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How autonomy for universities could move academics from their comfort zones

With applications for funding and grants becoming more competitive, self-governance for universities could nudge researchers to actively look for the resources they need.

Nur Hasliza Mohd Salleh
4 minute read
Students work in the library of a university in Johor. Research work at public universities traditionally relied on government grants and funding. Photo: AFP
Students work in the library of a university in Johor. Research work at public universities traditionally relied on government grants and funding. Photo: AFP

Kamarul (not his real name) spent his twenties conducting research and chasing down degrees one by one until finally, at the age of 29, he had obtained his PhD in mathematics. 

This was where his passion lay – in solving mathematical problems – to the point where he was nicknamed "Mat Math" by his teachers and school friends. 

So great was his interest in the subject that he continued his studies in both the UK and US, thanks to a series of scholarships and sponsorships from a private company. 

After he completed his studies, he found a job as a lecturer and researcher at a public university.

"I wanted to solve mathematical problems and formulas," he told MalaysiaNow. 

"Some of them have been unsolved for more than 300 years." 

But that was almost 10 years ago. Today, instead of solving problems and making mathematical breakthroughs, Kamarul spends his days sitting in an office, checking company profiles for audits. 

Two years ago, he said good-bye to his dreams and turned his back on the academic world. 

His experience was that research was no longer about the search for knowledge, but about "lobbying" for government funds for research.

As time went on, he became more and more determined to leave the university. 

"I'm not good at influencing stakeholders," he said. "In the end, I wasn't solving problems, I was getting them." 

For a long time now, research work at public universities throughout the country has relied on government grants and funding. 

Each year, the value and amount of funds to be given is announced at the budget presentation.

This, however, is much less than the amounts given before public universities were granted autonomy some 10 years ago. 

Even research grants have become more commercially oriented, with shorter research periods to reduce the costs and risks. 

The competition for grants and funding, meanwhile, has become more intense, at least according to Kamarul's observations.

During his last year of service at the university, he applied three times for funding but failed each time. 

Familiar replies from the university management included "limited impact" and "limited citation". 

With no funds or grants for research, he feared for his reputation and KPI performance would be affected. 

For three years in a row, he failed to meet his KPI requirements and was at the receiving end of several "reminders" from the faculty dean. 

"In the world of research, no grants and no KPI means that you're at the end of your rope," he said. 

"That was when I began thinking about other opportunities, and I ended up here at this company." 

Unsatisfactory research

Kamarul is one of a number of academics seen to be leaving public universities as they are no longer able to deal with their financial issues and the demands of faculty administrators on research KPIs. 

But Noor Azlan Ghazali, the former vice-chancellor of Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM), believes that the time has come for academics to strike out on their own for the funds they need.  

Traditionally, he said, research work in Malaysia is dependent on public funds through the giving of government grants.

He said this had led to many academics remaining in their comfort zone. 

This had reached the point where none of them would leave the university building in order to network with the private sector or non-academics, he said. 

"Academics need to get out too," he added. "They cannot just stay on campus all the time." 

Azlan said his experience as an academic and the key administrator at UKM had been that research work done on government funding was not of an adequate standard. 

"People take it for granted," he said. "'It's public money, who cares?'"

At UKM itself, he said, Sime Darby had once given funding for the university to conduct research on sustainability issues. 

He said the results of that study differed markedly from the work done by those who had received government grants. 

"If your research is funded by private institutions and people who are in need of solutions, then the work gets more serious," he said. 

"When Sime Darby gave us the money, the quality of work was totally different from that of others who were getting funding from the government.

"So don't underestimate this, if you hear lecturers say that they had a lot of money but there were no results. If your research is really serious, many from the private sector will be willing to invest." 

MalaysiaNow previously reported that public universities had been struggling with financial issues since receiving autonomy.

Academics with teaching and research backgrounds were forced to become "instant businessmen" to look for funding of their own in order to continue their research projects. 

But Azlan said the change in culture was a constructive move which gave room for academics to move their research to whichever party was interested in sponsorships and investments. 

"Going out to find funding is not business," he said. "You justify your research.

"But things like this are lacking in Malaysia's academic culture."