universities from guaranteed budget allocations, where it hasn’t been necessary to be too prudent with spending. They also have little experience in attracting other sources of revenue.

However the Ministry of Education is slowly retiring the "old breed" of vice chancellors like Professor Kamarudin Hussin of Universiti Malaysia Perlis, who was exposed by Asia Sentinel last month for corruption and mismanagement at the university. Kamarudin attempted to hang to his post by using alumni to make an appeal to the Higher Education Minister Idris Jusoh. On the minister’s insistence that take up a face-saving position as a special ministerial advisor, Kamarudin made a grand exit from the University last week, as evidenced by the pictures. This departure came as besieged Prime Minister Najib Razak called on all government departments and institutions to spend less on events and protocols.

Since his departure, there has been considerable talk in the corridors about corruption. The incoming Perlis vice chancellor, who hasn’t been selected yet, will be faced with having to eradicate excessive waste and corruption, allegedly by past and current staff. It is worth noting that a letter of appreciation for his 14 years of service was unusually not signed by the minister, but rather by the director General of the Ministry, Professor Asma Ismail.

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However the ministry is now beginning to place astute people like Professor Hassan Said as Vice Chancellor of Universiti Teknologi MARA (UiTM). Hehas experience running private universitie, which could signal a change in the way state universities will be run.

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Malaysian public universities need to change the way they operate to cope with the budget cutbacks. Fortunately excess expenditure can be cut without affecting teaching standards. However, in the case of stiff cuts, new paradigms need to be found and developed very quickly if standards are not going to suffer.

One barrier to developing new ways to operate is that universities themselves are not autonomous bodies. Curriculum, fees, enrollments, hiring and other operational matters are governed directly through the Ministry of Education.

To a great extent, universities are limited in what they can do. The issue of autonomy and budget cuts is something that has yet to be addressed by the government. This has left some universities with very limited options. Some re letting go foreign lecturers, cutting faculty operational costs such as stationery, air conditioning, travel, etc. These measures will not make up the budget shortfalls and could seriously hamper the ability of Malaysian public universities to improve standards.

This is hardly changing university operations, and most probably will affect staff and student morale as well as hinder university development along the lines of the “Soaring Upwards” higher education blueprint the government released with fanfare last year.

In the words of Malaysian Education Minister Idris, the budget cuts will “train local universities to be more efficient in the implementation of their programs."

There is precedent for this in the Australian experience of the 1980s when similar cuts were made to Australian universities, which turned to research collaboration with industry, running more industry management programs and drastically increasing the number of foreign student enrollments. Even university chairs became university-sponsored, which Universiti Malaysia Kelantan has done with the Maybank Professorial Chair of Entrepreneurship, within their Entrepreneurship Faculty, a great example for other universities to follow. More public benefactors are needed to help fill the gap, but universities need to work on developing business models attractive to potential donors.

There is plenty of scope to collaborate with industry on research, and management training and education is a massive growth industry within Malaysia that most universities have missed to date. There is plenty of room to aggressively recruit more foreign students who are willing to pay higher university fees if the market is tackled correctly, and Malaysian public universities become more student friendly.

One of the other outstanding issues is student loans. One major effect of budget cutbacks has been fewer loans to students, with Malaysiakini reporting students quitting university as loan payments were not forthcoming. According to Malaysiakini MARA loans are declining while Public Service or PTPTN loans being offered that don’t cover living expenses.

This is affecting access to higher education by poor and needy students, another issue that must be urgently addressed. As of late Malaysian students have been very vocal about whom they want to be Vice Chancellor of a particular university. It’s now time for them to be vocal about what type of education system they want for their country. In every crisis, there is opportunity.