A Transformational Role for Our Public Universities

May 20th, 2012 | by MuslimScience
A Transformational Role for Our Public Universities

By: Tan Sri Dr. Omar Abdul Rahman

At the 34th convocation of UPM in October 2010 in my “ucapan balas” for the conferment of emeritus professorship of the university, I had suggested a defined new role for our public universities in line with current emphasis in national development.  Because they are expected to, and in the position of contributing to the government’s socio-economic transformation program, I had suggested they be called transformational universities (TUs).  What prompted me to do so was also the active discourse on the changing role of universities that has been going on for a number of years in academic circles in the West.

For example, during a talk in Kuala Lumpur in July 2007, Prof. Tim Wilson of the University of Hertfordshire had described his university, as well as a number of other “new wave” universities in the UK, as business-facing universities.  These have the following features: delivering education through a business perspective, running courses designed with industry input, adopting a “revolving door” approach to business, leading in a partnership with businesses for economic and business development, supporting entrepreneurship, promoting user-driven R&D, credited business internship and placement for students and deriving revenue from commercial activities.    The older UK universities such as Oxford and Cambridge were implied as being academic facing.   My view is that most universities now are a mixture of both academic and business facing.

Richard Levine, writing in Newsweek magazine in August 2006 had described a number of “global universities” that “have become more self-consciously global: seeking students from around the world who represent the entire spectrum of cultures and values, sending their students abroad to prepare them for global careers, offering courses of study that address the challenges of an interconnected world and collaborative research programs to advance science for the benefit of all humanity”.   The top five global universities were American; Cambridge and Oxford came in at 6th and 8th respectively.   Two Japanese and two Australian universities were included in the top 40.   NUS Singapore at 31st position was the only Asean university.

Similar to the global university concept is the third generation university (3GU), described by Prof. J.G. Wissema of the Delft University of Technology, Netherlands, in his book “Towards the Third Generation University” published in 2009.  3GUs are characterized by active competition globally for best students and academics and for research contracts, carryout interdisciplinary research that focus on specific global market or a global issue, persue the exploitation or commercialization of the results of their research and encourage the development of technostarters (technopreneurs) from among their students and faculty.  Because of the importance given to commercialization, elaborate organization and management structure for this purpose has evolved.  MIT and Cambridge are among the examples given of 3GUs, while the Institut Teknologi Bandung is an example of a university in transition to a 3GU.


Despite this trend towards global engagement, there was an argument for UK universities to focus more on the local community, on the top of their regional or global interest.   Prof. John Goddard of Newcastle University had in 2009 called for “re-inventing the civic university”.  He called for all public-funded universities in UK “to have a civic duty to engage the wider society … in a manner which links the social to the economic …”; for “an institution-wide commitment … to embrace teaching as well as research, students as well as academic and the full range of support services”; and for “a comprehensive response from universities … to the future needs of all parts of UK”.   His proposal, according to Goddard “finds a parallel in the tradition of US land-grant institutions, which have …a duty to develop the communities in which they reside…”.    Newcastle University is given us an example of a born again civic university.    On the face of the changing views of the role of universities, what is then the situation in Malaysia?

I recall that UPM was established on the model of the US land-grant colleges whose functions were teaching, research and extension.  The last named was a major activity of UPM and facilities for practical aspects of agriculture and animal husbandry were extensive in order to serve well its constituency – the farming community.  When UPM changed its name from Pertanian to Putra, the above facilities were largely dismantled and the extension service discontinued.  UPM became, like other Malaysian universities involved in teaching, research and service.   However, UPM is now repositioning itself as  a leader in the new agriculture, implying the application of hitech and modern management practices for higher productivity, high value add agribusiness and sustainability.

Five Malaysian public universities are now classified as research universities (RUs), one of whom being also the apex university.   All have strengthened their infrastructure for science, technology and innovation (STI) and their effort in research, development and commercialization (R,D&C).   They are also developing the organization and management structure for R,D & C in the manner of the 3DU described earlier, but with less global engagement.   Our RUs are therefore in a good position to contribute directly to the national socio-economic transformation program.   This is one major attribute of a transformational university that I had proposed, the other being a holistic human capital development.

Holistic human capital (HHC) development means, the development of the full human potential comprising “a portfolio of different skills and assets” required by both government and industry to create a nation of high competitiveness.   HHC embraces intellectual capital (strategic thought process), skill capital (technical competency), social capital (inter-personal skill, communication, cooperativeness, smart partnership), entrepreneurial capital (creativity, innovativeness, entrepreneurship, managerial), physiological capital (commitment, passion, dedication, self-belief) and spiritual capital which includes ethical values and integrity.

The HHC components can be delivered either formally as part of the prescribed courses or non-formally through the creation of a conducive campus and classroom environment.  For example, elements of entrepreneurship and management can be incorporated as part of core for all courses.  The ethnic composition of our students together with the presence of foreign students on campus can be harnessed to enhance the social and physiological capital.

Success in developing HHC will produce knowledge workers of a superior kind.   They will have the ability to provide solutions, working alone or in a team; a core competency with creativity and innovativeness; high motivation, adaptability and capacity for life-long learning and re-learning and to master new skills; courage to become a technostarter and for risk taking, for working boundryless and borderless and with work ethics based on smart partnership principles of respect, trust, transparency and tolerance.  The HHC development will create an innovative and creative workforce, an essential element for success in the innovation economy.

Unfortunately the task of developing the HHC cannot be the responsibility of the university alone.  It has to begin at home, carried through the school system and eventually at the work place.   However, the TU does not have to wait until all are in place.  It can start designing programs and creating the ecosystem right away.

In summary, a transformational role for our public universities implies a bigger commitment to the national socio-economic transformation programme, through two major initiatives; firstly a holistic human capital development contributing to a creative, innovative and civilized workforce; secondly an enhanced capacity for excellence in STI and for R,D&C contributing to both capacity building and wealth creation.

The author is a former Science Advisor to Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed of Malaysia.



1) John Goddard (2009) – Re-inventing the civic university. National Endowment for Science,Technology & Arts (NESTA),UK – Provocation 12, October 2009

2) Richard Levine (2006) – World of Knowledge.  NewsWeek, August 21, 2006.

3) Tim Wilson (2007)   –  pers. comm.

4) J.G. Wissema (2009) –  Towards The Third Generation University – managing the university in transition – Edward Elgar Pub., Cheltenham, UK