Malaysia’s oldest public university, Universiti Malaya (UM), wants to become autonomous from the government in 10 years, and is overhauling its approach across education, research and business.
But 2016 will be a challenging year for the university, says Professor Dr Awang Bulgiba Awang Mahmud, Deputy Vice Chancellor (Academic and International) of UM.
The government has reduced funding for the university by RM175 million (US$40.8 million) – 27% of the university’s operating budget for this year. These cuts were “a bit steeper than anticipated”, he adds.
The university has five priorities: to revamp its curriculum, improve online teaching, use data to improve services, partner with businesses on research, and become more financially self-sustainable.
Reviewing the curriculum
UM is revamping its curriculum to make graduates more employable. It already has a good employment rate, Professor Awang Bulgiba notes: 80% of the university’s graduates find jobs within three months. But it must keep up with changing businesses and new skills required by employers.
The university is working with employers to review its curriculum. “We invite stakeholders from the industry to offer opinions, have discussion with us, to say what the industry needs now and what the industry might need in the future,” he says. It is also compulsory for faculties to regularly work with employers.
It is not only looking at the kinds of jobs available now, but also new ones which might exist in 5 to 10 years’ time, he says. For instance, wearable devices will become more common. “Do we then need people who understand wearable electronics, textile and footwear? How would they be able to integrate electronics and computers into things people commonly take for granted, which are not connected to the internet?”
UM also benchmarks its curriculum against similar programmes elsewhere. “This gives us an indication of where we stand in the higher education marketplace and whether our programmes can remain competitive,” says Professor Awang Bulgiba.
Improving online teaching
Next, the university wants to change its approach to online teaching. This will involve more self-learning and appraisal, rather than uploading powerpoints punctuated by quizes, Professor Awang Bulgiba says.
“It is compulsory now for every course to have a certain proportion of coursework to be delivered online. Typically this involves just putting up lectures online and stopping at that. But we think that this is not going to be enough.”
UM wants to move towards blended learning, which involves a combination of class-based and online teaching.
Online tools can be used to engage students better – for instance, they could use social media to consult lecturers outside of class. Online tools could also give academics more time to spend on research. Videos could allow the university to continue classes during disasters, like the haze that hit the region late last year.
Classroom learning will still be important, however. “We don’t think we should remove the face to face interaction totally because it is not likely to result in a very employable graduate,” Professor Awang Bulgiba says. Time in class will be spent in group learning, discussions and critical thinking, rather than just listening. Traditional-style lectures and tutorials will be reduced, he adds.
Data to improve services
UM also wants to use data from across departments to improve its services this year. Over the next eight months, it will move to a new system for administration, which will “bring data together under one roof so it is easier for us to see what’s going on”, Professor Awang says.
For instance, it will help track when students are falling behind in courses. “We will hopefully have an easier way of assessing and discovering where students are weak and making some kind of analysis to see where they should be heading in the future,” he adds.
The new system will make scheduling classes easier as well, allowing students to take courses from other departments which they may not have been able to take otherwise. It will also help the university create new degree programmes by mixing and matching existing courses.
Generating new income
Another priority for the university is to become more financially self-sustainable. It plans to invest in new, diverse businesses to earn additional income, and rely less on government funding.
The university already owns a 1,200-bed public hospital, and plans to open a new 500-bed private hospital in the next few years. It also owns oil palm plantations which it plans to expand.
It also started a private university two years ago, but this is not profitable yet. “A private university takes to become profitable, so we are also investing in some other projects,” says Professor Awang Bulgiba.
The businesses are operated by a holding company that is owned by the university and reports to its board of directors.
Research partnerships with businesses
Finally, the university wants to work closer with businesses on research projects. UM is already the highest ranked for research in Malaysia, but wants to make sure that its research is relevant for businesses to use.
This year it will open a new research park on electronics, telecommunications, healthcare and nanotechnology. It will host multinational companies which can partner with researchers from the university.
It will also open an incubator to support new startups growing from the university, helping them kickstart their businesses and partner with established companies.
Alongside this, the university has been changing its own research approach over the last three years. “The kind of research we do is now less fundamental and more translational”, involving more cross-departmental work, says Professor Awang Bulgiba, who was previously Deputy Vice Chancellor for Research.
“The kind of research we do is now less fundamental and more translational”
To encourage cross-faculty work, “we have been reaching out and making connections between departments, and we have been changing the way we allocate money for research,” he adds.
The university has also set specific outcomes for researchers, he says. “People understand that to solve or to reach [that] particular outcome, they can no longer expect to solve a project just by themselves.”
These steps are already showing results for the university. “Our researchers now are being sought after to provide solutions to industries which do not just involve a single department or single discipline,” he says.
By 2025, the university hopes to be financially sustainable, and have a better curriculum, more engaging classes and improved research. 2016 will be crucial for the university to reach this goal.