“Never in my wildest dreams did I expect to be a deputy vice-chancellor,” said Saran Kaur Gill, who fulfils just that elevated role at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, where she runs industry and community partnerships. She is also executive director of the regional university network AsiaEngage, which was launched last week.
Gill, a professor in the school of language studies and linguistics at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM), started out some 30 years ago as a basic language instructor, and reflected modestly on her impressive career progression: “If I can do this, then anyone can,” she said.
Her role is unique, though. UKM, sited on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, is one of five universities in Malaysia with a deputy vice-chancellor in charge of civic engagement. The post was created by the Ministry of Higher Education in September 2007 to link the university with industry and communities.
The wider Asia region is the beneficiary of this and of Gill’s strong belief in what she is doing.
Among other high-powered international roles, she has been the originator and driving force behind AsiaEngage, a platform by means of which a group of ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations) universities as well as Asian higher education institutions, regional networks and programmes share expertise, knowledge and experience in community engagement.
The aim is to replicate successful models and best practices existing in universities in order to strengthen the civic role of universities across the region.
AsiaEngage’s first “Regional Conference on Higher Education-Industry-Community Engagement in Asia: Forging Meaningful Partnerships”, held from 7-9 May, was hosted at UKM.
Speaking to University World News at the conference, Gill said: “As long as a university shows an interest in community engagement, we will bring it on board to AsiaEngage so we can help with capacity building and the development of its community engagement initiatives.”
Working with industry challenges academics to come up with original and attractive ideas and proposals, she added. “You have to talk to industry about ideas that will really excite them.”
UKM strives to ensure that the knowledge of its academics is applicable to and benefits communities, and is also aligned with the university’s overall mission to contribute to nation-building.
Gill talks enthusiastically about case studies, including the Green Rose programme, a university collaboration with the PINTAR foundation to communicate the impacts of climate change to primary-school children. PINTAR is the philanthropic arm of Khazanah Nasional Berhad, Malaysia’s national investment holding arm.
She cites leadership as key to successful partnerships. “An opportunity can only be translated into concrete reality if the leader is flexible, adaptable, able to meet tight deadlines, take instruction and develop a relationship that encourages knowledge sharing.”
Leaders must also be able to express knowledge with technical accuracy and in ways that have an impact. “It is essential to be sincere and giving, and to be able to develop trust and forge relationships with confidence,” Gill added.
“After all, as pointed out by the ministry, my role is to integrate engagement with communities and industries, to enrich and support the research, education and service missions of the university. And it is extremely valuable that we do this by giving with our hearts, hands and minds, back to society.”
“Because it was a new portfolio, no-one knew what to do with me, and neither did I have a clear direction. I also did not (at the time) have clear lines of authority over any of our students, researchers, staff or communities.”
Speaking of the management challenges, she said: “When you are given a new portfolio at the highest management levels, and the other portfolios have been in existence for over 20 years, you have to work collaboratively.”
But she defines her role as being a supportive one in which the industry and community engagement side of the university supports and engages education, research and services. However, “walls and territories need to be swept away and multidisciplinary and multiresponsibility initiatives built,” she said.
“I had to convince and persuade academics of the value of this field. I had to show them what we could do for them. It was not a situation of ‘Do as I say’. Instead it was ‘Work with us and we will be able to add value and strength to what we can do for you and society.’”