KUALA LUMPUR, Jan 11 ― The austerity drive in public universities has resulted in a conundrum between providing quality education and working within a much tighter budget compared to previous years.
Under Budget 2017, public universities will see their combined operating budgets slashed by about 19 per cent, or RM1.5 billion, a bigger cut than last year’s budget, and out of the 20 public universities in Malaysia, 10 of them will be facing massive cuts ranging from over 10 per cent to over 31 per cent.
Higher Education Minister Datuk Seri Idris Jusoh has reportedly said that public universities have become too dependent on government funding, and that a decade ago, it was a fraction of what was now given.
But what do the budget cuts mean? What is the feasibility of public universities sourcing out alternative funding? Will it compromise the quality of education being offered in varsities?
Seeking funds in turbulent times
Professor Emeritus Datuk Abdul Rahman Embong believes that public universities should be allowed to continue providing education and training and serving the community as best they can, and that reducing their operating budgets will affect this.
“Reducing the budget for public universities and demanding that they raise their own funding has the effect of turning the principle of education as a public good on its head.
“I would like to state a fundamental principle that education is a public good, and that it is the responsibility of the government who is supposed to represent the public interest to ensure it is offered to the public from the judiciously managed taxpayers’ coffers,” Abdul Rahman, who is adviser to the Malaysian Social Science Association and Principal Fellow at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia's (UKM) Institute of Malaysian and International Studies (IKMAS), told Malay Mail Online in an email interview.
He said that while some universities will find ways to cope with the budget cuts by collaborating with each other in terms of aspects like facilities, there will be a tight race between varsities to source out alternative means of funding.
“Some will succeed while some others will not be as lucky. It is a crowded market out there with hopeful fund-seekers while funders hold tight to their purse especially during these turbulent times,” he added.
Azmil Tayeb, a senior lecturer with the Universiti Sains Malaysia's (USM) School of Social Sciences, said that the cuts have resulted in university staff being deprived of basic work needs like office telephones and desktop computers.
“A few lucky ones get hand-me-down computers that have seen better days and in most likelihood slow and near obsolete. As the minister has clearly stated, he wants public universities to depend less on government and increase alternative sources of funding.
“That statement in itself is acceptable but the drive for alternative funding should not be done at the expense of diminishing the main function of a public university as a public good serving as the engine for social mobility for the less fortunate. Public universities should not be run as a business entity, where only the bottom line matters,” he told Malay Mail Online in an email interview.
Citing an example of an upcoming event between USM and Bournemouth University in the UK, Azmil explained how a cut in operating expenditures affects possible collaborative work between public universities and their international counterparts.
“The event will be held in Penang at the end of March and there's no allocation for it. It's a great opportunity for USM to establish an international network and expose our students to ideas from outside.
“Raising funds for this event has been very challenging as we try to scrape together contributions from both public and private sectors, which, as it stands now, is still insufficient,” Azmil, who is in charge for the event, said.
He added that USM might have to forgo many collaborative opportunities in the near future due to a lack of funding.
How cuts affect research work, education quality
According to UKM's Abdul Rahman, the financial cutbacks have made it difficult to secure government research grants which are already limited. This means that researchers would have to rely on outside funding, including those offered by international agencies.
“While this is not a new ball game for some research institutes and researchers who have established strong reputation and networks, this is a new ball for the public university as a whole, and for younger researchers,” he said.
Abdul Rahman said that science and medical faculties that require expensive labs and instruments will be directly affected, as well as the social sciences and humanities who have often been sidelined in terms of research grant allocations.
“There is also the cut back on various types of expenditures such as on operations, research, seminar, conferences, etc. The purchase of books and journals for libraries will be more stringent.
“There will less money for capacity building of younger scholars. There will also be an increased demand on lecturers and professors to look for funds,” he explained, adding that their KPIs are now being measured in terms of the amount of grant money they can bring in.
“Students will also be affected because of the lack of funds to facilitate their research, and they will have less opportunity to work with their supervisors as research assistants because funds are drying up.”
Hiring freeze, senior staff let go
The budgets cuts affect the academic staff the most, where there is a hiring freeze of new academic staff while some seniors have to retire as they have not been offered a contract to continue.
Azmil says this means that lecturers have to teach extra classes to make up for the lack of staff, even those that are not within their area of expertise.
“In the end, overworked lecturers teaching unfamiliar courses or lack of course offering can only lead to the quality reduction of the overall education. Not to add, lecturers who are overburdened with teaching duties can hardly find any time to do research, write and publish, which can be detrimental to our professional development,” he said.
When asked about this, Abdul Rahman said that one of the issues arising from the hiring freeze is the question of succession and maintaining standards among faculty members.
“Many of those who are ‘laid off’ or whose contract is not renewed are the most experienced, talented and reputable scholars. It takes time and painstaking mentoring work by seniors to mould the academic character as well as nurture talent and reputation among the younger generation,” he said.
But he stressed that this did not mean that the younger academic staff in universities were not good, saying they possessed the ability and potential to succeed in their respective careers.
“But they need to be inculcated with the right kind of values and culture to serve as the core of their character and talent. They also need an enabling environment and experienced and talented seniors who can give them guidance and advice,” Abdul Rahman said.
Faisal Hazis, Senior Fellow at UKM's IKMAS, said that many good academics have already left the country and taken up employment in countries like Japan, Singapore and Australia where their talents and abilities would be better appreciated.
“In many academic fields, there is brain drain. There's a lot of good academics who have left the country, especially those who conduct critical research which might not be appreciated by local universities and they would not be able to see their careers develop here,” he told Malay Mail Online when contacted.
He questioned the quality of some of the lecturers in local universities, adding that budget cuts did not address the culture of dependency prevalent in many local institutions.
“The government has partly nurtured a culture of dependency, where they [academics] expect research grants, and especially ministry funds and this has been rooted for decades.
“For you to suddenly reverse the culture, it takes time. I can see the rationale of doing so, but taking such a drastic action puts the question of the government's priority,” Faisal said, adding that some government departments have not suffered any budget cuts.