(Published edited in NST Letters to the Editor Monday 3 September)

The announced development of Universiti Malaya by the Vice Chancellor Professor Tan Sri Dr Ghauth Jasmon (NST Wednesday August 29) is impressive indeed and is set as he says to “prove to the world our worth as a leading research university”.

The academic and infrastructural projects to revive the life and soul of the nation’s oldest university are massive indeed but poised to generate the revenue to sustain its newly-acquired autonomy. Apart from developing its academic infrastructure with the expansion of the UM Specialist Centre under the Medical Faculty where the practice of medicine and advanced research can be effectively managed, schemes to attract and sustain quality local and foreign staff and students will boost the university’s international standing.

With better accommodation and improved transportation facilities, student life will be greatly enhanced to prepare them for the advanced learning on campus. The university’s teaching and research will be improved with more stringent academic requirements for staff advancement and specialisation. Input from internationally renowned academicians and researchers will no doubt provide the cross-fertilization and exchange of knowledge vital for the growth of a university.

However, it must be said that while the idea of a “private university within a public university” answers the government’s call for innovation and transformation, it is difficult to envisage what and where this will lead to. For  Universiti Malaya to have a private arm offering competition in the open market will require the highest management skills and academic expertise to juggle its commercial interests with its national obligations. No doubt, the precedent has been set by the UM Specialist Centre which has a private wing for patients who are prepared to pay the market price for specialist consultation and medical treatment. A pragmatic argument is that the University Hospital consultants can earn the pay and remunerations they rightly deserve, which will prevent them from leaving the university in search of greener pastures in the private sector. Let’s hope that for both these projects, commercial and business considerations will not supercede the university’s role as a centre accessible to the ordinary person in the street.

To my mind, what is even more out of sync with the development of a university is UM’s bid to become a thriving commercial centre with a shopping mall, hotel, restaurants and business outlets. A fetching argument is that this will generate revenue and profits for the university to sustain its academic development. Presumably, the Universiti Malaya administration are inspired by international universities near centre centres, such as Assumption University in Bangkok, that have become commercial hubs which provide the general public, university students and staff with great opportunities for work, leisure and pleasure.

As a UM alumni who was both student and staff for many years, it pains me to think that the beautiful campus with its green lung and waterway will be breathing the smoke of heavy traffic and the hustle and bustle of shoppers and business people.

What university development should rightly focus on is the expansion of its academic programmes and research into commercially viable projects and vice versa. For instance, as part of the expansion of the Arts Faculty there should be a thriving Cultural Centre with facilities for the development of different museums, art and craft, drama, music and dance which will add much value to the R&D in the humanities. There is no doubt that these projects can be made economically viable if properly managed and promoted. Students and staff will grow intellectually in such an environment; much regional and international exchanges and collaboration can occur.  The public can partake of a slice of real culture so sadly lacking in much of the improvised attempts. A cultural centre will take Universiti Malaya to a different level of academic leadership and innovation instead of the staid and mundane  shopping mall project. If the argument is employment and jobs, there will be plenty of it at the cultural centre.

Malaysians, especially academicians, must stop thinking that life revolves around business and industry, and open their minds to a richer and more fulfilling development of their hearts and  minds.



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