IGNITE interviews Prof Christine Ennew, Provost and CEO of UNMC

After more than 30 years of service to the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus, Provost and CEO Professor Christine Ennew leaves to become the next Provost of the University of Warwick. Before she leaves she shares her thoughts and experiences with IGNITE. 


Back when you became the provost in 2013, what were some of the challenges you faced?

The biggest challenge was securing a shared view as to where the university was going. Key individuals did not have this shared vision and we had not clearly articulated what we stood for. In the end, the outcome was the UNMC Strategic Roadmap 2013 – 2020 and coming up with that involved dialogues with a lot of people and repeated rounds of consultation and drafting before it was finally launched in October 2013. The ideas articulated were quite similar across the board; we wanted to be an elite university, excellent, inclusive, good at research, international and participatory in our outlook and we also wanted to be aware of our responsibility to the community. The ideas were nothing surprising but it was getting it down as a formalised, tangible plan that made the difference. It also gave us something against which we could measure our progress and that was helpful.

Some of the other challenges were about improving quality, enhancing student experience, around growing competition as is inevitably the case in Malaysia and all the other things that come at you from the regulatory environment about issues like approval for new courses or visa problems. They all keep you on your toes.


What were the highlights of your career at UNMC?

The event we had with the staff to launch the strategic roadmap. I have also really loved many of the student events that I have been involved in. I remember being persuaded that I would get up at half past five on a Sunday morning to come to campus to set off the charity run. I don’t quite know how that happened – but actually it was a great feeling. The thing that’s the real buzz for me are the things that involve people and create a sense of community and that is true of all the student and staff events. You get a really nice feeling and I like that sense of community here at UNMC. But there’s no one thing that would be the highlight, it would be a number of things.


You’ve stated that UNMC aims to provide a “Nottingham style experience” in Malaysia. Has UNMC achieved this goal?

Well I think you should probably tell me maybe (laughs). Our rating in the Nottingham Student Experience Survey has gone up quite consistently so much so that we’re quite close to our targets for 2020. That is really encouraging and what it’s telling me is that we’re getting stuff right in terms of the educational experience. One of the nice things here is that it’s much smaller so there’s an intimate atmosphere and you know and can interact with more people and we are able to give you the space to think independently. And we can see from the grades that our students do every bit as well as the students in the UK or China. I think we’ve got a lot of elements of the British higher education and others as well. So we’re not just taking Nottingham out of the UK and placing it in Malaysia but we’re adapting and adjusting it to suit the context. There are lots of things we would like to do that are the same but also things that we would want to do differently, so we achieve the same outcomes but through different routes.


How would you describe your managing style?

I am very much a people person. I’m probably a relatively emotional or instinctual decision maker. I’ve taken those leadership profiling questionnaires and while I am somewhat skeptical of them, they have been pretty consistent about me; that I’m people focused and instinctive in my decision making. I’m driven much more by my concern for people than the process necessarily. Fortunately I’ve got other people around me who are concerned about process and one of the things about trying to understand yourself is that there is no right profile or a perfect profile, we’re all different but if you understand a bit about the things you do well and your weaknesses then you can start to think about how to build a team with people who have strengths that match your weaknesses. My weaknesses are probably the same as my strengths in that I think more about people and am not great on detail. I tend to rely on others for detail and I’ll do the bigger picture. The danger is that you make decisions based on how it’s going to impact a certain person rather than on what may be the right choice. But it’s also a strength because I think about people. So then you need complementary people.


What do you think will be the main differences between managing UNMC and Warwick?

There is a greater degree of bureaucracy in Malaysia and a lower degree in organisational trust. So in terms of the processes that one has to follow in Malaysia, they operate on the assumption that people will take shortcuts if they can and therefore they need to be checked up on. On the other hand I start off from a different assumption; that most people will do the right thing. So there’s a lot more tedious detailed checking and double checking here. But then again I would say that because as I’ve told you, I don’t like detail. On the other hand,

I’m always impressed by how quickly you can get things done here as compared to the UK sometimes.

There is a different perspective on time. Case in point, you emailed me on Friday morning and I said I was free that afternoon or Monday morning; that would never happen in the UK. It would be like, well I’ll find you a slot in the diary three weeks from now. The diary gets filled up fast because things get put in way in advance. UNMC is more spontaneous perhaps in terms of long term planning. So it does mean that you can do things remarkably quickly at times. So it’s a mix of frustration at the bureaucracy and slowness and at the same time things happen quickly in an agile and adaptable manner. Each has pros and cons.


Prof Ennew at her old office at Jalan Conlay, in 2000.

Another challenge, would be with how each organisation works in their own way. I know Nottingham and its history right back till 1999 when I first became involved with it so I’ve got all that organisational memory and that is quite nice. But with this change, I’ve got to stop thinking that that is how we do things at Nottingham and learn to change. I will have to learn the intricate details and nuances of how Warwick works. So it is not harder, just a new challenge.


Nottingham UK is a public research university while UNMC is a private enterprise. How has this impacted management decisions?

Well something of note is how we usually talk about the UK university as public, but it is actually private; in the sense that it is a publicly funded private institution because it receives a minimal amount from the government. UNUK probably gets about 20 – 25% of its income directly from them. The biggest source is student fees, some of which is indirectly from the government through scholarships. Some of it is from students themselves, some from research. In UNMC all of the funding is from private sources. So therefore UNUK has the same imperative that we have in terms of finances which is they need to be making enough of a surplus for future investment. UNMC operates on a not-for-profit basis. And the UK certainly does too because it is legally a charity. In here and in the UK we are essentially looking at making enough of a surplus to invest back into our infrastructure, scholarships, paying off borrowings, buying new equipment etc. We both have the need to manage ourselves responsibly.


You’ve stated that UNMC hopes to emulate UNUK in becoming “a significant contributor to the wider cultural and artistic life of Kuala Lumpur and indeed, Malaysia”. Artistic and cultural life on campus is still in its infancy – what more do you hope to see?

I think we’ve got some great music and drama. We’ve got great writing. We could do more with the visual arts. It would be good to explore how we could showcase individuals’ artwork. What I’d like to see would be the performing arts extending out. We’ve got some great productions like the Mikado, Midsomer Nights’ Dream. Kampung Chekov was brilliant, really, really good. But what we haven’t really done as much as we might wish to, is pulling in people from the broader community. We should think about how we can build on the activities we have and get it out to the broader community. It would be great if we could do something in Kajang or call people in from Semenyih; a more generic community outreach. Things like that does take a lot of time and effort but it would be great to see it developing in the future.


What further improvements do you hope to see in UNMC after you leave?

I hope to see lots of improvements. We have plans for expanding learning spaces, more work on the grounds and the creation of more outdoor spaces. We want to have continue to innovate in terms of teaching and learning activities through student observers of teaching or through activities that indirectly get the students to the continued development of the teaching programme. I would like to see us do more in terms of student experience, perhaps have more international activity in place. Such as short term mobility t give students exposure to a differnt cultural context. Eventually we plan to  get rid of the oil palm and replace it with more indigenous trees. Grow in terms of research – we’ve got a 5 star rating in MYRO. And currently we’ve got some interesting research around areas like biodiversity, peatlands, sustainable oil palm, use of bioreactors to create bio-gas, and use the remainder for fertiliser so you have a zero waste process. Or research into fish food, instead of using fish protein to feed fish, which isn’t a great idea, you use the larvae of soldier flies. Or another project is jet fuel from macro-algae. The ability to think we were part of that.


Given your busy schedule, how do you maintain a healthy work-life balance?

Well those who know me would tell you that I am not very good at maintaining a healthy work life balance. I do work a lot of hours but I do also really value my friends and family so I will clear time and put work to one side to spend time with them. I just can’t switch off my phone on holidays although I do keep getting threatened by that. I used to try going on holidays to places where you couldn’t get cell phone signals and that worked quite well but there are fewer and fewer places where you can’t get wifi nowadays. I am happy to offer advice on many things but I am not a good source of advice on that one.

At Jalan Conlay, taken in the year 2000.

At Jalan Conlay, taken in 2000.

If  you could go back in time to when you were our age and offer some advice to yourself, what would it be?

That’s quite a difficult question actually; let me rephrase that to dealing with things that I perhaps regretted. I regret not having taken the opportunity to travel more, particularly as a student. I look back now and think, gosh I was very unadventurous and perhaps being that bit more adventurous would have been good – although I’ve made up for it in later life. And also not to get too hung up on knowing what you’re going to do. Because we all think we should have a clear vision for what we’re going to do and that we should plan our career and I didn’t. What I did do, was take advantage of the opportunities that came my way. And as Louis Pasteur said, chance favours the prepared mind. You can’t structure everything out but you can think things through and keep an open mind and think about the future and what you might or might not want to do so when the opportunity comes up you will be better placed to respond to them. You don’t know what’s going to be the right opportunity. And you’ve got to be prepared to take chances. I often make my decisions with my stomach. And it’s not something that is wrong because that’s just who you are. One way of making a decision is just to decide and see how you feel after it. It all boils down to understanding yourself and what you’re good and bad at.


By Lhavanya and Augustine Chay

"Zeal without knowledge is fire without light." - Thomas Fuller, 17th century historian

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