Like Oxford University, our local universities can be leading centres of education, not just regionally, but also globally, provided they meet the prerequisites.

HIGHER Education Minister Datuk Seri Idris Jusoh caused a stir earlier this year when he said that, in future, Malaysia’s public universities can be among the best in the world, even on par with Oxford University.

Many people were sceptical but some, including myself, were less so. Having graduated from Cambridge and been on the faculty at Oxford and London Business School in the University of London, I have reason to be sceptical, but having experienced world-class institutions first-hand, I also have reasons to be more positive.

At a dinner with two other senior academics, I asked what they thought of the idea. Could Malaysia produce a world-class university on par with Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard or Yale? After a short pause for thought, all three of us agreed that, yes, Malaysia could do this, but only under certain conditions.

FIRST, you have to get truly world-class academics into one place. Currently, Malaysia’s world-class academics are spread throughout the system or across the world. To get the right people, we can draw on the many Malaysians who are already from world-class universities.

There are thousands of Malaysians who have graduated from Oxbridge and Ivy League institutions over the years but have no options to work in equally good institutions at home. By creating a single world-class university, offering the right balance of high-quality teaching, generous research time and merit-based opportunities, these world-class Malaysians can be encouraged to continue their careers at home.

SECOND, you have to create the right ethos, both within the institution and amongst its stakeholders. Getting the right ethos involves creating a drive for self-motivation in a work-hard-play-hard environment.

World-class academics see, “Excellence in Everything”, as the first and last criterion. Excellent institutions are open, tolerant and merit-based. They are intellectually driven, and both challenging and rewarding in equal balance. Internationally oriented, they are not defeatist when facing competition from abroad, but take an active part in the global academy, leading when possible and never following passively.

THIRD, you have to have academic freedom. Autonomy is prerequisite. Governance systems must be accessible, transparent and accountable. Academic freedom for faculty and students is sacrosanct. This includes the freedom to challenge the conventional wisdom without compromising your career and active discourse within professional parameters, based on intellectual merit, not self-censorship.

All of this requires the right leadership. Senior appointments should be open to the market and made in a transparent way. The credibility of a world-class university is not based on the Vice Chancellor alone but on its collegiate community as a whole – but a good leader is always good to have. We should also be clear that money is not the issue.

The Malaysian government has been very generous in funding higher education, and, even in the private sector universities such as Universiti Teknologi Petronas (UTP), have assets in excess of RM1 billion. Management, not money, is the key to world-class higher education.

It is also not a lack of people since there are many Malaysian graduates of world-class universities ready and available to create a home-grown equivalent. Nor are top academics primarily motivated by salary.

Research on the “brain drain,” by the Penang Institute showed that social conditions, personal and professional freedom and opportunities for career development are more important. These are just the things that an independent, world-class university can provide if properly motivated.

Examples from elsewhere in the region are manifold. The Australian National University, founded in the 1940s, has become one of the leading universities in the world by bringing top Australian academics into one place and aiming high.

Having a world-class focal point can also create positive spillover effects for nearby institutions. For example, Singapore saw their National University of Singapore (NUS) ranked 12th and neighbouring Nanyang Technological University (NTU) ranked 13th in the latest QS World University Ranking.

Singapore’s youthful NTU, which was inaugurated only 24 years ago, ranks first in the 2014 QS University Rankings: Top 50 Under 50 years old. So, being a young university is also not a barrier to world-class status. In fact, 13 of the Top-50 Under 50 universities are here in Asia, each facing similar challenges and opportunities as Malaysia.

To create a world-class university, it takes a strong vision, excellence in management and determined effort from everyone engaged in the mission.So the question is: Does Malaysia have the will to do this? Judging by Idris’s statement the answer is yes.

The writer is deputy vice-chancellor at Universiti Tun Abdul Razak and professor in the Graduate School of Business. He is a visiting fellow at the Penang Institute specialising in Higher Education
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