Can Universities Transform?

A case study from Malaysia
By Sohail Inayatullah

Will Higher Education in Malaysia transition from the factory model to a student-centred ‘Café’ approach, the ‘à la carte’ university? Will lecturers remain mired in bureaucratic form or will they be able to focus on teaching and learning? Will blended learning platforms succeed? Will the current pushes of the future – new digital technologies, an ageing society, changing paradigms in learning, heightened globalization – overwhelm higher education in Malaysia or can Malaysian Higher Education respond to these critical drivers in ways that meet student, professor, university, industry and community needs?

These and other questions were debated in Melaka from September 24-28, 2012 by academic leaders. Sponsored by the Malaysian Ministry of Higher Education and organised by Universiti Teknikal Malaysia Melaka (UTeM), thirty-two Malaysian academic leaders –deans, deputy deans, and deputy vice-chancellors – from over eighteen different universities met in Melaka to develop scenarios and strategies for the futures of Malaysian higher education. Their future-oriented discussions were framed by the ‘six pillars’ futures approach, which is inspired by the works of Shrii P.R. Sarkar.


The overall recommendations and conclusions by the academic leaders were as follows.

First, the Malaysian higher educational system needed to move from a regimented system to a flexible, adaptive one. This means a challenge to the factory model of education where rote learning, force-feeding and surveillance are considered more important than quality, critical reflection, and academic freedom. The factory model places Malaysia at an economic disadvantage as innovation is hampered. The system, argued academic leaders, had to change – business-as-usual was untenable.

Along with systemic changes, new metaphors – narratives – are required. One suggestion was a “Café in the library.” This metaphor evokes the importance of structured knowledge (the library) with informal peer-to-peer learning – fun, discussion and friendship (the café). Another equally provocative metaphor was the symphony orchestra, where coordination and proper directing led to heightened creativity. In both cases, the regimented factory model was considered the “used future” – no longer useful for the nation’s economic, scientific and cultural development. A third powerful metaphor was ‘à la carte’ wherein students had a more central role in co-designing their education.

Second, the lecturer, while remaining multi-task oriented needed to be freed from administrative documentation and other red-tape administrative procedures that took them away from reflection, teaching and community pedagogy. “Green-tape” measures that encouraged productivity were needed. They imagined the lecturer moving from being “scattered and exhausted” to “focused and motivated.”

However, given that they are being squeezed from above (university administrators demanding that they work harder and increase their productivity) and from below (students requiring instantaneous responses to their queries), the future is far from certain for them. To map the unknowns, they imagined four futures. In the first, their preferred, lecturers are high paid and autonomous, focused multi-taskers. This was contrasted with low paid lecturers who were caught between two masters: government and private interests. In the integrated scenario, their salary is based on performance. This was considered likely given industry demands, especially for elite lecturers. Finally, in the outlier scenario, lecturers and the higher education system are unable to adapt – students go overseas, international students avoid Malaysia, industry no longer values university certificates – and the lecturers lose their jobs. They wished support to avoid the outlier and the contrast scenario and help create the preferred or the integrated.

Third, the Malaysian university system needed to wisely address the digital gap between older professors and younger digital natives (both lecturers and students). New learning platforms that placed the student first needed to be developed. While adapting to new technological platforms was pivotal, face-to-face interaction was still required – blended learning.

Fourth, the disconnection that academics feel needed to be challenged. Academics need to connect with nature, with students, with industry and with the broader community. Instead of the “ivory tower” or “the enclosed castle”, new more open narratives were sought where systems were integrated and connected, creating an ecology of learning.

Fifth, the student needed to be at the centre of the Malaysian higher educational system. In the Café in the Library and the ‘à la carte’ model of education curriculum is modular, flexible, with course content coming from digital apps. Curriculum also quickly adapts to changing student needs. Face-to-face discussions are for assessments and for group learning. As well, flexibility of course duration is required. University degrees need to be tailored for students, designed for mobility, flexibility and the person. This means a major switch in mind-set, moving away from the factory-style, one age-set model to a life-long and life-wide (formal and informal) model.

Sixth, for the futures of learning, change would be targeted into three areas: (1) for elite students, the ‘à la carte’ model would work perfectly as these students had demonstrated the capacity to design their own education. However, for the middle of the road and bottom level students – the majority – the blended learning model – the “Café’ in the library” – where there was some hand-holding was more appropriate. However, given the pressure from parents – who remembered a different way of learning – and other stakeholders, who generally have more conservative views of learning, it was important, to ensure that what was offered in the café’ (or indeed, in the ‘à la carte’) was a ‘Nutritious Buffet’. In this approach, the Ministry and the university leadership in consultation with the student body, would develop a healthy buffet of courses and possibilities. Quality control would ensure that “junk food” did not enter the buffet. They would thus ensure that content, even while student focused, still met the needs of Malaysia’s changing job market and cultural framework.

In addition, the approaches outlined were time based. Even though it is still prevalent, the previous factory force-feed model has expired, its use-by-date having passed long ago. Knowledge poisoning is the result. The ‘a la carte’ student-led totally flexible and mobile person-based model is the long term future – 2025-2030 possibly. While the technology is rapidly developing, culture lags behind. The weights of history are numerous (mind-sets of academics, hierarchal nature of the university, the parent-child relationship between the Ministry and Universities). The ‘café in the library’, the blended model, is the emerging future, as it is has a mix of top-down and bottom-up, digital and face to face learning. However, this future, even as it emerges, may not be appropriate for Malaysia’s cultural needs. Thus, the prime recommendation is the move to a model of education with the metaphor of “Nutritious learning.” It is neither force-fed, nor “all you can eat” but rather healthy eating for a healthy Malaysia: prosperity, community and sustainability.

Seventh, all agreed that the system had to adapt to changing conditions. Among those changes is the marketization of higher education. New actors are likely to enter the education market, as it is already a 2.5 trillion US dollar global industry and demand for higher education is likely to expand from 97 million students in 2000 to 262 million students in 2025. Along with public higher education, there is the private higher education market, which is estimated to be worth around $400 billion globally.

To respond to these changes, they articulated four aggregate scenarios of the Malaysian University of 2025 – they integrated the ideal type preferred scenario of an Industry-based university with the needs of the community. This created an industry-community future by 2025, using the metaphor of Café in the library. The outlier was a return to the “Ivory Tower” with eventual loss of relevance because of new actors in the university market.

Eighth, whichever future, resulted it was important to stay true to the Malay cultural narrative of “agreeing to agree,” that is, all stakeholders needed to be consulted and authentic win-win solutions developed.


These recommendations and conclusions were derived through the six pillars foresight process. This process is a structured create alternative futures and articulate related strategies. Each pillar has a number of methods to elucidate alternative futures. Most relevant for this report is the P.R. Sarkar Game. The Sarkar game was invented by Drs. Peter Hayward and Joe Voros from Swinburne University, Melbourne. In the game, participants are divided into four groups: the workers, the warriors, the intellectuals and the capitalists. Through scripts and props, they engage with each other to experience the use and abuse of power. Some groups find win-win solutions, where through acts of transformative leadership, the entire system wins. Other times one of the subgroups (the warriors, for example) eliminates the other groups and the entire system then loses. The game leads to insights into the deep structure of power and the behavior required for deep change.

Through the Sarkar game, university academics experienced how the university had moved from being run and organized by intellectuals to now being owned by the State for the purpose of national economic development. Thus, there are consistent calls from the Ministry for universities to be industry relevant, knowledge for pure research is considered far less important. In addition, students have now moved from being the workers of the system to the customers. This has meant more and more that lecturers have to teach with an eye to keep the student and the Ministry happy.

The warriors in the university tend to have become the administrators –within the university and externally through the Ministry, who maintain the traditional rules and procedures of the system. The integrity of the overall system is primary, and thus they are generally resistant to new models of learning – the Ala Carte, for example, or global digital learning – as this challenges the “traditional” paradigm of how one learns. The main lessons for participants playing the Sarkar game was that as leaders, they needed to aquire the skill sets of each group – the worker, the warrior, the intellectual and the entrepreneur. In effect, they needed to listen and adapt to the changing needs of students, administrators, lecturers/professors and the Ministry, as influenced by the world market. For the participants, they kept on playing the game until all groups reached agreement, in effect, within Sarkar’s language, there was a collective transformation, and all worked for the higher good. This was a remarkable achievement, and, explained by the Malay saying of we work until “all agree to agree.”

Issue36_Page_11_Image0001SHARED VISION MALAYSIA 2025

After considerable deliberation, through the use of the Sarkar game and scenarios, participants developed a shared vision of the Malaysian University in 2025.

The vision had the following characteristics:
1. The university was sustainable in terms of financing and energy use.
2. It was student-centred, focused on the Cafe’ in the library. There was blended learning – student flexibility and, indeed, students playing an important role in pedagogy design.
3. Lecturers had far more autonomy and were freed from administrative tasks so they could innovate in teaching and learning.
4. Measurements for success were balanced, including quality research, student satisfaction, industry relevance and sustainability.

Getting to this future did not seem difficult given the pushes from new technologies, digital migrants, the advent of the world knowledge economy and new apps. Indeed, they saw five intervening steps to get to this new future. The following illustrates the logic of their thinking.


First, a number of methods and theories are crucial to understand possible futures. The Sarkar game, for example, is an excellent way to have groups understand the roles they are playing unconsciously and then through a reflection of their leadership strengths and weaknesses move toward transformative leadership; one that represents the needs of the system as a whole instead of one particular group. The game environment allows an authentic but safe embodied experience of the different structures. It also provides a framework for actors – lecturers, deans, deputy vice-chancellors, students, in the case of this report – to audit their leadership style, and assess what they and their team is missing, and to move toward a deeper model of leadership: one that can serve, protect, innovate and create value.

Second, as much as possible, the university needs to move away from regimented “force-fed” education to other more neohumanistic alternatives. The new digital technologies allow for more peer-to-peer learning, reducing the power of often exploitive hierarchies.

Third, the “nutritious buffet” scenario was compelling for many reasons. First, it allows for increased democratization of the university, giving students far more rights. Second, given that the young mind is still learning, and given resource constraints, it is important for elders to structure (with peer to peer advice) some limits as to what one can eat. As well, given the conservative nature of the education, the “nutritious buffet” scenario is the next step prior to the more radical ‘à la carte’ future.

Even with transformative leadership and dramatic waves of change – demographic and technological – the nutritious model is likely the wisest choice. Let us see what emerges.

Sohail Inayatullah is Director,; Professor, Tamkang University, Taiwan; Adjunct Professor, Macquarie University, Sydney; and Associate, Mt Eliza Executive Education, Melbourne Business School.