Time to 'merge' universities?

Professor Tan Sri Dato' Dzulkifli Abdul Razak
Learning Curve: Perspective
New Sunday Times - 21-08-2011

NOW that the “merger” between Malaysia Airlines and Air Asia is well on the way to a new success, there are speculations about similar partnerships, for example in the automotive industry. Maybe it is time to consider “mergers” among universities too.

Ideas to merge Malaysian universities are not new. They have been voiced in forums, including that of vice-chancellors, but never taken seriously. Academics are used to the notion that their lecture halls are their castles.

This used to be one of the treasured “privileges” in the academic world but not anymore — the ivory tower is being slowly dismantled and rightly so!

The original idea of a university is largely demystified to the extent that it is now reduced to an assembly line to produce human “products”!

Royal Professor Ungku Abdul Aziz Ungku Abdul Hamid in a recent interview (The Sun, Aug 8) said: “We thought we would start two or three good universities.

But now almost every state has a university. Some even have two or three.” This, he implied, is the result of the “opening up of universities all over the place like mushrooms”.

With the shrinking of resources and many competing interests, universities are facing a tough future.

It is high time the idea of mergers among universities be seriously considered.

In Malaysia, where the number of tertiary education institutions is higher relative to vocational and technical institutions for example, the pressure exerted by shrinking resources makes managing and sustaining a reasonably “good” university (let alone the so-called “world-class ” tertiary institution) a challenge.

While Ungku Aziz mentioned “lunch box” universities that cater for the masses, as in the case of Japan, there are also well-endowed higher education institutions that are geared to shape the future rather than just provide graduates with employment to meet current demand.

And to “shape the future” requires different resources and flexibility (dare I say autonomy?) because we must often “challenge the status quo”, to quote International Islamic University Malaysia president Tan Sri Sidek Hassan.

Challenging the status quo is risky, more so when someone else is pulling the purse string, which is an effective way to maintain the situation!

One way out is to merge universities in such a way that they can be “financially autonomous” in shaping the future.

By merging, they should be able to justify their budget and expenditure to minimise – if not eliminate — duplication of resources. For instance, substantial savings can be achieved — without affecting the quality of service or education — with one instead of two offices of the vice-chancellor and top support management.

And the same goes for the various departments, certainly so, for the less or non-productive units.

Similarly, savings can be gained by sharing facilities and spaces, as well as human resources.

If properly rationalised, the lack of critical numbers of qualified talents, which is now hampered by lack of funds and mobility, can be overcome.

A merger can result in the combined competitive excellence of two universities across areas of expertise, and the joining of available support services.

This will then allow the university, particularly the newer institution, to grow faster while niche areas are still in the formative stages. It will create new opportunities and vibrancy to move forward.

When Victoria Manchester University and the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology merged some years ago to form University of Manchester, the then president and vice-chancellor Professor Alan Gilbert (2004-2010) recognised that the decision to transform a “very good university into a world leader” was “always going to involve genuine, effective ‘re-profiling’, not just spectacular growth”.

He said: “So while we continue to recruit researchers, scholars, teachers and support staff, and invest in those already here, we must also find ways to enable other colleagues, less comfortable with Manchester’s ambitious ‘step change’ agenda, to leave the university voluntarily and with dignity.”

Gilbert’s success in navigating the merger is proof enough with the establishment of the Alan Gilbert Memorial Fund to commemorate his vision of shaping a new university.

Personal legacy aside, the merging of universities has its own merit and rationale in challenging the status quo as part of the strategic move to remove them from the “lunch box”.

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