While efforts have been underway for a number of years now to grant autonomy to institutions of higher education in the country, questions remain about the extent to which universities can boost their self-governance given their financial struggles, issues with administrative transparency, and the apparent dumping of corporate culture seen as incompatible with the academic world.
The autonomy implementation programme was introduced in 2012 under the National Higher Education Strategic Plan.
It granted all 20 public universities the authority to manage their resources without referring to central agencies in a bid to allow more flexibility in decision-making, including in terms of financial and human resources management.
But today, it appears that other effects have also taken hold.
For instance, academics with research and teaching backgrounds have had to turn businessmen to obtain their own financial resources to cover the expenses of their research work.
Similar problems can be seen in the management and procurement departments, to the point where facilities such as lecture halls, student residences and even faculty buildings are suffering from a lack of maintenance.
The granting of autonomy has also resulted in academics being retained on a contract or part-time basis due to financial constraints or austerity measures.
"This is the problem when we evaluate work from the outside," a senior lecturer from Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) said on condition of anonymity.
"Autonomy appears to benefit the university, but there is no concrete strategy for implementation.
"In the end, it becomes chaotic. You have to cover all sorts of costs yourself. Some of my academic friends at other universities have even had to find sponsors for faculty photocopiers. Is this a good post-autonomy paradigm?"
At the initial stage of the programme, the lecturer added, the financial sector had announced that there were only enough resources and funds for nine months at the most.
"Many came up with proposals such as selling university vehicle registration numbers in order to raise funds," the lecturer said.
"These were mainly targeted at prestigious and high-ranking alumni who would bid more."
Now, USM's registration numbers are open for bidding to members of the public as the management continues efforts to increase the university's income.
The lecturer said there was still a lot of confusion and overlaps in jurisdiction which had a negative impact on the university's development.
"For example, international students apply to be PhD candidates at the university. We, as lecturers, have no autonomy to make a decision about who should be accepted and who should be rejected.
"If we have no autonomy even in such small matters, what are we actually trying to achieve?"
The lecturer added that a lack of funds had made the university "obsessed" with receiving international students who would pay higher fees.
"There are students who are accepted who can't speak English at all. They use translators to the point where it makes things difficult for the lecturers.
"These are all the effects of autonomy in the university, and it's very challenging."
Autonomy, not business
The former vice-chancellor of Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) however maintained that autonomy was good for the future of higher education institutions in the country.
Speaking to MalaysiaNow, Noor Azlan Ghazali said while the idea of autonomy began around 2012, it was only partial autonomy.
"For example, autonomy in HR matters," he added. "But the issue that is always the concern is the financial side."
In the long run, Azlan said, any good and reputable university should be able to stand on its own.
"Universities should not be overdependent on the government," he said. "Just that in Malaysia, that's how we started."
In other developed countries, he said, the importance of higher education is understood.
"Ivy League institutions like Harvard, for example – their enrolment can reach US$40 billion. And you see funds pouring in from societies as so on.
"They feel that more for the university is better for everyone. But Malaysia is not yet at that level, so we began with government support as so on."
Azlan, who led the UKM administration for five years before retiring in 2018, said autonomy presented a positive challenge in terms of how to seriously generate income for universities.
"When we talk about generating income, it's not about universities being in business per say," he added.
"There are many ways that income can be generated."
He said it would depend on the leadership of the university, adding that issues normally arise when faculty members begin feeling as though the requests from above are instructions to "go into business".
"They get confused and they say, I am not here to be involved in income generation and profit," he added.
"But to me, I will tell them, whatever it is, generating income does not mean that you are in a profit-oriented institution. There are many institutions that are rich but which are not about profit.
"It's not about turning it into a business," he added. "You must just have a good financial understanding that everything requires funding."