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Transparency key to UM autonomy

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image ‘University budgets and measures need to be transparent and communication with society and the media has to be improved’ said management expert William Mobley

The revision of the University of Macau (UM) charter currently being discussed must emphasise the need for transparency on how public funding and private donations are spent, management expert William Mobley said yesterday.
UM invited specialists from all over the world for a two-day forum to discuss among other issues, the balance between autonomy, control and accountability of higher education institutions.
“It’s a permanent balance,” Mobley admitted. “Public funds are being spent so there needs to be accountability,” the visiting chair professor of management at UM said during the first day of the forum.
“I believe the key is transparency. University budgets and measures need to be transparent and communication with society and the media has to be improved,” he added.
The director-general of the Chinese Ministry of Education’s department of policies and regulations, Sun Xiaobing, agreed: “It’s very important to promote sunshine governance because there is a lot of public money going into universities.”
“Universities are introducing mechanism to publicise information. All Chinese universities are gradually undertaking a reform so that the public can supervise spending,” he explained.
One particularly sensitive sector is research, Mobley said, where spending “should be explained to the public, not hidden”. In addition society also “needs to know where the money is coming from,” he stressed.
Public money aside, “more funding for universities is coming from research projects, students’ tuition and private donations,” the emeritus president of the Texas A&M University said.
Last year local gaming operator Wynn Macau made a HKD 1 billion pledge to the University of Macau Development Foundation. In a lawsuit filed last month, company director Kazuo Okada hinted that the pledge was an attempt by Wynn to ensure the license is renewed or at least to get the approval for a Cotai resort.

Accountability search

“It’s another area where there needs to be transparency. A donor, be it an individual or a corporation, must be aware that it cannot demand any favours from that donation,” Mobley explained.
“The main difference between UM and other universities is the relationship between the university and the government, society and donors,” said Wang Zhenmin, dean of Law at Tsinghua University. “Donors must not interfere and that’s why UM needs an independent legal framework,” he stressed.
“All of that has to be made within a flexible legal framework,” Mobley agreed, “in a way that is compatible with local characteristics.” A university aiming “to attract and retain world-class talent, students and staff, must be competitive,” the expert said. And for that you need autonomy to spend money, he admitted.
However UM currently lacks autonomy, said Wang. The institution “is lagging behind overseas universities, especially in financial affairs. Every penny spent has to be accounted for,” he bemoaned.
“In order to recruit outstanding staff a university has to follow international standards and practices. That’s why we need a reform” of the UM charter, the Mainland expert said. “There are conditions to be become a world-class institution but that is being hindered by the current system,” he added.
“The integrity of universities has to be better valued,” said a former Portuguese secretary of state for science, technology and higher education. “Autonomy is the only way to understand universities in a world where human capital is a priority,” said Manuel Valsassina Heitor.
He said universities should create governing boards with external participation and supervision of independent trustees. On the other hand, public money should be made available “preferably through multi-annual funding contracts” for better accountability, Heitor added.
“Universities must be adequately supported financially but must be able to produce expected results,” said Daniel Tse Chui Wai, head of the UM Charter Revision Task Force said. “Mechanisms of accountability must be visible for public scrutiny,” he added.

Academic freedom

Meanwhile UM is preparing to gradually move into its new campus in Hengqin Island starting next year. The area will be run under Macau’s administration and according to local laws until 2049.
Both the MSAR and the Central Government have promised that UM will have full academic independence and that “is crucial” to a quality university, said Mobley. “In order to create new knowledge you have to be free to ask questions that have never been asked before.”
“Of course there are boundaries but one can question the systems of government and economic models,” he said. “New insight will come from this tension.”
“Macau has a unique opportunity to integrate further with Southern China and become one of the PRC [People’s Republic of China] windows to the world and particularly to the Portuguese-speaking world,” the expert said.
“China is evolving and for that you need good policy research,” he added. Mobley singled out as a bad example the release of incomplete findings of a straw poll on the election for Chief Executive carried out by the Hong Kong Baptist University (HKBU).
The incident led to the resignation of the dean of the HKBU School of Communication, Zhao Xinshu, amid rumours of political pressure. Zhao was also involved in the deliberative poll on the revision of the Macau press and broadcasting laws.

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