Asia must do more to cultivate good university leaders

Asean governments and institutions have to focus on developing academic leaders to advance the region’s sector, says Norzaini Azman

六月 21, 2023
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A good university leader is a precious and valuable resource, worth their weight in gold. They are also, among many institutions in the 10 member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), a rare commodity. Across the region, there is a lack of qualified, effective academics who are equipped to helm a higher education institution and are also respected as public intellectuals capable of contributing to the development of their nations.

Institutional leaders in the region grapple with a host of complex issues similar to those faced by their counterparts across the world: from governance, policy formulation and funding to accountability standards and talent management. Yet in Asia these challenges are compounded by a shortage of qualified academic and administrative staff, inadequate lab and other essential facilities, and restrictions on institutional autonomy and academic freedom. According to the limited studies done in the region, the majority of higher education leaders lack leadership skills and have never attended any leadership training.

Where are all the female leaders?

While data and studies on gender in Asean higher education are limited, the absence of women in leadership positions is notable. Men seriously outnumber women, especially in senior academic and managerial roles. For example, although academic achievements of Malaysian and Indonesian women in both undergraduate and postgraduate education have accelerated the academic and research careers of women, higher education remains one of the sectors in which women are under-represented in both academic and managerial leadership. By 2022, only two (10 per cent) of the vice-chancellors in the 20 Malaysian public universities were women, confirming that executive leadership roles continue to be offered to men. Five of the most prestigious public research universities have a male vice-chancellor.

What research has been done on the topic offers a multitude of factors contributing to the gender gap. First, local culture might explain, at least in part, why women lack ambition to climb to the top rung of the ladder and instead settle for less prestigious posts. In male-dominated Asian societies, glass ceilings and walls have been systematically constructed from cultural and religious beliefs, behaviours and practices that encourage women to conform and to engage in what is deemed gender-appropriate work and lifestyle. Prejudices against and misconceptions about women’s leadership potential and merit are believed to have flourished as a result of gender bias and lack of transparency in the selection and promotion processes.

At the same time, men are more likely to be comfortable with intense scholarly competition, performance benchmarks, austerity cultures and unmanageably large workloads, and are therefore more likely to win promotions. Women also lack the networks and political connections that serve as sponsorship for promotion to the top level of the academic hierarchy. There are no formal development programmes in Asean countries specifically designed to build competencies in women and to open up opportunities to meet female peers, mentors and sponsors across networks.

Leaving it to chance

Programmes for leadership development are not valued properly in the region. Significant barriers include the lack of national and institutional policies on the issue, which signal that it is a low priority. The leadership development initiatives that do exist have limited financial resources, poorly equipped facilities, unattractive financial incentives for staff participation and are of questionable quality.

Identifying potential leaders is not part of the region’s culture of higher education, nor are there any institutional structures that set out a clear path to leadership positions. All this means that the responsibility lies with the individual academic to tend to his or her own development as universities continue to leave it to chance.

Hope for the future

The pressing demands for quality leadership require both a top-down and a bottom-up approach: governmental policy as well as individual university leaders must address the issue. Universities would benefit greatly from a keener focus on leadership at different levels in the hierarchy of university roles and different options for leadership pathways.

There is, nevertheless, hope for the future. A framework was recently created by the Higher Education Leadership Academy under Malaysia’s Ministry of Higher Education. It identifies 31 priority areas of knowledge and competencies required for effective leadership in the Asean nations.

If countries across Asia take a comprehensive approach and work to continuously identify the necessary skills and capabilities and put proper leadership development programmes in place, the continent will get the university leaders it needs to take the sector to even higher heights in the years to come.

Norzaini Azman is a professor of higher education at the Centre for Policy and Leadership in the Faculty of Education at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia.



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