Interview

Professor Graeme Wilkinson

Vice Chancellor at Sunway University

My experience of leading Sunway University has been extremely rewarding; we have managed to treble the size of the institution in seven years and to build up international-level research capability.

ASEAN BUSINESS LEADERS: Prof. Wilkinson; you have extensive professional experience in the academic sector in the UK before your appointment as Vice Chancellor at Sunway University in 2012. What has motivated you to take on this position at Sunway University? What is your vision to keep on building the university’s capabilities and excellence?

PROF. WILKINSON: Higher education is now a globalised industry and there are exciting opportunities for individuals to build their careers and reach their full potential in an international context. From a personal point of view, having studied and worked in some of the oldest and most distinguished institutions in the UK, as well as in some of the younger emerging universities, the opportunity to lead a young and emerging university with big ambitions in a developing country was compelling. The experience of leading Sunway University has been extremely rewarding and we have managed to treble the size of the institution in seven years and to build up international level research capability. Our vision is to become a leading education and research institution not just in Malaysia but also globally. We have taken significant steps towards that and will continue to take a lot more, mainly through seeking out and appointing highly talented individuals to join us.

ASEAN BUSINESS LEADERS: You have a unique perspective on higher education policy issues through your research and professional experience in the UK and in Malaysia. What are some of the trends that you have noticed in Malaysia, and what are the opportunities and challenges that Malaysia faces in building an educational hub?

PROF. WILKINSON: Malaysia, like many countries, aspires to increase participation in tertiary education and to become a more knowledge-based economy with more high value jobs. The issue of affordability of higher education is a significant challenge faced by Malaysia as it is in many other countries. The mix of high quality public and private institutions is working well and gives more opportunities than can be provided by the public higher education system alone. The regulatory frameworks established by the Ministry of Education and the Malaysian Qualifications Agency ensure that the standards of academic programmes meet international expectations and that the quality of higher education overall is excellent. Malaysian institutions are doing well as evidenced by the consistent year on year rise of the leading Malaysian universities (both public and private) in the global league tables.

ASEAN BUSINESS LEADERS: Recently, Sunway University had received the Premier Digital Tech University award. How does Sunway University provide a balanced education in the modern technological world to make graduates “tech-ready”, and align its programmes with industry 4.0?

PROF. WILKINSON: At Sunway University we are of course delighted to be one of just eleven universities to be given the Premier Digital Technology University status. This confirms the standard of our information technology related programmes, the quality of our technology infrastructure, and the employability of our graduates; and it also reflects that we have embedded key technology related skills across the institution. For example, we have researchers using virtual and augmented reality in our School of Arts in digital preservation projects recording historical artefacts and cultural knowledge for posterity. One of our key aims has been to provide education at the forefront of developments in technology in areas such as data analytics and artificial intelligence. We also want to ensure that our students can bridge the gap between technology and business opportunities. A good example of this is our degree in Mobile Computing with Entrepreneurship in which students get the advanced technology education and learn how to apply it in creating online businesses.

ASEAN BUSINESS LEADERS: What is the role of sustainability in Sunway University, and do you take the sustainable development goals (SDGs) into account?

PROF. WILKINSON: Sustainability is central to our very existence. Our campus is located in Sunway City, a thriving modern metropolis built on reclaimed disused tin mining land, on the edge of Kuala Lumpur. We are absolutely committed to the Sustainable Development Goals and have them proudly displayed at the heart of our campus so that our students become completely familiar with them every day. We have also established the Jeffrey Sachs Center for Sustainable Development which has been set up with the close involvement of Professor Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University, one of the world’s leading authorities on the SDGs. Earlier this year we launched a Master’s programme in Sustainable Development Management which immediately became our most popular postgraduate programme. It is very encouraging to see our students embracing the SDGs and supporting sustainability initiatives on campus such as a ban on the sale of plastic bottles and plastic drinking straws for example.

ASEAN BUSINESS LEADERS: Sunway University houses several research centres and institutes that pursue research across various fields of study. Can you highlight some of their specializations and how do you attract academic talent?

PROF. WILKINSON: We now have 12 research centres and institutes plus another two established jointly with a UK university and a Chinese university. Building our research is a key part of our strategy to build a leading university. We want our research to underpin our teaching and ensure that we deliver graduates into the employment market with the most up to date knowledge to contribute to economic development. The specialisations of our research centres include materials science, energy technology, biomedical physics, and future cities, amongst others. Attracting the right talent is critical to the success of our academic endeavours including research and so we search globally for the right people and
offer support mechanisms to encourage them to join us.

ASEAN BUSINESS LEADERS: What does “internationalization of higher education” mean to you, and what are some of the opportunities provided by Sunway University?

PROF. WILKINSON: The world is becoming increasingly globalised and higher education is very much a part of that. I want to encourage both staff and students to get international experience in order to improve their understanding of global challenges, international business and different cultures. We actively welcome international students to our university and would like to see more joining us. Malaysia offers a diverse, high quality, multicultural environment for international students and I hope more will see the advantages of studying here. We offer dual degree programmes with our key partner institution Lancaster University, UK. International students coming to Sunway University can have the opportunity to obtain degrees both from a Malaysian university and a British one all in a unique location and at a more affordable price compared to education in the west.

ASEAN BUSINESS LEADERS: What is the value that Sunway University brings to its graduates and society as a whole, when we are talking about the holistic development of students?

PROF. WILKINSON: We take the holistic development of students very seriously. In many ways we want our students to become model citizens, well equipped to play their part in the development of society. We continually emphasize to them our corporate values of humility, integrity and excellence. We also offer guest lectures from distinguished speakers from around the world who provide insights on major global issues and challenges in order to broaden our students’ horizons. We foster critical thinking and analytical skills in our courses, but we also encourage flexibility and resilience to enable our students to cope in an increasingly fast changing and uncertain world.