Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Global Academic Network

Universiti Teknologi Malaysia and its partners recently explored ways to improve their research and academic partnerships, writes SUZIEANA UDA NAGU

Zaini Ujang envisions that each partner university will fit in with one of UTM’s 11 research ‘themes’

Zaini Ujang envisions that each partner university will
fit in one of UTM's 11 research themes

11 April 2009 - INTERNATIONAL collaboration may be the buzzword in tertiary institutions globally but discussions on how universities with similar interests can work together are rare. Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM) vice chancellor Datuk Professor Zaini Ujang, for one, has attended numerous meetings centred on “improving university ranking or sharing best practices on university governance”. But “very seldom do university heads get to sit down and talk about how their institutions can work together,” says Zaini, a professor of Environmental Bioengineering.

Zaini recently invited some of the institution’s long-standing partners to attend a two-day University Presidents Forum For Global Academic Network at the Skudai campus to do just that. The discussion was timed to coincide with UTM’s recent convocation week. Among other things, Zaini introduced his guests from some 20 universities in 11 countries to UTM — ­its vision, mission and future direction — as he considers it vital that the university communicates its brand to partner institutions effectively. “We may have worked with each other for a long time but (they) may not be very clear about our vision. Hopefully, by experiencing the campus and getting to know its strengths first-hand, they will be more confident of our capabilities and accept us into their network,” says Zaini. Further, Zaini also sat down with university representatives — ranging from presidents, vice chancellors and rectors to heads of departments — to consider ways of improving cooperation with the participating institutions.

Internationalisation efforts in UTM began as early as 1975. The university may not have a proper mechanism for promoting global networking then but the institution solicited advice from prominent foreign academicians on matters such as curriculum development and recognition of academic programmes. Zaini concedes that the practice of establishing a relationship with a foreign university at UTM is often done on an ad hoc basis. This needs to change. The planning of international collaborative efforts has largely been the responsibility of individual professors who do so when they attend conferences abroad. They may visit a university in the country where the conference is held to discuss potential partnerships with their counterparts. Denmark Technical University’s Institute of Environment & Resources Professor Mogens Henze, for instance, has teamed up with Zaini in water management research since the last decade. Henze and Zaini have so far co-written two books together — the Municipal Wastewater Management for Developing Countries and Environmental Biotechnology: Advancement in Water and Wastewater Applications in the Tropics. The presence of “our partners on campus has finally enabled us to design a proper framework to govern the cooperation”, says Zaini, adding that the mechanism will be improved as they “go along”.

Zaini envisions that each partner university will fit in with one of UTM’s 11 research “themes” — sustainability; energy; water; biotechnology; nanotechnology; information communications; cybernetics; k-economy; transportation; materials and manufacturing; and frontier sciences. With the new framework in place, the Malaysian university will be well placed to plan future joint efforts with each foreign institution. For example, UTM will give priority to its partner universities when sending staff abroad for postgraduate studies. “We also need co-supervisors from other universities for our PhD candidates because we don’t have enough (supervisors) from UTM. We can invite professors from our partner universities to fill the gap.” In addition, some research grants require international group effort and this underlines the necessity of forming partnerships with universities abroad. Indeed, closer ties with foreign universities will raise UTM’s international profile in line with the government’s aspiration to make Malaysia an international hub of higher education. “In order to be published in refereed journals, you need to collaborate with international peers. With publication comes citation (one of the determinants of how well a university fares in international rankings),” says Zaini.

The outcome of the forum is positive. UTM and its partners can expect enhanced academic and research collaborations. UTM signed two memoranda of understanding with DTU and Universitas Indonesia and have began early talks about future staff and student exchanges with the rest. “The agreement with DTU, for example, stipulates that it will work only with UTM in this region.” With UTM located near EduCity in Nusajaya, Johor’s next administrative centre, it is likely that more universities will choose to work exclusively with it. Zaini extended an invitation to its partner universities to participate in what he terms as the Iskandar Research and Academic Partnership which may fall under the Iskandar Malaysia-UTM Research Centre (IMREC) initiative. A partnership between UTM and Iskandar Regional Development Authority, IMREC will oversee research and creative activities in areas such as the environment, water management, energy development and nanotechnology being spearheaded in the southern economic region known as Nusajaya. One of the signature developments in Nusajaya is the EduCity, an integrated educational hub which will house offshore faculties or campus of world-class universities such as Newcastle University of Medicine (one of UTM’s existing partner universities) and University of Southampton Malaysia.

“We are happy that Newcastle University will be our closest neighbour after Singapore’s National University and Nanyang Technological University. Perhaps this will facilitate even closer ties between these universities in the future,” says Zaini.

Source: NST Online

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