First published in Freemalaysiatoday.

KUALA LUMPUR: In the government’s quest to enhance public universities’ financial autonomy, it must ensure proper steps are put in place to prevent leakages, corruption and abuse of power.

Past incidences have proved there was a need for this, said Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs’ (Ideas) chief operating officer Tricia Yeoh.

“Experience shows this is an issue that deserves attention. Because even when the public universities’ powers to decide on their spending were limited, leakages were already happening.”

Yeoh was speaking on behalf of Ideas’ chief executive Wan Saiful Wan Jan at a roundtable discussion on the “Autonomy and Accountability in Higher Education Institutions in Malaysia” at the Sime Darby Convention Centre here today.

To emphasise her point, Yeoh referred to the Auditor-General’s (A-G) Report on Federal Statutory Bodies 2015.

In the report, she said millions of ringgit were said to have been spent in an unsatisfactory manner, “because the procurement officers at public universities did not follow procedures that are already in place”.

She then cited the report where Universiti Teknologi Mara’s (UiTM) private company, UiTM Hospitality Services Management Sdn Bhd, had paid a contractor RM5.36 million instead of the RM2.64 million that was agreed as per the contract signed between both parties.

The report claimed that there was no proper documentation on record to explain why the contractor was paid RM2 million more.

Quoting the A-G’s report, Yeoh also said that University Malaysia Sabah’s procurement officials had allegedly made the decision to split a contract worth RM200,000 “to avoid having to go through a more rigorous tender process” required by the university’s standard operating procedures.

“Situations like these point to the need for strong mechanisms to ensure the enforcement of those rules if financial autonomy is to be given to public universities,” said Yeoh.

Yeoh also listed proposed ways for public universities to have more financial autonomy, such as obtaining funds from “third stream income”, commercialisation of ideas and philanthropy.

Third stream income includes commercial activities, grants and endowments.

Philanthropy requires the kind and giving act of Malaysians, a practice which Yeoh said was far below that seen in countries such as the United States and United Kingdom, based on the 2016 World Giving Index, where Malaysia was ranked 22.

“The problem is that Malaysia’s regulatory environment doesn’t encourage charitable giving,” Yeoh said.

“If we want charitable foundations to contribute to universities, the environment must be there for those foundations to be set up more easily.

“There must be a parallel effort to encourage the flourishing of charitable bodies as a whole.”

Yeoh said the situation at the moment made it difficult for private individuals or smaller companies to set up a charitable body.

The call for greater financial independence for public universities was made by Higher Education Minister Idris Jusoh.

Following the announcement of budget cuts to his ministry last year, Idris said the reduction was in line with efforts to reduce the 70% to 90% dependence of public universities on the government.

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