The Higher Education Ministry’s (MoHE) recent decision to review the Universities and University Colleges Act (Auku) 1971 has generated quite a stir. Although student freedom has been the focus of much discussion, something that deserves more attention is the autonomy of universities to select their own leaders.
Generally, Malaysia follows the system in the United Kingdom, where university leaders assume the positions of the vice-chancellor (VC) and the de facto chief executive officer.
However, unlike the UK, where governing councils at universities typically conduct an open search for their VCs, such appointments are made by the MoHE in Malaysian public universities. Private universities in Malaysia, on the other hand, have a lot more leeway, but the appointment is still subject to approval by the MoHE.Universities now operate and compete on the global stage, and higher education around the world has become more market-driven. It may therefore be timely to consider attracting the best talents to run the nation’s universities, which play a pivotal role in nation-building. With the granting of greater autonomy, universities can select a leader who, in their view, is the best fit for the job based on the needs, priorities and strategic direction of the respective institutions.
This is standard practice for universities in most developed countries, including neighbouring Singapore, where five-year appointments seem to be the norm. Indeed, leadership renewal and diversity can be beneficial, if not instrumental, in bringing in fresh ideas and new perspectives. At the same time, universities would be held accountable for their own performance, allowing the MoHE to take on an oversight role.
It’s worth thinking about the type of leaders that universities in Malaysia need, and the skills and qualities required. The job of leading a university is not dissimilar to that of running a corporation with significant strategic, financial, people and organisational responsibilities.
Like corporations, however, universities come in different shapes and sizes, and a leader’s success at one type of institution may not necessarily translate to another type. Regardless, university leaders need to wear multiple hats, namely, the:
> Visionary hat
University leaders are expected to articulate a vision and provide direction, working in line with key stakeholders.
Sometimes, that direction is a continuation of the current trajectory; other times, it might be a strategic shift intended to revitalise or reposition an institution.
A university leader needs to communicate the vision and strategy to inspire employees, students, and others within the community.
> Financial hat
Large universities run budgets in tens, if not hundreds, of millions. While public universities in Malaysia generally have a more predictable flow of students each year, private universities do not, which makes financial management more challenging when income is derived largely from student fees.
Balancing the books can be challenging, and university leaders may need to explore endowments, investments, and other sources of income beyond student fees.
> Administrative hat
This involves managing teams of people and processes so that the university runs efficiently and effectively. It also includes driving positive change within the higher education ecosystem, working with agencies such the MoHE, the Immigration Department, and various ministries.
An additional element is understanding the rules and regulations that come with running a university which, in Malaysia, include Auku 1971, Act 555 for private higher education institutions, and the accreditation requirements of the Malaysian Qualifications Agency (MQA) and professional bodies.
> Academic hat
While there are exceptional cases, most university leaders themselves are academics. They understand what it means to be an educator engaging with the student community, and a researcher who is familiar with the job of winning research grants and publishing papers.
Academics who are exceptional researchers are more likely to be respected within academic circles, not least within their own university communities.
> Entrepreneurial hat
As with other industries, the country’s higher education sector is well past sunrise, and universities must continually innovate and be entrepreneurial to remain competitive.
This might include launching new academic programmes in emerging areas, setting up overseas ventures, establishing new partnerships and commercialising the fruits of research. Such bold initiatives require a leader with an entrepreneurial mindset who is not afraid to take risks.
While the financial, administrative and academic hats are the ones we tend to associate with university leaders, arguably, what the country needs most are leaders who can bring new vision and entrepreneurial endeavour.
Greater diversity across university leaders, who represent the face of Malaysia in the academic world, coupled with the infusion of new ideas and perspectives, can only help take the nation’s higher education sector to greater heights.
Prof Wing Lam is the provost and chief executive officer at University of Reading Malaysia, an international branch campus of University of Reading, United Kingdom. He has held a variety of academic positions in Malaysia, Singapore and the UK. Prof Wing completed his PhD in computer science at King’s College London in 1994. He has published over 80 peer-reviewed articles and journals. His current areas of research interest include technology and innovation. The views expressed here are the writer’s own.