“Gone are the days where the perception is that public universities have public money. We are just as competitive as the private universities”, says Professor Rose Alinda Alias. It’s a matter of survival.
Professor Rose is Deputy Vice Chancellor for Academic and International Affairs at Universiti Teknologi Malaysia. But her work sounds more like running a business than a government-funded university.
With the Malaysian Government’s introduction of performance-linked funding, she must meet KPIs to ensure the university is financed. On top of this, the government has cut funds for the university by 16% for this year.
“We have to be creative in terms of how we attract and expand our markets, and establish collaborations despite the limited funding,” Professor Rose says.
“We have to be creative in terms of how we attract and expand our markets”
To stay ahead of the competition, she will focus on four areas this year: recruiting new students, and ensuring they keep up with their cohort, graduate on time, and find jobs.
Attracting international students
Her top priority will be recruiting international postgraduate students because “a big part of the financial sustainability is [based on] the composition of postgraduates”, she says. The university uses a cross-subsidy model, with higher fees for international students and lower fees for Malaysians.
The university has strict academic requirements for admission, but wants more diversity in its population of international students. “We are not too happy with the recruitment because it is mainly from the Middle East,” she says.
Funding was another way the university attracted international students, but it cannot sustain this approach. UTM now wants to attract more government-sponsored students, she says. “We approach the embassies and ambassadors, and we try to convince the government that their scholars should be sent to UTM.”
To overcome the challenge of funding and diversity, Professor Rose is looking to developing countries in Asia, particularly India and China, to attract students. She has recently returned from a trip to meet with Chinese universities. “It went very well. They are very impressed with our ranking and performance,” she says.
She is targeting universities who want to train their lecturers. “The Chinese government provides
a lot of funding for their lecturers to continue towards PhDs,” she says.
A new curriculum
Her second priority is to help more students find jobs within six months of graduating. Employers need to be involved in shaping skills from the start, she believes.
UTM is introducing a new kind of curriculum for undergraduates, where three years are spent on campus and the fourth is spent learning with a company. “We talk about industry being the learning lab”, Professor Rose says. “We will identify which company or industry can teach students using their facilities and resources.”
“We talk about industry being the learning lab”
Another initiative is the ‘CEO @ Faculty’ programme where CEOs are invited to speak with students about their experience in leading businesses.Most recently, UTM partnered with the CEOs of Khazanah Nasional and Huawei.
A third priority is to reduce the number of students who drop out or fail. “We want to make sure the attrition rate is very very low, if not 0%. This involves ensuring the quality of teaching,” Professor Rose says.
The university is using online videos to let students learn at their own pace and allow lecturers to have deeper discussion during class hours.
UTM has tied up with MIT to train teachers and produce videos on science and math. “We are training our lecturers so that they will adapt the use of technology and expand learning beyond the classroom,” she says. The university produced seven MOOCs in 2014.
Using data to make decisions
The university must ensure that students complete their courses on time. Undergraduate degree at public universities is highly subsidised, costing the university and the government when students extend their courses. “The longer they stay in university, they deprive other students the opportunity to study,” says Professor Rose.
UTM has been measuring this for PhD students, but from this year it needs to track the graduation time every student. “We have to start tracking and looking at our data to find out how many actually are graduating on time,” she says.
But this is not the only way data will be helpful. The university is investing in a system that will feed information on every activity of students, starting from their recruitment to their graduation.
With the government’s performance-linked funding, using data to track performance will become a bigger focus for universities in Malaysia, believes Professor Rose.“We have a lot of data with us, only that we haven’t been exploiting them. We haven’t been using the data to guide us in our decision making. That should be a priority,” she says.
“We haven’t been using the data to guide us in our decision making. That should be a priority”
Looking ahead, Professor Rose has even bigger tasks. She concluded 2015 by chairing a meeting of Deputy Vice Chancellors across all Malaysian public universities. They are in the early stages of redesigning the curriculum across all public universities in the country.
The existing curriculum is too focused on technical knowledge, and is missing broader skills like communication, leadership and teamwork, she says. “That’s the usual complain we have from the industry. There‘s a 4.0 GPA student, but they don’t see those the generic skills,” she says.
The curriculum also needs to be more cross-disciplinary, so that students get the breadth of knowledge. She is also considering a national curriculum where the last one or two years of a degree programme are spent learning with a company.
UTM is already a leading research university in Malaysia. But with less funding and more fierce competition, Professor Rose must find new ways to keep the university on top.