Universiti Malaya takes on the world

Achieving targets: Abdul Rahim led UM to achieving its highest position in the Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) World University Rankings in under three years since he helmed the position.

It has just been under three years since Datuk Abdul Rahim Hashim helmed the country’s oldest varsity, University Malaya (UM), but it is in this period that UM has achieved its highest position in the prestigious Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) World University Rankings since the rankings began in 2004.

In the recently released 2021 rankings, UM – now ranked third in Southeast Asia – leaped 11 spots to its current 59th spot globally, with an overall score of 70.1.

Named vice-chancellor (VC) on Nov 1, 2017, Abdul Rahim whose tenure ends on Oct 31, this year, had his work cut out for him.

It was a hotseat, and the Johorean, who turns 67 in October, delivered.

Chosen for his expertise, knowledge, experience, achievements, and academic work, the former Universiti Teknologi Petronas (UTP) VC holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Electrical and Electronics Engineering, and an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Birmingham.

Last year, the former Petronas corporate vice-president proved his mettle when a student activist called for his resignation over what the latter perceived as a “racially charged” speech.

Through it all, Abdul Rahim kept his cool, opting to focus on leading the varsity to greater heights – a responsibility he continues to shoulder with aplomb as the nation’s education sector weathers the unprecedented challenges brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The gruelling workload and pressure have not taken a toll on the father-of-four’s lean and dapper physique since StarEdu sat with him for a one-on-one exclusive to mark his 100 days as VC in 2018.

If anything, there is a greater sense of ease and he seems more relaxed now.

Not one to shy away from tough questions or boast of his accomplishments, Abdul Rahim prefers to let the varsity’s achievements and its legacy, do the talking.

> Your mandate was to get UM into the world’s top 100 universities list. But your vision was to make it into the top 50 in five to 10 years time. Have you achieved your personal KPI?To make it into the top 50 is a stretched target but even if we achieve 80% of what we set out to do, it’s good enough. UM has the potential to go higher in the rankings but we have to get everybody on board and be able to sustain (the performance) moving forward. This year is historic as all five Malaysian research universities are ranked among the world’s top 200. Even the private varsities are coming up. It is part of the (national) education blueprint to get not just UM, but all our universities up the ranks. It’s about how we can support the blueprint. By 2025, we should be in the top 50.

> How important are rankings, really?Some rankings are research based, some are overall, some are for sustainability and so on so we’re not looking at QS alone – we’re are also looking at Times Higher Education, Shanghai Jiao Tong University (Academic Ranking of World Universities), US News, Green Metric and local rating systems Malaysia Research Assessment (MyRA) and Rating System for Malaysian Higher Education Institutions (Setara), to get a holistic picture. If we’re not part of these rankings, people will say, “you are shiok sendiri – you say you are good but how good are you compared to your peers?” Rankings are not everything but they benchmark where we are internationally. They give us an overall view of what universities should be looking at and help us identify the areas that need improving. They look at our academic and industrial reputation; recognition by our peers; foreign to local academician and student to staff ratios; the diversity of our faculty members; and whether our research is being cited by others. What is important is not only that we are a world class university which provides quality education, but that we are affordable compared to our peers elsewhere. The question is how do we entice more of them to come here and enrol in UM.

> What can UM improve on?Our citation. People want to see that you have worked with authors from advanced countries, well known researchers, gurus in a particular field and if possible, a Nobel Laureate. Not only do you gain access to their facilities, but you will be recognised because these people will look at your strengths before collaborating with you. International positioning is very important. We want to be invited to join associations to expand our networking. For example, we’re in the Association of Pacific Rim Universities (APRU) which involves some 30 to 40 top universities from countries like the US, Canada, Mexico, Colombia Japan, Hong Kong, China, Taiwan, and Singapore. I’m on the APRU steering committee. Rankings open doors. We are the only varsity from Malaysia that’s invited to be part of this group. Tell people what you do well and surely someone in the group will say “hey, here’s something we can work on together.” That’s how you make a quantum leap to the elite group of universities.

> Rankings are one thing but are we producing employable graduates?It will take time. We are working to develop confident graduates who are globally responsible citizens equipped with the right values. All our students should spend some time overseas because it opens their worldview. They will learn to take care of themselves and communicate better. These can’t be taught in class. You need experiential learning that is designed in a way that students don’t realise they are going through something that really changes them until it hits them at the end of it and they go, “wow that was really beneficial”.

> What’s UM’s contribution to the Covid-19 research? As a designated Covid-19 hospital, we are involved in both the clinical and monitoring work. The Covid-19 Symptom Monitoring System (CoSMoS) we came up with is used to track our healthcare workers and patients. The data is put on a dashboard daily without the need for physical checks. We’re also part of a global team that’s trying to determine the effectiveness of a particular drug in treating Covid-19 patients and we are doing work on the genome of this virus. Our epidemiologists are also studying the impact of the disease. The whole of UM is involved as far as Covid-19 is concerned – from the engineering people who come up with gadgets to help our clinicians, to students who donate to the blood bank.

> UM was among the first in the country to implement e-learning at the start of the pandemic. How has that experience been? We actually started in 2016 when we introduced e-learning week. Last year, during the haze, our students were on 100% e-learning. This year, e-learning was fully-rolled out in April. We have to make it more effective and efficient. The glitches are being addressed. Connectivity and the lack of gadgets were issues but these have been provided. We made sure that the e-learning platform can be accessed on low-tech and high- tech devices via social media or our sophisticated learning management system. The response has been positive. Attendance is much better (compared to face-to-face learning). The shy ones are asking questions now unlike before when the loudest in class would get the most attention.

> You’ve said that public varsities have to come up with at least 25% of their operating cost by generating their own funds. How’s UM doing?UM has got endowments that we can use for our operating expenditure. Whether that can be sustained going forward is the issue. Because of the subsidy system, we are not able to increase our returns by increasing the fees. The Higher Education Ministry determines fees so we have to get funding from other areas – for example, opening up our programmes to foreign students is one aspect; optimising the facilities so that others can use it during off hours; and trying to get foreign grants which allows you to improve your facilities. There are a whole host of areas we can look at but these still won’t cover the fee aspect because the programmes are more than 90% subsidised so regardless of what you get from the peripheral revenue, you will still need to rely on the government. We have not monetised the land banks that we have, but the property market is not in a very good shape at the moment. So if we want to develop these, there will be some challenges in terms of returns.

> What’s the biggest challenge in achieving the varsity’s full potential?People and mindsets. The development of academics and supporting staff is crucial but this has to be complemented with facilities that reflect a world-class university. UM has been around for a long time so some of the facilities are dilapidated and needs to be refurbished. Funding has to be consistent for us to perform.

> Three years ago, you were appointed to a hotseat that many were eyeing. What has been your biggest challenge?It still is a hotseat (laughs). This organisation has to be adaptive and agile yet it is bound by systems and processes. How do you work within the ecosystem of a public university and move it forward? How do you bring about a high performance mindset and culture? So legacy systems and not having an entirely free hand are the biggest challenges.

> The 2016-2020 UM Strategic Plan is coming to an end. What’s the way forward? We started with scenario planning last week in light of Covid-19. We do this to understand future possibilities so we can remain agile and adaptive. We have to prepare ourselves especially with technology being such an important enabler. A series of labs to address the present issues we are facing will follow. By end of this year, our strategic plan for 2021-2025 will be ready. We have to look at the form teaching and learning will take; the research areas to focus on; and how to develop our students with near to full-blown e-learning. Technology opens a new vista for us, as we are not restricted by campus enrolment. We may offer micro credentials (a certification of learning of a smaller set of courses or modules or units in a narrow area of study or practice) to expand our enrolment globally.

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