Eight ways to produce academic excellence in Malaysia

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The Malaysian Academic Movement (Move), also known as Pergerakan Tenaga Akademik Malaysia (Gerak), would like to congratulate Dr Maszlee Malik, on being appointed the Minister of Education in the new Pakatan Harapan (PH) cabinet line-up.

We strongly believe that with his academic credentials and long-standing experience as a scholar in Malaysia, Maszlee will be able to perform his duties effectively and carry out the structural and institutional reforms needed in our education system.

Gerak welcomes PH’s institutional reform agenda, and looks forward to the translation of its manifold pledges into a programme of action. As academics, we are especially eager to see reforms in education, and we draw on first-hand knowledge of the problems ailing our universities, as well as the potential that can be tapped.

We wish to highlight a few areas of reforms that we believe will help make our universities more vibrant, excellent and progressive.

1. Restructure university administration

The practice of political appointments of chairpersons, boards of directors, vice chancellors, deputy vice chancellors and other top university management has to stop.

In fact, we urge the new minister of education to immediately replace all these political appointees with independent-minded, honest, accountable, creative, empathetic, and altruistic leaders by university search committees comprising academics of quality and experience.

2. Abolish laws that stifle academic freedom

The impediments to academic freedom and excellence – such as the Universities and University Colleges Act, the Aku Janji, and the Statutory Bodies (Discipline and Surcharge) Act prohibiting academics from expressing themselves – must go.

They do nothing to make academia grow intellectually; instead they control and constrain academia for rather idiotic political reasons.

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3. Change the notion that universities are factories

The role of universities is higher than that of just providing labour for the market. We urge the new minister of education to uphold this philosophy so that we can truly develop, nurture and facilitate more creative and critical individuals who will have more to offer to society.

4. Uphold meritocracy over kulitocracy

The new minister of education must take the lead in looking at crucial questions of equal opportunity and access to all stages of education, replacing kulitocracy with meritocracy. There must be a removal of any discrimination based on ethnicity, religion, gender, class and age.

Gerak urges the new minister of education to ensure that the recruitment of academics and support staff and the enrolment of students reflect the diversity of Malaysian society. In other words, recruitment and enrolment must be on the basis of merit (and a means test for potential undergraduates) and not other considerations.

5. Emphasise ‘why’ over ‘how’ learning

Universities need to replace rote learning with creative pedagogy. In this regard, the new minister of education will need to spearhead an overhaul that would in the end lead to our education system emphasising the ‘why’ questions instead of just the ‘how’ ones.

6. Stop the obsession with ISI publications

Universities should allow academics to publish in all reputable journals without discriminating against the non-ISI ones. The publication of books or chapters in books (especially among social scientists) should also be promoted and not be deemed as second-class publications.

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7. Dissolve Majlis Professor Negara (MPN)

In many instances since it was formed, MPN has been used to legitimise the previous ruling party rather than promoting knowledge and helping the country in nation-building. Hence it should be dissolved immediately.

Furthermore, professors should not be institutionalised. They should have the freedom to engage with the government, civil society organisations, society or other stakeholders without the need to go through a council like MPN.

8. Establish a committee on institutional reforms of higher education

The new minister of education should establish a committee on institutional reforms of higher education so that other area of reforms that need further deliberation can be looked into. Among the examples are the appointment of academics/support staff, promotion criteria, the abolishment/reform of MyRA (Malaysia Research Assessment), and the many red tapes in accepting external funding.

Gerak believes that with these fundamental reforms, Malaysian universities can finally reclaim their autonomy and freedom; both crucial in producing academic excellence.

We wish Maszlee all the best in carrying out his duties, especially in making good the reform agenda with which he has been entrusted.

Gerak executive committee

The above was prepared by Gerak chairperson Professor Zaharom Nain, executive committee member Assoc Prof Mohd Faisal Hazis and Gerak member Dr Lee Hwok Aun.

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