The country’s oldest varsity takes on the future

  • Education
  • Sunday, 04 Mar 2018

DATUK Abdul Rahim Hashim cuts a lean figure in a crisp white shirt and a striped varsity tie. He has a no-nonsense look about him - until he breaks into that megawatt smile. The Johorean turns 65 in October, but looks at least a decade younger. Last month marked his 100 days in the hotseat.

He was named vice-chancellor of the country’s oldest university on Nov 1 last year, on a tenure that ends on Oct 31, 2020. Chosen for his expertise, knowledge, experience, achievements, and academic work, the former Universiti Teknologi Petronas (UTP) vice-chancellor holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Electrical and Electronics Engineering, and an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Birmingham. He attended the Harvard Advance Management Programme in 1997, and has spent over three decades with Petronas before stepping down as corporate vice president in 2008.

He was offered the Universiti Malaya (UM) position even before his contract with UTP was over - an opportunity he says, was too huge to pass on.

Judging from the stacks of files, documents and books on his table, Abdul Rahim has got his work cut out for him. The father-of-four means business. He knows his stuff, but more importantly, he’s determined to lead the varsity to new heights.

> What’s your vision for UM?

My mandate is to get UM into the world’s top 100 universities list. But I have a bigger vision. In five to 10 years, UM should be in the top 50. We definitely have the potential. We’ve got to have more collaborations with other top universities. And we need to focus on game-changing research.

That said, we mustn’t lose track of the teaching and learning. Rankings are skewed towards research, but the core pillars of education are disseminating knowledge and developing holistic students. These haven’t been emphasised on enough.

> What’s the biggest challenge helming the country’s oldest university? How different is it heading UTP, and now UM?

The challenges here are a bit different because in UTP, we had the backing of Petronas. It’s like having parents to go to for help. If we needed people, for instance, staff can be seconded over.

Here, it’s about doing things on your own, and getting help through your own contacts. Of course, the ministry supports us as much as possible, but we must deliver the right results.

> Were you surprised by the appointment?

When I was offered this position, I was still on contract with UTP until January 2019. So my first question was: “Why me?” I guess they wanted someone with a corporate background to look into areas that could be improved on.

I was happy where I was but this is UM, and I believe I can make a positive contribution. Sometimes you’re given opportunities that only come along once in a lifetime.

My principle is that I will only take on a job if I can make a difference. If it’s business as usual, there’s no point. But with my experience and background, I felt I could push UM further.

> Has the last three months been a steep learning curve?

I’ve done this at UTP for five years so it isn’t alien to me. I understand the job scope. It’s just the setting that’s different.

I’ve moved from a private to a public university, where the culture, decision-making processes, systems, and governance, are different. But the basic tenets in terms of the vision, mission and objectives, are similar. So it’s about adjusting oneself and taking it all in stride. Which areas need to be addressed? How do we improve on the way work is being done?

> UM is the only public varsity in the country to break into the top 50 list of the Times Higher Education (THE) Asia University Rankings 2018. What are your strategies to improve the university’s rankings?

Different ranking and rating agencies have different criteria (such as citation) but we can work on strategies to address them. You can produce a lot of papers, for example, but if they’re not in the correct categories or if you don’t co-author with the right people, your citation may not be as high as it should be.

Maybe academic reputation is a reason of why we aren’t being cited as much. So then we have to talk to the right people so that they know us better and cite us.

Our research must be demand-driven, and impactful. We must ask how it benefits society.

We must work with more people and take a multidisciplinary approach. So there’s a lot of work to be done as far as collaborative research is concerned.

> Last year, an online portal reported that the UM Academic Staff Union (PKAUM) had criticised the faculty of engineering for citation stacking, or the improper citation relationships within a group of journals to increase citations back to a particular title. Isn’t that academic fraud?

Like it or not, we have to be involved in the rankings because people will ask: ‘Where are you on the list?’ But we will not game the system. Integrity and accountability are our priority. Once you are caught trying to game the system, you’re out.

> It was reported that slashed government funding has led to facilities being neglected, and experienced academic staff being let go. You’ve talked about ensuring financial sustainability for the university and strengthening its finances. What are your plans?

Unlike private universities where the revenue mainly comes from fees and companies’ corporate social responsibility programmes, public universities are highly subsidised - more than 90%. Fees are not our main source of income.

But we have plenty of infrastructure and facilities that can be rented out to the public. One good example is our all-weather football field. The Klang Valley is short of green areas like that, so we are providing a service as well. Our tennis courts, pool and halls, are other examples. We can also offer seminars and programmes to third parties.

There’s a heightened awareness on financial independence among all faculty members. We also have to be more cost conscious. We have to enhance sponsorships and the work we do with the industries. We do lots of consultancies because we have the expertise.

It used to be that all the funding came from the government but now we have to come up with at least 25% of our operating cost by generating the funds ourselves.

One of the most important roles of leaders is to innovate resourcefully. We have a gamut of possibilities that can give us sustained revenue. But the full potential of our graduates should also be considered when we look at the value of the university.

> What are the university’s strengths?

Talent. The commitment of the people. The good people that we have are our legacy. You can have the infrastructure, buildings, facilities and everything else but without the talent, you won’t go far.

We’ve proved this over the last decade with ground-breaking research outcomes. So, talent-wise, we’re comparable with anywhere else in the world. People need the right support, motivation and ecosystem to thrive.

We can do more to develop our talents - not just as researchers, but as educators. Being an educator is not just about being good in your area. It’s more than just lecturing. It’s about developing our 25,000 students into responsible, global citizens equipped with the right values and attributes so that they can contribute to society and humanity. But it’s not just local talents. We also need foreign talents to complement the areas we’re not good in - areas that need to be strengthened.

I had dinner recently with Nobel Laureate Prof Shuji Nakamura who invented the blue LED. He’s from the University of California, Santa Barbara and he’s collaborating with us. He says our students are outstanding.

But we have to make sure we retain them and help them progress. Our location is a strength as well. We’re at the epicentre of the Klang Valley. Opportunities are there.

It’s how we convert these to benefit the university. We have to tap into our alumni. We need to make UM a more attractive place for people to come and work.

> You chair the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra and Dewan Filharmonik Petronas. Are you a music fan? Tell us a little bit about yourself.

(Laughs) I’m not particularly good at singing but early in my career, karaoke was all the rage and I was always asked to perform at functions. And when I do something, I don’t like to make a fool of myself. I don’t want to croak. I felt singing was a skill that I could learn, so I went for lessons. It builds confidence as well - being able to stand up and sing before a crowd.

> You look like you’re in very good shape.

I used to jog but now I’m having issues with my ankle. I still go to the gym daily but doing exercises that don’t have as much impact. I’m on the cross-trainer at the moment. I have to stay on top of things so exercise is still very much a part of my life. If you don’t take care of yourself, you won’t be able to do the job and handle the stresses that come with it.

> What’s your personal KPI?

With the momentum we have going and the support we’ve received from the Higher Education Ministry, achieving our ranking target isn’t an issue.

But I’m looking at changing how some things are done here and how can I make a difference. Putting certain processes in place and overcoming some constraints that we have. For example, we’re governed by so many statutes including the Universities and University Colleges Act and Statutory Bodies Act, so how do we organise ourselves so that we’re more effective and efficient within the framework of the law. The decision-making processes within the organisation must get better so that everything doesn’t just come to the VC. Others within the organisation can also make decisions.

Staff development must be more structured. We must also look at leadership development and not just their functional roles. All these will make us more sustainable.

We have to run a tighter ship because resources are a constraint. With that, our mindset and culture must change. UM is still relevant today but we must look at what’s required to be in tune with the developments ahead. Ensuring effectiveness in all we do is crucial. When you look at the success of an organisation, the key factor is leadership. But it shouldn’t be just about leaders at the top.

It should involve leaders at every level - whether it’s the dean or the driver, because they all play a leadership role at their specific levels. Of course the top leadership will plan what is strategically required and make sure that there are resources available but at the lower levels, the implementation is important because things need to get done.

We don’t want the university to be rated world-class, yet be unable to give that sort of experiences to the those who come - be they students, or visiting professors.

So, everything has to happen holistically and in tandem. This is the message we have to get across.

Everyone - even the drivers - must know why we are doing all this. If the driver picks up a visitor from the airport to come to the university, that interaction will be the first impression he or she will have of UM. Are we efficient, effective and professional? That’s why we need a change of mindset and culture. We must be more progressive and accountable.

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