A case of ‘audititis’

PERSPECTIVE: A case of ‘audititis’

Professor Tan Sri Dato' Dzulkifli Abdul Razak
Learning Curve: Perspective
New Sunday Times - 07-08-2011

ACCELERATING the Accelerated Programme for Excellence (APEX) may sound like an oxymoron. In reality, this is not the case. The recent announcement that Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) will get its full autonomy status only by 2015 is a case in point.

When APEX was mooted in August 2007 by the then Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, it was characterised by 3As: Autonomy, Accountability and Audit.

As mentioned several times in this column, the last two have been implemented without many problems.

The university knows that Accountability and Audit are important for a public institution funded by taxpayers’ money as allocated by the Parliament.

Since USM was designated an APEX status university — the only one in Malaysia to blaze the trail — it has undergone no less than seven types of audit, so much so that we jest among ourselves that it suffers from “audititis”. A sense of humour helps when it comes to an audit as tension can be high.

This is especially so when it comes to the “tick-box” audit where auditors insist on a rigid set of criteria to be imposed on the university without consultation.

We are then faced with a “comply-or-else” mode of auditing — one that is best done on an assembly line involving a strict regime! Non-human products from a factory fit this model well as part of the quality control mechanism.

Those that do not comply can be discarded, and it is cheaper than trying to repair or remake them.

In the case of human beings, the tick-box is the wrong approach unless we want to turn them into robots (human capital?) which fit tightly into rigid criteria, if this is at all possible.

It makes sense to tailor requirements to the needs, vision and mission as well as values of the institution being audited.

Otherwise, the “audititis” becomes full-blown with emotions becoming inflamed as a result of a one-size-fits-all regiment. No creativity is allowed, let alone autonomy! Fortunately, this is not always the case. Some auditors are very enlightened and value, flexibility and creativity as part of the quality measures.

One audit, which deserves mention, is the Academic Performance Audit (APA) conducted last year.

The exercise was well-executed in trying to fathom how APEX should and must be different from other Malaysian universities. It was able to provide guidance through its detailed reports and findings.

The USM APEX 2010 report card is available on USM’s website (click on Key Transformation Documents) for the public to inspect. Transparency is part of Accountability which characterises the APEX agenda.

So it is not baffling to read that one of the APA recommendations is to engage with the relevant authority in the attainment of full autonomy as soon as possible.

Indeed, the panel recognised that USM has internally implemented autonomy to fast-track its transformation and able to handle its autonomy.

That an independent panel of experts has been appointed by the Higher Education Ministry to make observations and recommendations is significant to the accomplishment of the APEX agenda by 2013.

The blanket announcement that autonomy is only possible in 2015 is strange because it contradicts the deadline set by the Ministry itself! The first half of the APEX timeline is over; the university has been struggling to keep its promises, without any form of autonomy, deviating from what was promised earlier.

Shifting the autonomy goalpost to 2015 would mean the next half of the schedule will face the same struggles, retarding the APEX process further.

It is worthwhile to note that the negotiation for partial autonomy that started in earnest in 2009 was only gazetted in July 1, 2011.

So much for acceleration! Nevertheless, we will remain steadfast as “failure is not an option” and we will do the utmost to see APEX delivered on time! Our only wish is that the much-touted autonomy can be delivered in time as promised so that APEX will see the light of day!

* The writer is the Vice-Chancellor of Universiti Sains Malaysia. He can be contacted at vc@usm.my