Recently, on Feb 9, a proposal was announced the Universiti Malaya’s governing board to let a private entity develop 27 acres of irreplaceable campus land. It was announced that the successful completion of the development project was expected to provide UM with a minimum income of RM312 million plus a share of the developer's profit, whichever was higher.
All this money would presumably help the UM financially in its faltering attempts to redress its declining academic and research standards. One would truly love to buy UM’s efforts to create a giant multi-billion dollar endowment fund similar to that of Harvard or Yale but such hopes would be false.
Since when did our academics decide to go into business? If their depressing role in helping plunge our university standards are anything to go by, we would then have to expect that these same greenhorns in business will in all likelihood sell off the university’s assets and realise later that they have lost not only their assets but will then have to apply for a bail-out using tax payers money or file for bankruptcy.
This country never learns. That little piece of land was provided to the university so that they produce the best brains that will help develop this country. The land was not meant to grow palm oil plantations, mine tin, grow skyscrapers or build gated communities. But we cannot expect more from the likes of the university’s current administrators if past blunders are anything to go by.
Despite adequate land, the UM entered into a sweetheart deal to purchase the 25 storey Telekom office building at Lembah Pantai for a consideration of RM70 million in April 2006. Why would they want to buy a building located right outside their gates when they seem to have abundant prime land right in the middle of the campus?
But there you are, welcome to the warped thinking of UM’s top brass. For a university that cannot supply its students with enough water and provides patchy broadband connections when you are located right smack in the middle of the Klang Valley only shows that what requires selling is not the university’s land but whole sale eradication of the entire UM board of directors and its top administrative staff. Which makes you wonder if the Sultan of Perak is purview to these goings- on?
Perhaps UM should first focus on giving students a first-rate education by having equitable policies in the intake of both students and lecturers. This simple measure may do a world of good in raising its dismal rankings. It should also perhaps focus on reducing wastage especially at its medical campus where, reportedly, its new tower block operates without a CF allegedly as a result of shoddy construction work sourced out to crony companies.
It should perhaps also explain why it’s profitable and income generating private wing is to be remotely located at a logistically improper location by the main gates far away from the rest of its clinical services at the main tower. The completed RM25 million rbuilding remains underutilised till this day and appears to be degenerating into a white elephant. And maybe it would also be a good time to explain its foray into the botched RM50 ringgit Hospital Information deal all courtesy of the taxpayer.
But UM wouldn’t be the first university that goofed up valuable public money. In 1995, two lecturers from its economic planning department at UiTM put up a paper about buying up PKNS’s underutilised condominiums at Section 7 Shah Alam. The idea was to convert it to a hotel resort to rival other similar resorts in the Klang Valley and make money while helping train students. The university authorities bought the story but didn’t have the money.
No worries. The EPF apparently lent RM55 million to buy up the property and refurbish it to resort status in the happening city of Shah Alam. In September 1997, the Intekma Resort & Convention Center opened to the public but response has been less then enthusiastic. It currently serves to train students and houses mainly university staff who are there for conferences. No one really knows if EPF got its money back.
In December 2002, UiTM formed its fledgling medical faculty and appointed a research based professor from UKM to run it. It’s students had no proper teaching hospital and this premier bumiputra university had to virtually beg the Ministry of Health to use the Selayang Hospital. The MOH allowed the usage of Selayang, albeit grudgingly.
Till this day both the university’s local and expatriate lecturers have limited access to patients, clinics or operating theaters. No prizes for guessing how UiTM medical students are going to turn out as doctors. But UiTM has access to funds, and lots of it. They even have the political muscle. The King is their chancellor. They could have bought off Selayang Hospital, Sungai Buloh Hospital or even both of them.
But that would not be UiTM. A grandiose money-making scheme had to be connived for the benefit of all and sundry in typical Malaysia Incorporated style. The dean of the medical faculty, who entrenched himself by employing up to 70 percent expatriate lecturers, all of whom would positively appraise him annually so that there would be no complications when their contracts came up for renewal, proposed not one but two medical cities to be located and built on the outskirts of Shah Alam.
This elaborate RM1.2billion ringgit deal had apparently the approval of none other then the head of all penghulu , Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. Scant attention was paid to how in god’s name cash flows are going to be matched through Malaysian patients used to paying RM1 for consultations at hospitals. Needless to say, the taxpayer will be called in again to perform their solemn duty and baileth out yet another messed-up project if this plot saw the light of day.
Our universities will need to stand on their own feet as surely as the sun rises the next day. The days of splurging are nearing an end as the country’s resources run out. But to ask a professor who has never run a corporation or even managed the local 7/11 to hop off his chair and start getting the billions rolling into the university’s coffers would be a risky financial gamble. For that you need a highly experienced CEO and CFO who have been battle-hardened in the private sector.
You need to pay these guys well and monitor their performances like a hawk. Maybe all public universities who want to see money ought to have stints at the Help, Inti or Lim Kok Wing universities. But you certainly cannot use the same cooks who brought the university to their academic knees to go on another jaunt that requires razor-sharp business acumen. To do so would be to invite a financial calamity to our already shaky public universities.
So who indeed will save Universiti Malaya? When the Tunku was down and out after 1969, students and student leaders went out to town running him down for Malaysia’s various ills including the loss of Singapore. Today we have in our midst government-sponsored nameless corporations who are threatening to swallow whole our universities and their heritage but yet there is not a whimper.
What has happened to the students, the alumni and the famous sons and daughters this proud university once gave a future? Will they come back to save it or will they be part of the conspiracy to get a piece of its real estate?