Alumnus v-c from the slums gives the poorest a chance

A Malaysian university's mission offers a way out of poverty for thousands. David Matthews reports

July 28, 2011

Credit: Reuters
Expanding market: The Malaysian government plans to make the nation a regional hub for higher education, drawing in students from neighbouring countries and from the Muslim world

UK vice-chancellors are soon to be exposed to the cut and thrust of market competition; but few, if any, can show off real stab wounds.

"How many knife wounds do I have?" asks Sahol Hamid Abu Bakar, a child of the slums turned professional kick-boxer, and now the vice-chancellor of a Malaysian university of some 200,000 students.

"Five!" And he proudly displays scars near his ear and on his right shin earned in his youthful street-fighting days - the start of an astonishing life that was transformed when he enrolled in a course for the destitute at the very university he now leads.

He has become a policy adviser to the Malaysian government on higher education and a guest professor at the University of Stuttgart, and he spends two hours a day responding to students' Facebook messages.

The largest institute in the country, Universiti Teknologi Mara (UiTM) boasts 12 branch campuses, three satellite campuses, nine city campuses and 21 affiliated colleges.

Describing its extraordinary mission, Sahol says: "To enter Harvard, you have to be rich, you have to be the son of a powerful personality. My university takes those who are not wanted."

Every year, the university takes around 10,000 students entirely on the basis of need, Sahol says - youths from the urban slums, and the rural poor, with no academic selection.

They are put through a six-month remedial diploma that gives them the basic skills necessary to undertake a full degree, although only the top 30 per cent are admitted to degree study.

Those who do not make the cut are given training in other skills, Sahol says. "If you put them back on the street they will get worse," he explains, adding that the pre-degree students go on to have much better employment prospects and life chances.

As well as offering places aimed expressly at the underprivileged, the university admits between 30,000 and 35,000 students a year on academic merit, and they study the full breadth of subjects in one of the university's 26 faculties.

While it dwarfs all other universities in Malaysia - "I like to say there are two universities in Malaysia: there is UiTM, and there is the rest," says Sahol - the plan is to halt expansion at 250,000 students.

After that, the institution's enormous growth will have to stop, partly because Sahol fears that further expansion could cause its 80 per cent graduate employment rate to drop.

Both Sahol and the institution he heads started their lives in lowly circumstances.

Fifty-six years ago, the university began as a training college for villagers who wanted to learn how to make ropes.

Sixty years ago, Sahol was born into the slums of urban Penang - eight siblings were to follow.

"I never had a proper home; never had a roof over my head or money even for underpants," he recounts.

The poverty was so extreme that as a youth he dreamed of robbing a bank, although he is keen to point out that he never came close to actually carrying out a heist.

Bullied in the toughest of neighbourhoods, Sahol was given some choice advice by his mother after a particularly savage kicking: "If you can't beat them, join them - and then whack them!"

Sahol took up kick-boxing at the age of eight for protection and lucrative tournament fighting, where he was able to win money either by emerging victorious or by deliberately throwing contests.

He lost three teeth, broke and bent both index fingers, and has permanent discoloration on his knuckles and shins from the blows.

Sahol's CV also includes a youthful stint guiding American GIs on R&R from the Vietnam war around the fleshpots of Malaysia. "They wanted women," he recalls.

A second chance

Despite learning to read English from old copies of Reader's Digest while sweeping up hair in a barbershop as a child, Sahol failed his high school education.

Yet he was given a second chance when a representative of a charitable foundation approached him at a kick-boxing tournament.

Sahol was sent to UiTM to do one of the very same pre-degree diplomas for the poor that he has since rolled out in the tens of thousands.

"If the university hadn't given me a place, I would have ended up as a bouncer," he says.

While studying for his degree, Sahol was dismissed twice, once simply for not working, and another time for attending a student demonstration.

But when he was given a reprieve, he says, his studies started to take flight. He won a scholarship to the University of Colorado in the US, where he did master's degrees in civil engineering and economics simultaneously.

He returned to UiTM as a lecturer and rose through the ranks, and completed a DPhil in civil engineering at the University of Sussex.

In 2004, he was appointed deputy vice-chancellor of the university, and in 2010 was made vice-chancellor.

Sahol owes far more than most to his alma mater. "I was a street kid and that university turned me into what I am now. And the university has done that for thousands."

If this is his answer to widening access, he has also found a rather direct way to put the student experience first. Around 51,000 of his students are his Facebook fans, and they bombard him with personal messages on every conceivable problem.

"If any lecturer doesn't go to class, I will know," he says. "They (staff) know the students will write to me."

He can't put an exact figure on how many student missives he gets, but jokes that there are "too many" and that they require around two hours a day to answer, even after the personal and political ones are filtered out. Sahol says he needs only four hours of sleep a night, giving him time to deal with this additional workload.

Another of Sahol's hats is that of assistant police commissioner, giving him the power to arrest any of his students, although he says he has not had to handcuff any yet.

Crime is a big problem on the university's many campuses, owing to theft by outsiders, he says, adding that "motor vehicles get 'lost' 10 times a day".

In response he has replaced the institution's private security force with real police.

In 2007, Sahol took up a post advising the Malaysian higher education minister, and helped to develop a plan for the future of the sector.

Global outlook

He is a cheerleader for the aim of developing Malaysia as a world hub for higher education, drawing in students from across the region and the Muslim world by offering degree programmes accredited by Western institutions, while still offering a good-quality local education to Malaysian students at institutions such as his.

The University of Nottingham already has a campus in the country, as do Australia's Monash University and Swinburne University of Technology.

Sahol says that UK universities have an unmatched reputation for quality, but this does not mean that other national academies are not looking to catch up, both by establishing campuses and accrediting degrees from local institutions.

"They (UK institutions) are being challenged (in Malaysia) by Australian and German universities," he says. He adds that Chinese and Indian institutions are also looking to create links.

Sahol's institution boasts plenty of research and professorial exchange partnerships with Western institutions, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Oxford, and has been using Western accredited courses since 1970.

The university is also helping to run joint master's programmes with the University of Stuttgart and the University of East London.

But what about concerns over quality? In June, Zaini Ujang, the vice-chancellor of the Universiti Teknologi Malaysia, was reported as saying that many local universities were filled with "trash" as top students chose to study overseas.

Sahol's rejoinder is that many of the university's external examiners are from overseas. In addition, he is looking to recruit 100 retired British academics for periods ranging from six months to a year over the next five years.

Many have already jumped at the chance to become examiners and adjunct professors in warmer climes. Sahol explains: "They like the weather and enjoy the sunshine."

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