Leading the Mara march forward


PROF Dr Mohd Azraai Kassim (pic), 61, is a soft spoken man. He smiles easily, and has a twinkle in his eyes. But Universiti Teknologi Mara’s (UiTM) new vice-chancellor is no push over. He doesn’t mince his words. Only a month into the job, and he’s already on top of things - his academic experience in both private and public roles over the past 35 years, is obviously showing.

The Perakian, who has published books on academic leadership, and produced 155 journal papers and proceedings, was appointed in February this year on a three-year tenure that ends in 2022. He takes over from Emeritus Prof Datuk Dr Hassan Said.

Prof Mohd Azraai has held various administrative posts including UTMSpace managing director and chief executive officer, and UTM dean of international affairs, and deputy vice-chancellor. Armed with a civil engineering degree and master’s from the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology (UMIST), he went on to do his doctorate at the University of Newcastle Upon Tyne. He shares his plans for UiTM with StarEdu.

> Let’s talk about your vision and personal KPI.

I have a three-point mission: Enhance UiTM and turn it into a high-performing university; raise it’s global profile; and improve the employability of our graduates and create more entrepreneurs among them. My ambition is to transform UiTM into an internationally renowned university, and one of the best in Asia. We’re at 137 in the 2019 edition of the QS University Rankings: Asia.

Within the next three years, I’d like to see UiTM breaking into the top 100. I want to open up UiTM to realise its full potential. If I can raise UiTM’s profile and spark a new culture of excellence, I’d be satisfied.

> What are UiTM’s strengths?

It’s a comprehensive university with many disciplines ranging from the arts to medicine. We’re present in all states. Our graduates’ English is better than many out there. We have almost 800,000 alumni members, which we haven’t leveraged on. UiTM has contributed greatly towards social mobility and equity among bumiputra students, transforming people from poor families. We have over 500 academic programmes, eight centres of excellence, and a lot of expertise so there’s huge potential to level up. We’re going deeper into research and innovation in areas we’re strong in - business, accounting, mass communications, engineering, medical and pharmacy, and the arts.

The Tuanku Syed Sirajuddin Chancellery Building at the UiTM main campus in Shah Alam.
The Tuanku Syed Sirajuddin Chancellery Building at the UiTM main campus in Shah Alam. 

> What are your strategies to improve the varsity’s rankings?

We need to increase collaborations for our academic programmes. We’ve signed memorandums of understanding with 131 institutions. That’s a very small number. And, we need to do more high quality research with our partners and industries both in and out of the country.

> You have a passion for transformation, improvements, and turning around organisations. What are your plans for UiTM?

I’ve to look at UiTM’s overall achievements, strengths and weaknesses, to see where I can add value. We’re in the midst of reviewing our 2016 to 2020 blueprint to come up with a new five-year transformation plan. I’m engaging with all our branch campus rectors, researchers, and young academics, and aligning them to our new direction. I’m banking on the youngsters to bring us forward. These are the immediate things I want to do. In the long-term, we’ve to focus on the fundamentals. Post graduate student numbers must be increased. We currently have 8,000. We want to increase that to 15,000. At 200, the number of our international students is also very low. We’ve to work on that. At the moment, only 25% of our staff are PhD holders. It should be 50%. We also need to produce more research and publications. I have my work cut out.

> Tell us about the varsity’s Blueprint for 2019 and beyond.

We’re building on ongoing plans. But the main areas the new blueprint will cover centres on raising UiTM’s global profile through impactful contributions to society; increasing partnerships with industries, local authorities, state agencies, and top international universities; having more engagement with our alumni; and adopting new ways of teaching. We need new approaches in the digital age. No more chalk and talk. Starting April, our lecturers will be upskilled to adopt problem-solving and peer learning approaches. The blueprint will be unveiled by December so implementation can start next year.

> In your appointment address, you talked about being “allergic to people who are slow, lazy and not result orientated”. Was that a warning?

(Laughs) It was a gentle reminder that I won’t tolerate complacency. We’ve to work a lot harder and be more productive. Mindsets must change. I’m used to doing things fast. My most recent experience was in the private sector where we want things done yesterday - not in three or six months. So I cannot stand people who are slow. But I’m leading a public university not a company. I cannot just fire people. Here, it’s more about influencing people and getting everyone on board.

> What’s your leadership style?

EATMI - engage, align, teamwork, motivate, and inspire. I focus on training, coaching, and grooming.

> What are your views on our higher education system. What can we do better?

We’re heading in the right direction. We’re successful as an education hub but we can do with more autonomy and flexibility, and less focus on rules and regulations. I’d like to see the Education Ministry take on a more facilitative role. Institutionalise the right policies and empower the institutions to go further. We used to be a recipient of transnational education. Many universities form branch campuses here, do twinning programmes and so on. It’s time for Malaysian universities - especially the public ones - to go abroad. We should be an exporter of transnational education. Some have done it. We can have our UiTM outposts overseas working with partners to offer our programmes.

> Being trained in the field, what are your thoughts on The Star’s recent reports about young engineers dropping out of the profession because they lack the technical knowledge and soft skills to get hired. 

UiTM’s medium of instruction is English so most of graduates have a very strong command of the language. But we probably have to work on the other aspects. It’s not just the command of the language but how you present yourself, your confidence, and ability to highlight your strengths. We’re trying to strengthen these aspects by scaling up our student mobility programmes. UiTM recently joined a grouping of South East Asian universities so we’re part on an affordable network of universities. Our students can be a part of that. Mobility programmes are important because students that have been outside the country return with new skills. They’re more adaptable and resourceful. We also want to expose our students to other areas that are in demand by industry. So, on top of a degree, they can sign up for short courses in ISO 9000, data analytics, cyber security, and block chain. It’s a plus for them. Although these are introductory courses, they’ll still have an edge when they go for interviews. These courses will be offered in September. Also coming up is a new elective subject called Service Learning. It’s essentially community service but there’s a proper learning outcome, planning, assessment. This subject will further enhance their organisational, leadership, and management capabilities. I’d like to make it a compulsory subject somewhere down the road.

> Tell us about yourself.

I’ve very driven and committed. I thrive on challenges. If I don’t have a challenge, I’ll create one. I love problem-solving and am a bit of a risk taker. I enjoy reading, and the occasional golf. How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie is my favourite book. I recommend this book to the people I’m grooming because leadership is about influencing others. If you want to be a good leader, you have to master this skill. I also like books on management and self-help because I’m always trying to improve.

> You’re very mild-mannered.

(Laughs) People think mild-mannered means soft. No. Sometimes deep inside is someone who wants to achieve great things.

> You’ve said that being appointed UiTM VC was unexpected and that your eye was always set on UTM. How do you feel about taking on the role now?

The first few days after the announcement, I was a little apprehensive about the huge responsibility that lay ahead but a month into it, I’m more confident. With help from everyone, we can achieve what we set out to do.

> What’s your biggest challenge?

Changing mindsets. When people are comfortable with the old ways, they develop a complacent attitude. Getting them to do more is hard. For example, people are so used to just teaching that it’ll take time to get them to do other things. A successful academic isn’t just an excellent teacher, but someone who also has a research track record, national and international collaborations, and leadership skills. UiTM is a huge organisation with 18,000 staff, 35 campuses, and 170,000 students.

Moving such a huge organisation forward isn’t easy. This is the biggest challenge I’ve undertaken in my entire career.

 

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