Universities already feeling the impact of budget cuts

Stiff budget cuts are already having an impact on Malaysia’s higher education even as the country tries to arrest a widely held perception of declining education standards.

A 19% cut in the operating budgets of Malaysia's 20 public universities announced on 21 October is likely to hit research the hardest at a time when the country is trying to become a high-income developed nation, academics have said.

The operating budgets of the state-run universities have been slashed from MYR7.6 billion (US$1.8 billion) to MYR6.1 billion (US$1.5 billion) in the 2017 budget. This follows a similar sharp cut of 16% in the 2016 budget.

On the eve of the budget announcement, Ahmad Ibrahim, a fellow at the Academy of Sciences Malaysia, published an appeal to the government in a local daily to “not only reinstate the R&D allocation according to the formula of preceding years, but also allocate more. It is in our long-term interest.”

Reducing the allocation for research last year “did serious injustice to the momentum [in research] we have created all these years”, he said.

Ibrahim said many in the science community were “taken by surprise by the almost insane cuts” in research and development funding in the 2016 budget.

“This is because the government has always emphasised that investment in R&D is strategic for the nation. This is especially crucial at a time when we want to use technology as the platform to spearhead our aspiration to become a fully developed economy.”

Universiti Sains Malaysia cuts

Academics at Universiti Sains Malaysia or USM in Penang, whose operating budget for 2017 has been slashed by 28%, spoke of an increasing difficulty in securing research grants.

One USM senior lecturer said departmental chairpersons in faculties had been downgraded to coordinators. “Formerly, there was a monthly allowance for each chairperson. But now, the coordinators still have to do administration work besides their academic work and do not receive an allowance. So, many lecturers are reluctant to take on this task,” the lecturer said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Another senior lecturer said there were fewer research grants for lecturers and fewer fellowships for postgraduate students. “It is also harder for students to attend short-term courses overseas,” the academic said.

Others said academics on contract at the university, including those from overseas, could not renew their contracts, leading to a huge loss of accumulated knowledge. Earlier this year Raduan Che Rose, head of the National Council of Professors, reported that a third of some 507 contract professors aged 61-70 did not have their contracts renewed due to the 2016 budget cuts.

Now some good professors are offered an honorary position with no salary but are allowed to use office space and other university facilities, a USM lecturer said, adding: “It was not like that before.”

Research cuts

One of the worst hit is the University of Malaya, whose 2017 operating budget has been slashed by 20% after a hefty cut last year as well. Edmund Terence Gomez, a professor of economics at the university, said the budget cut’s biggest impact was that it undermines high quality research.

“Such research is expensive, especially in science,” Gomez told University World News. “It is difficult to get funding for research now.”

Academics are advised by the government to get external grants. But the cuts are so big and came so fast, university departments have not been able to develop the strong relationships with external funders required for such large grants.

Gomez adds that external funders may influence how the research is shaped. “This has major implications, especially in areas such as pharmaceutical research. The money comes with a lot of strings attached.”

Moreover, it is not common for corporate sources to fund some areas like social science. As for international funding sources, the application process is time-consuming and “extremely competitive”, he says.

In the past, academics’ research proposals were evaluated and if found to be viable, they would get government funding based on the proposal’s merits, not based on criteria or an agenda set by external funders.

A decade ago, recognising the importance of research, the government earmarked five universities, including University of Malaya and USM, as research universities. Additional funding for research was made available.

This resulted in a substantial increase in the volume of papers, observes Gomez, and significantly, the quality of papers also increased. Researchers were more motivated seeing that if they published sound research, they stood a better chance of securing more funding. Now “a lot of time is going to be spent looking for funding”, he said.

Tuition fees

But Gomez thinks it is unlikely that another source of university funding – tuition fees – will rise significantly in the immediate future as the government would not want a student backlash before the next general election.

Many public university students are not well off, and come from the lower-middle classes. Students from better off families usually enrol in the many private colleges and universities within Malaysia or move abroad for their tertiary education, he said. “But eventually [in the longer run], the universities may go down that road [of raising fees].”

Budget constraints have led to a neglect of basic infrastructure in universities such as the Universiti Malaysia Sarawak in north Borneo. “There is not enough space for teaching classrooms or space for examinations,” laments a senior academic there.

Apart from aging computers, “broken furniture is not fixed. [There are] no proper desks for exams; instead, chairs with flaps are used.”

The government has insisted universities must become less reliant on government for their funding.

The “corporatisation” of public universities, under the guise of increased autonomy which began two decades ago under then prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, makes them responsible for maintaining their operating budgets, though the federal government continued to provide development grants.

The corporatisation process was gradual in earlier years but plunging global oil prices since 2014 led to falling contributions from the national petroleum corporation to federal government coffers. Though a widely criticised Goods and Services Tax introduced in 2015 has relieved the financial pressure on the federal government, its fiscal deficits have persisted.

Leong Yu Sheng, the universities affairs bureau director of the opposition Democratic Action Party’s Socialist Youth organisation, said university autonomy was crucial to uphold academic freedom, and determine academic policies free from government interference. “It isn’t some excuse for the government to remove themselves from their financial responsibilities towards public institutions.”