University budget cuts a sign of nation spiralling downwards

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Greater financial autonomy for universities - but tighter controls over students' freedom

Reducing the budget allocation for public universities and yet sustaining a repressive grip on academic freedom does not make for a sound strategy, writes Linda Lumayag.

The substantial reduction of budgets inflicted on public universities is just one sign of a nation sliding downhill.

The last two years saw Malaysian public universities in Malaysia struggling painfully to operate normally, and the environment of dissatisfaction will remain so for the next year or so. It is as if we are watching them go through a period of decay that could lead them into oblivion.

The budget for University of Malaya has been slashed in 2016 by more than 27 per cent and another 20 per cent in 2017. On the other hand, Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (Unimas) had its budget trimmed by an average of less than 1 per cent only in both years (see Table 1 for comparison).

The average 20 per cent budget cut across public universities, 10 of which are badly hit (Malaymail Online, 11 January 2017), is not something to be proud of. Are budget cuts necessary? Why in particular the higher education budget?

What are the implications of budget cuts for the total operation of a public university which is under the control of the federal government? Where is now the basic responsibility of the government to provide quality education to the young generation of this land?

Table 1: Budget reduction in selected Malaysian public universities, in percentages

Public universities in Malaysia (Selected)

2016

(%)

2017

(%)

Average cut (%)

University of Malaya (UM)

27.30

20.24

23.77

Universiti Malaysia Trengganu (UMT)

23.76

6.82

15.29

Universiti Teknologi Mara (UTM)

23.72

25.2

24.46

Universiti Pendidikan Sultan Idris (UPSI)

20.78

8.85

14.81

Univerisiti Utara Malaysia (UUM)

19.31

2.19

10.75

Universiti Sains Islam Malaysia (USIM)

18.06

3.2

10.63

Universiti Malaysia Kelantan (UMK)

17.62

22.4

20.01

Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM)

17.14

27.99

22.56

Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM)

16.53

30.19

23.36

Universiti Pertahanan Nasional (UPN)

16.29

4.23

10.26

Universiti Sultan Idris Zainal Abidin (UNISZA)

13.42

0.06

6.74

Universiti Malaysia Pahang (UMP)

11.18

4.74

7.96

Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM)

11.41

29.68

20.54

Universiti Islam Antarabangsa Malaysia (UIAM)

8.11

23.02

15.56

Universiti Malaysia Perlis (UniMAP)

3.64

10.48

7.06

Universiti Tun Hussein Onn Malaysia (UTHM)

3.71

4.54

4.12

Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (UNIMAS)

1.05

0.08

0.56

Adapted from NSNBC, accessed on 19 January 2017; Malay Mail Online, accessed on 25 January 2017.

Was there collective action against the practice of budget reduction in public universities in Malaysia in the recent past? People are resigned to the idea that there is nothing they can do.

Greater autonomy – but tighter control of academic freedom?

Quite simply, there is a clear disconnect between the autonomy (or control) in the management of public universities and the disbursement or funnelling of national funds for the benefit of the public.

While the federal government finds it convenient to reduce the operating costs of public universities, the same government maintains its control and surveillance on academic freedom of tertiary institutions, which ideally should be free from political intervention.

The stamp of repression on students’ freedom of assembly and expression is still there despite the state slowly reneging its responsibility to provide affordable education for the young. The national expression of dissension via exchange of opinions in the domain of street politics on many issues that affect society and people is not welcome, and thus academic freedom of expression is stifled.

Pruning the growing dissent within the ranks of students and progressive academic staff is a sustained surveillance mechanism that does not jive with the ideal and national mandate to provide holistic education especially for the economically disadvantaged. Reducing the budget allocation for public universities and yet sustaining its repressive grip does not make for a balance equation.

While the federal government finds it convenient to reduce the operating costs of public universities, the same government maintains its control and surveillance on academic freedom of tertiary institutions…

The question is, why is it convenient to reduce the operating cost of public universities? One of the explanations proffered by authorities is that public universities have become too dependent on government funding and annual budgets have increased in the recent past.

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So what? Public universities will not be able to perform or behave like a corporate organisation without having to dismiss its sole responsibility of providing affordable but quality education to the future workers of the country. Just as we are experiencing these days, facilities are available but maintenance is poor. There is a pool of overworked academic staff as there is no budget to recruit new staff.

Budget cuts have inadvertently exposed the serious flaws of the system. The slash has also accentuated the obvious ailment that our society has been known for. It is fortifying a convenient way of getting rid of workers who are not deemed fit in a system where compliance to regulations and conformity to cultural conventions, which may not necessarily be fair and just, is a requirement.

The obvious effect of budget reductions is the non-renewal of contracts of academic staff while disregarding the basic sense of fairness that a formal institution is expected to demonstrate.

For instance, a PhD holder who had served in a public university for eight years remained a contract senior lecturer although she had been assisting the university orientation workshops intended for new lecturers, among a dossier of her responsibilities. Although she was given about four months to prepare, she was told that the reason for her dismissal was the impending budget cut.

She was not told the real story behind why her contract would not be renewed when other non-PhD holder academics had their contracts renewed. The behind-the-scene conversations that reached her was that the human resources department had received a letter from a student complaining that this particular lecturer had been espousing an anti-government position.

It seemed so surreal that she was booted out despite being an expert in teaching and learning and passionate lecturer – without any chance of a fair investigation. And the justification for her departure was budget cuts.

Strangely, in another case, even differences in value perspectives might also influence one’s future in the university. One’s personal perspective on civil and political rights in defence of the LGBT community, for instance, would be a point against the person. Sad but true. But no thanks, she is now happily working in Singapore and pursuing her dream career.

Undermining publication powerhouses

The reduction of budgets for higher education has also affected the position of foreign lecturers in public universities, and this has implications for the ranking status of universities. In the pecking order, foreign lecturers are the first to be dismissed. Together with local lecturers, they are a publication powerhouse. They are sometimes named as ISI machines or factories as they produce papers that the faculty so need. (ISI is a bibliographic database service.)

Now, some of these ISI machines have left Malaysian shores and are doing well, some of them given PR status upon joining the national university of another country. On the local scene, one foreign lecturer was recruited to fill the void of a department that had not been so successful in ISI paper publication.

Contract academic lecturers, both local and foreign, are sometimes expected (read required) to produce ISI papers, never mind if the papers do not seem to be sufficiently attractive; they are published, nonetheless. In a way, it is important that there is a record of publication even without a reading community that follows those published materials.

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Or the papers are published in questionable publishing companies where authors/academics are asked to pay a hefty publication fee in exchange for a faster route that may bypass peer-reviews or with less scrutiny.

Imagine a public institution whose interest lies in the number of journal articles published regardless of how these articles are produced in the first place or whether these papers are relevant to the transformation of our society. Not long ago, we read about an academic researcher who engaged in tampering with the results of his research work in at least four of his published papers.

‘Squeezed dry and pulp thrown away’

One’s immigration status such as being a permanent resident (PR) of Malaysia is not a guarantee that one is saved from the pecking order vis-a-vis foreign lecturers or local lecturers.

If we were to examine the profile of foreign lecturers in local universities, there are those who are in reality not considered foreigners as some of them have already received PR status in Malaysia. Again, the reduction of budget allocations has pitted them against local lecturers and even if they may have lived in Malaysia for many decades, they are still deemed foreigners.

Similarly, a public university does not know where to place PR holders. The university does not know how to categorise them even if immigration regulations allow them to exercise all the rights of citizens, except for the right to vote.

One PR holder with a PhD who has produced publications substantially shared her profound disgust when the letter of non-renewal was given to her a day before her contract expired – although she had seen the termination of contract coming, given the way the management appeared to be in cahoots with the department and the way the faculty management was sidelining her in meetings, membership in committees and teaching load allocations.

Refraining from sharing this information diminished any grounds for appeal for this poor victim. Imagine how the non-renewal of her contact would affect the graduate students she had supervised all these years?

Graduate students under her supervision strongly suggested that she should appeal, but for her the die had been cast. She was not even given the opportunity to say goodbye to the students whom she had bonded with and valued very much. There was no time to even give them last-minute instructions on who would take over their thesis supervision when she leaves.

Recalling her last hours in office, she shared, “I thought of myself as an orange fruit – squeezed dry, and pulp thrown away after five years.”

With contracts not renewed due to a lack of funds, students are abruptly deprived of sustained and unhampered assistance from academic advisers to go through the ordeal of finishing up their research projects or theses.

Precarious situation

On the other hand, staff whose contracts are renewed annually may also live a life of precariousness. An educational institution that requires continuity and sustainability of academic programmes must be allowed to operate unhampered by the lack of qualified academic staff.

Budget cuts have also slowed down the rise of public universities identified as research universities. Most research universities (for example, UM, USM and UPM) have had their budgets slashed by more than 20 per cent on average.

The lack of research funds has affected graduate students’ stipends, research assistants’ salaries, maintenance of high-end machinery and labs. Potential and upcoming scientists in the country have to suddenly stop their projects and their studies without any available options given to them.

Equipment in laboratories will be left unused, unsupervised and unmonitored and their life spans cut short due to poor maintenance. Similarly affected is the access to online library services. With the thinning of allocations for research goes the shrinking fund for library acquisition and e-library materials such as foreign journal subscriptions and imported books that only public universities can afford to procure.

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Could there be a connection between Sarawak’s open and resistant voice and the depth of budget cuts for Unimas? Based on available records, Unimas has so far received the least budget cut.

The decrease in the number of qualified academic staff as a result of budget reductions has put to test how public universities will make do with what is available. It is a certainty that the human resource pool will eventually be depleted due to the difficult search for qualified academics who have the traits required for teaching, research and scholarship.

A faculty dean, for example, may have the managerial skill to handle an academic unit but his/her research and academic scholarship may be lacking. Though there may be academic scholars who are holding contract positions, in most cases the university management does not put such contract staff in critical positions even if they may be qualified.

While the non-renewal of contracts are a direct result of budget cuts, there are also academic staff who have simply left public universities in Malaysia on their own accord because of a dire need to be free from the clutches of management control or discrimination in academic promotion and to truly experience a free and scholarly environment based on merit and skills. Malaysia has somehow lost some of these gems who once entered their portals but left out of despair and discontentment.

More foreign students = more quality?

No doubt, budget cuts have encouraged public universities to open their doors to students from other countries, made easier when justified under the banner of globalisation and internationalisation of tertiary education.

But the increase in the number of foreign students does not at all indicate that we are doing well. From my observation, international students who have decided to further their studies in Malaysia come in different categories. What Malaysia is getting are students whose strength is their financial ability to pursue tertiary education abroad.

So then, does the presence of international students in our lecture rooms improve the level of critical thinking of our own students? Are these international students confident enough to articulate their ideas in the open?

Are lecturers who are used to Malay as a medium of instruction confident enough to switch to English if there are foreign students in the class? Do local students refuse to register in courses where there are foreign students for fear of being sidelined?

What is crucial now is whether Malaysia is able to attract good and bright international students given the country’s economic and political conditions. Malaysia will be doomed if it is only concerned about the number of international students so as to increase university revenue without regard to their required ability to complete their studies.

A public good

The public university is a public good. What this means is that the responsibility to run it is under the purview of the governing state with the sole vision of benefiting society. Such responsibility primarily involves a comprehensive strategy that allows the nation – and its universities – to survive an economic storm rather than allowing them to spiral downwards at the expense of regional or global competitiveness.

A public university should be a place where young minds receive affordable and quality education that is able to embrace a new understanding or challenges in a world that is increasingly formed and re-formed by stresses and tensions.

A public university is an entity that caters to the needs of all ethnic communities regardless of political colour and religious persuasion. It should not operate on a system where the ultimate goal is to produce individuals that cannot think critically for their own betterment and for that of the human race.

Linda Lumayag is a senior lecturer at Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (Unimas) whose expertise includes migrants’ issues.

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