Reforming higher education in Malaysia

Gerak’s 12-point Merdeka memorandum

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Now that the political dust has settled for the time being, we see the previous short-lived higher education minister being (re)appointed, having initially been put in office 18 months ago.

Granted, this regime has never come up with a reform agenda after it seized power and even now. Nonetheless, it has been given a second chance, with reminders from various quarters, including from the Agong, that proper governance and reforms must be the order of the day.

With this in mind, Gerak is issuing this Memorandum, containing proposals which we have discussed and debated in public and even with political and administrative officials over the years.

Indeed, some of the reforms we propose here have already been brought to Parliament but never fully acted upon. We and many others – in government as well as in academia and civil society – know full well that these proposals are realistic ones. All that is needed is political will and political action from a regime that MUST conduct reforms or face getting removed in the next general election.

Restructure university administration

Replace all ‘politically appointed’ vice-chancellors, deputy vice-chancellors, chairmen and boards of directors – The practice of appointing chairmen, boards of directors, vice-chancellors, deputy vice-chancellors and other top university administrators on the basis of political patronage and loyalty has to stop. Instead, we urge the minister to immediately replace all these political appointees with respected, independent-minded, analytical and accountable leaders.

Establish national search committees to appoint the new university top management – In this interim period, we urge that the appointment of new vice-chancellors, deputy vice-chancellors, chairmen and boards of directors be undertaken solely by the already existing independent national search committee comprising eminent scholars (serving or retired academics), civil society and corporate leaders, and MoHE officials appointed by the university senates.

For subsequent appointments, we suggest that each university be authorised to set up its own committee, which shall be fully empowered to nominate its own members and proceed to appoint new university administrators.

Gerak is also calling for the introduction of term limits for all top university administrative posts to that of two three-year terms, ie six years maximum.

In this regard, all other irrelevant and, indeed, wasteful external agencies, like Akademi Kepimpinan Pendidikan Tinggi (Akept) should be removed from the process of selection.

Review the membership criteria of the board of directors and the composition of the university senate – Gerak also seeks a review of the membership criteria of the board of directors and composition of the university senate.

The board must include at least one representative from the academic staff association, support staff union and alumni who have hitherto been sidelined from the existing management structure. These groups have a role to play in the running of the university and can provide checks and balances.

Gerak is adamant that politicians and ex-politicians appointed on the basis of patronage have NO ROLE in university boards.

The university senate is another equally important academic decision-making body that has long been dominated by the patronage politics of top university managements.

Hence, there is a need to reform the composition of the university senate by opening up membership to academics not holding any administrative role who are freely elected to the senate by their peers. The total number of these non-administrative academics must equal that of the deans, directors and other ex-officio members of the university senate.

Trim central university leadership – We propose the downsizing of all central university leadership posts in line with the need to empower faculties, centres/institutes, academics and students.

Among the posts that must be abolished are that of the deputy vice-chancellor (student affairs), pro vice-chancellor and assistant vice-chancellor. Student affairs can be coordinated by a student affairs office, as is the practice in more advanced countries. Students are young adults who perhaps need guidance but do not need to be constantly monitored and controlled.

Review the appointment of faculty/institute/centre heads – Another area of reform is in the appointment of deans, deputy deans, directors, deputy directors and heads of departments, based on political or personal loyalties, that presently tend to perpetuate a culture of fear and/or blind loyalty.

At present, the procedure of appointing academic administrators to these positions varies from university to university. Some provide the platform to nominate a few candidates, but the vice-chancellor ultimately has the power to appoint anybody that he or she deems fit.

Some vice-chancellors just consult a few faculty members before making an appointment. Other vice-chancellors do not consult any faculty members but unilaterally appoint individuals who support him or her.

Gerak proposes that the position of deans, deputy deans, directors, deputy directors and heads of departments be decided through a free and transparent election process among faculty members.

We also strongly urge that holders of such positions be limited to two consecutive terms of three years each, ie a six-year maximum term limit.

Decentralise power at all levels – We need a reset from the current managerialism that operates on the basis of distrust, excessive monitoring and standardisation, toward a new mode based on trust, substantive accountability and specialisation.

This includes more decision-making power in the hands of department and faculty members on matters of recruitment, teaching programmes, discipline-specific assessment and promotion. Hence, faculty and department meetings must also be immediately revived, recognised and respected as the authoritative decision-making body of the faculty and department.

Meanwhile, a gradual and methodical process of replacing deans, deputies, heads of departments, etc can be implemented.

Change the status of top bureaucratic posts – The posts of registrar, chief librarian, bursar, director of assets and chief information officer must be redesignated as contract positions payable via an allowance that is separate from the permanent service and salary grade positions of senior bureaucrats.

This is to ensure that underperforming senior bureaucrats will not continue to occupy these positions. As well, the rotation of such positions would allow for rejuvenation and fresh ideas within the university system.

Abolish/amend laws that stifle academic freedom

Laws that stifle academic freedom have a negative impact on academic excellence as they inhibit analytical and independent thinking crucial for expanding the boundaries of knowledge and guaranteeing the quality, accuracy and objectivity of scholarship.

To uphold academic freedom in a post-pandemic Malaysia, the following legislation must be repealed or amended:

Repeal the Universities and University Colleges Act (UUCA) – The UUCA is tainted by virtue of it being used, since its inception, to punish dissent and defuse protests. It remains an authoritarian state’s tool of control that contradicts the principles enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

We strongly urge the government to replace it with legislation that efficiently regulates the autonomous functioning of universities and protects the freedom of university students and staff in our academic pursuits – underpinned by fundamental protections of freedom of thought and expression. This would ensure our universities function according to recognised international standards and norms.

Major steps had already been undertaken by the MoHE prior to the change in government in March 2020. `Low-hanging fruit’ had been approved by Parliament in 2019, and an MoHE-commissioned study to replace the Act had already been completed by early 2020.

All it needed was for the legislation to be drafted to implement the proposed changes. This did not happen, of course, due to the sudden change in government in 2020. But the point is, the extensive research and paperwork have already been done. All it needs now is for the MoHE to look back at the documents and move forward from there.

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Amend Act 605 of the Statutory Bodies (Discipline and Surcharge) – Act 605 needs to be amended to exempt all institutions of higher learning from its authority as has been done for other statutory bodies, for example, the central bank and the Employees Provident Fund Board.

Only through an amendment to Act 605 can academic staff then be free to participate in the life of academia without fear of administrative sanctions by the civil service. This too has been discussed and debated at the highest levels and merely needs ratification by Parliament.

Repeal other laws and administrative requirements – Another legislation detrimental to academic freedom is the Sedition Act, while the Aku Janji is a repressive administrative requirement. All do not help build a healthy university environment. Gerak calls for the abolishment of these acts and repressive administrative requirements.

In place of these laws and repressive administrative requirements, Gerak strongly calls for the enactment of a Freedom of Information Act that will facilitate access for the academic community to the wealth of data presently gathered by numerous government agencies but unavailable to the academic community. Access to a broad range of information produces reliable research and validates good scholarship.

The above measures, Gerak believes, will nurture a culture of freedom of inquiry and expression instead of a culture of fear that is antithetical to critical thinking and creativity. The above measures would also strongly uphold the principle of academic freedom as enshrined in Unesco’s Recommendation Concerning the Status of Higher Education Teaching Personnel, 1997.

Widen access to higher education institutions

The percentage of enrolment for the 17-23 age cohort in higher education institutions in Malaysia in 2015 was quite low at 26%. Malaysia was ranked at 99 out of 186 countries under the Unesco gross enrolment for tertiary education. Thailand’s average was 48.9%, China’s was 43.4%, the Philippines’ was 35.2% and India’s was 26.9%.

Planning for a lost generation – The ongoing pandemic has, of course, worsened the situation at the pre-university level, especially for the M60 (no longer B40) segment of Malaysian society.

Gerak thus anticipates that there will be a knock-on effect for higher education intake over the next couple of years if forward planning and support by the MoHE are not forthcoming.

More than this, what is urgently required now is for the MoHE to coordinate their plans and strategies with vital input from the MoE and the various universities, public and private.

Increase student intake – Based on the above statistics and the impact of the pandemic, it is timely and necessary for the government to increase the number of places in our higher education institutions. Besides opening up more places (especially for technical and vocation education and training), the MoHE must also provide more financial aid to students to encourage them to further their studies without being excessively burdened by loans.

Level the playing field for students from disadvantaged households – Students from disadvantaged households – based on parents’ income and educational attainment, the M60s – and those who are the first in a family to attain tertiary education must be promoted on a preferential basis. Utilise PTPTN (Perbadanan Tabung Pendidikan Tinggi Nasional) to establish and coordinate a post-pandemic public financial grant for disadvantaged student groups.

Shift from centralised admissions to autonomous admissions – Our public universities must shift from a centralised admissions system to that of autonomous admissions. Each university must be mandated to pursue meritocracy alongside diversity (not just ethnic but also based on region, socioeconomic background, language, nationality, special needs and other relevant criteria).

Uphold meritocracy over ‘kulitocracy’

We acknowledge the need for and the legitimacy of affirmative action programmes begun under the New Economic Policy (1971). Nonetheless, we also agree with the numerous critical observations that there remain serious problems at the level of implementation. Many who are supposed to benefit from these programmes end up being marginalised while other communities feel unjustly ignored.

Provide equal opportunity and access to all stages of education – Gerak proposes that the MoHE take the lead in looking at crucial questions of equal opportunity and access to all stages of education, with the aim of replacing monolithic ethnic criteria with other fairer measures. This, we believe, will provide the basis for excellence combined with justice.

Ensure student enrolment is based on merit along with an affirmative preference for students from disadvantaged backgrounds – In this regard, Gerak proposes that university and higher education admissions in general be based on merit along with an affirmative preference given to students from disadvantaged and special needs backgrounds.

The enrolment of university students should also reflect the diversity of Malaysian society (ie ethnicity, religion, gender, class and age). We believe a more comprehensive and fairer system of selection (ie a means test for the economically disadvantaged) would clearly begin to address issues of lop-sided student demography in the public tertiary education system.

Ensure faculty recruitment is based on merit – Similarly, in the area of faculty recruitment and training, the efficacy of the seemingly dated bumiputera – non-bumiputera dichotomy needs to be re-examined. A system where one ethnic group dominates in public universities while others flock to the private sector is an unhealthy one that only reinforces the idea of and deepens segregation in our society.

We must move towards a situation where our (public) universities attract the best talents (preferably Malaysians) and provide training opportunities (PhD scholarships, technical and vocation education and training, for example) to all deserving cases.

The system of providing funding purely for bumiputera candidates (the Academic Staff Training Scheme and Skim Latihan Akademik Bumiputera, for example) needs to be re-examined and, if found wanting, replaced with a better system.

Establish an Office for Diversity and Inclusion – To help universities achieve these ends, Gerak strongly proposes that all universities establish an Office for Diversity and Inclusion that will assist university administrators to recruit a more diverse faculty and student population in a more just manner.

Introduce creative pedagogy and alternative assessment practices

Universities need to eradicate rigidity in pedagogical practice that becomes the causal factor for learning through rote memorisation. Such an approach produces graduates that lack confidence and initiative, are reserved, less analytical and thus less dynamic.

To keep pace and to progress in this fast-changing world, it is timely to introduce, however gradually, a more creative pedagogy that promotes academic empowerment and freedom in teaching, as proposed by the 1997 Unesco Recommendation Concerning the Status of Higher Education Teaching Personnel.

Creative pedagogy and alternative assessment – Creative pedagogy and alternative assessment demand flexibility in many areas. It is a call to consider possibilities, understand things in new ways, value and integrate ideas and practices that are accepted and considered as good (if not best) standards of past, present and future.

Being creative requires a transformation of existing ideas, programmes, and even practices in view of producing higher education academics and learners who are able to solve problems and overcome challenges, who are open to dialogue and intellectual discourse, and who will provide innovative or alternative solutions.

Eliminate mundane practices that restrict diversity in thinking and teaching – Valuing flexibility in practice, universities should put a stop to student attendance ticking, academic clock-in and clock-out systems, learning just within the four walls, and filling up unnecessary MQA [Malaysian Qualifications Agency) forms and requirements (which should be done by administrators, if need be). These are the mundane, time-consuming practices that restrict diversity in thinking and suppress professional academic autonomy.

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Allow academics to focus on teaching, research and writing – Academics should be given freedom and trust to carry out their scholarly responsibilities. More time must be allocated for academics to do research and design their lessons and assessments by reducing administrative bureaucracy.

Of course, suitable mechanisms could be designed and employed to monitor the progress and quality of higher education. This could be done professionally through (internal and external) peer-review practices and self-accreditation.

Freedom is necessary for developing creativity, promoting analytical and independent thinking and developing ethical norms among higher education academics and learners.

Empower academics – Academics need to be entrusted with greater latitude and flexibility, especially in determining the content of their courses. In some universities, even changing the weighting of assignments in a course’s continuing assessment requires faculty approval. Such changes should only require the instructor to inform the head of department.

Excessive bureaucratic requirements are burdensome to academics and serve auditors rather than students. Excessive bureaucratic requirements result in rigid and retrograde teaching practices, eg standardised answers and regurgitation, because the “quality management” process demands that answer schemes are recorded and matched with course content.

Review academics’ key performance indicators (KPIs)

Presently, there is too much unfairness in the assessment of academics for promotion and annual KPI evaluation. While there is standardisation, different universities are using different criteria and weighting to evaluate academic staff. Furthermore, the criteria used are based on administratively driven university ranking criteria and not on sound academic reasoning.

Worse, political patronage and individual loyalties have played a major role in academic promotions. Often, this has resulted in the appointments of professors and academic promotions of those with little or no scholarly background. To improve promotion criteria, we urge the following:

Introduce KPIs that are reflective of Unesco’s recommendations – Gerak strongly supports the idea that the criteria for assessment should be in compliance with the 1997 Unesco Recommendation on the Status of Higher Education Teaching Personnel.

The recommendation states that academics should do four things: teach, conduct research, contribute to society, and be mobile.

Examples of criteria that can be used are:

(1) teaching – teaching observation, number of graduated postgraduates

(2) research – number of refereed papers, journal articles, books, policy papers (3) contribution to society – articles in newspapers or popular journals and magazines, public talks, exhibitions, artistic and theatrical performances, community involvement

(4) mobility – presentations in local and overseas conferences, papers with international authors, and sabbaticals or research leave taken overseas.

Stop the obsession with Web of Science (WoS)/Scopus publications – Universities should allow academics to publish in all reputable journals without discriminating against non-WoS/Scopus ones.

The publication of books or chapters in books (especially among social science, humanities and arts scholars) should also be promoted and not be deemed as second-class publications.

Our universities should also upgrade Malay language journals to international standards so that rewards for publishing in Malay may not be less than for international journals.

Provide a safe and inclusive working environment

Sexual harassment is a major issue of concern in institutions of higher learning as it creates a non-conducive and unsafe environment for the wellbeing of the academic community. This issue has not been addressed effectively or has been simply ignored.

At the school level, the recent revelations of a prevalent bullying misogynist and sexist culture must alert us to the need to combat this at the tertiary level.

Increase awareness of the sexual harassment code and mechanism – Gerak strongly supports the implementation of a sexual harassment code and complaint/redress mechanism in all universities (public and private) to address sexual harassment.

Some progress at making it a nationwide code had already been made prior to March 2020 at the ministry level, but little more has been publicly announced since.

These codes and complaint and redress mechanisms must be well publicised and included in welcome and orientation information packs for all students when they begin their university education and for all staff when they are employed.

Where the code and complaint and redress mechanism has not been put into place, particularly in private universities, these are to be established as soon as possible to bring our universities in line with internationally recognised global standards of gender sensitivity and behaviour.

Introduce periodic gender sensitisation programmes – Gerak proposes that periodic gender sensitisation programmes be conducted for first responders of cases involving sexual harassment, especially heads of departments or wardens.

Such training programmes would improve the effective handling of cases and emphasise the severity of the issue. Our universities must not trivialise or sweep cases of sexual harassment under the carpet. To ensure the effectiveness of these gender sensitisation programmes, an annual university allocation to raise awareness of the issue must be budgeted for.

Ensure that universities are held accountable – University vice-chancellors and registrars must be held responsible for any failure to take appropriate action on or for covering-up reported cases of sexual harassment. Case statistics that are received must be investigated and their outcomes must be publicised and made available to the campus community.

The involvement of academic staff associations and unions is of paramount importance, and representatives must be incorporated in all complaint and redress mechanisms or panels to investigate such cases.

Stop unethical academic practices – plagiarism, cheating, academic bullying

There have been too many cases uncovered of plagiarism, cheating during assignments and exams and academic bullying in our universities. These unethical even illegal practices inhibit genuine scholarship and impede creativity. They stymie originality of thought and intellectual growth.

Their prevalence reflects the tendency of some university students and academics to involve themselves in repugnant practices that are antithetical to genuine scholarship. These unethical practices ultimately undermine the very foundations of knowledge and eventually the country’s progress.

Gerak strongly proposes that the following be implemented as soon as possible:

Root out academic plagiarism and cheating – A complaint mechanism on academic plagiarism and cheating must be set up and the identity of whistleblowers must be protected. Anonymous complaints with evidence should be accepted for further investigation.

There is no excuse or explanation that justifies plagiarism or cheating, whether by academic staff or students. The normal penalty for such unethical practice is a severe reprimand or sanction leading to expulsion from study or employment from the university depending on the gravity of the offence. However, all so accused must be given a fair hearing for their alleged offences.

Stop academic bullying and the institutionalisation of unethical academic practices – Publishing in predator journals, paying exorbitant fees for publishing journal articles, and citation stacking – all being openly encouraged by many of our universities – must be stopped.

This culture has resulted in academic bullying being on the rise. The bullying starts from the top, downwards to that among colleagues. Many students and academics feel intense pressure to publish material (irrespective of its scholarly significance or value) with the advent of institutionalised policies for postgraduate students to co-publish with their academic supervisors.

This is a practice unheard of previously in the humanities, arts and social science disciplines. Allegedly, senior academic staff often pressure subordinates under their authority to include their names in publications as seen by the diverse areas of publication of some senior academics that are clearly unrelated to their known expertise. Contract staff are particularly vulnerable to such bullying.

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Gerak proposes that periodic awareness raising of these unethical practices needs to be highlighted with an ethical code and a complaints and redress mechanism established to combat this problem. The unethical requirement for postgraduate students to publish with their supervisors in the humanities, arts and social science disciplines must be stopped.

Establish an Office of the University Ombudsman – To ensure our universities live up to internationally recognised global standards of ethical principles and scholarly excellence, Gerak proposes that all universities establish an Office of the University Ombudsman that will provide independent oversight and be responsible for monitoring both academic and other non-academic rights and quality standards.

The Office of the University Ombudsman shall be vested with the authority to hold the university administration accountable to maintain internationally recognised academic standards of practice that guarantee academic integrity, autonomy and high-quality scholarship.

Revive and reactivate crucial committees and units

The National Council on Higher Education –The Council was set up in 1996 under an act of Parliament (Act 546). Its task is to “plan, formulate and determine national policies and strategies for the development of higher education in Malaysia”. Despite these lofty, noble aims, the council has remained outside the sphere of influence, despite attempts to revive it from 2018 to 2020.

Gerak contends that this can no longer be accepted since it is a legally created entity to advise and direct the minister concerned.

The MoHE Integrity Unit – This independent unit was set up in 2018 to give academics who were victimised at their universities, a platform to seek redress and also to investigate complaints of abuse of power by management of local universities.

Numerous complaints have been lodged since and submissions were made to the MoHE. But there has been no follow-up.

Gerak believes that the present minister must take action on the recommendations made by the committee members of the Integrity Unit without any further delay to give justice and redress to the academics who lodged the complaints.

Gerak also believes that the work of the unit must go on, to provide an independent assessment of the use and abuse of power in local universities.

Review and remove bureaucratic institutions and impediments to autonomy, creativity and quality

It is time we – and more so the MoHE – take stock of the institutions and practices in existence and the real or imagined roles they play in creating value and enhancing quality.

Two of these costly institutions are the Malaysian Qualifications Agency (MQA) and Akademi Kepimpinan Pendidikan Tinggi (Akept). Both have been roundly criticised – correctly in many cases – for simply being bureaucratic dinosaurs that impinge on academic freedom, creating distrust rather than enhancing quality.

Universities and other institutions of higher learning must be given the autonomy to monitor their own quality and that of their leadership. Invariably, the wheat will be separated from the chaff, and the poorly run universities will be outed and face the possibility of having to close down. 

Pandemic policies, research and leadership

The extended honeymoon of the minister is over. Gerak contends that the MoHE must by now start to play a more concerted and proactive role in addressing higher education issues brought up specifically by the pandemic. The following are just some of the main ones.

Working from home (WFH) and academic standards – Studies elsewhere have shown a tendency for students to be awarded higher grades under the current pandemic. Numerous answers have been forwarded for this.

The MoHE, working in tandem with the Ministry of Education and other principal actors, must monitor this and, more, study this development objectively and scientifically. The aim would NOT be to ‘police’ academics and academia, but to encourage quality over quantity of online interaction.

The solution must not be a simplistic one of herding lecturers and teachers and students back into campuses and schools for face-to-face teaching and learning, but to maintain the option of maintaining hybrid classes.

Sadly, there has been no policy discussion in this regard when it should be out there, led by the MoHE.

Heightened mental health issues – The pandemic and the numerous lockdowns have shown how unprepared the MoHE and our universities are in addressing serious mental health issues. It is as if the mental and psychological impact on students, parents, university staff was never factored in right from the beginning.

Irrespective of the duration of this pandemic, serious and detailed studies on the impact, origins and possible remedies must be carried out, certainly with ministerial support, to prepare us all for the long term.

Digital divide and a (forever) lost generation? – It is one thing to assume that online teaching is a viable option, but it is quite another to see it taking place seamlessly when there is so much inequality – of access, of understanding, of use, and of power – linked invariably to inequities in Malaysian society. Many of our young have had to suffer in silence over the past 18 months.

The MoHE must now come up with ways and means to allow many of these students – especially those in the M60 category – to regain what they lost, through no fault of their own, over the past 1.5 years.

Establish a committee on institutional reforms of higher education

Gerak saves the most crucial element in this memorandum for last. We propose the establishment of a Committee on Institutional Reforms of Higher Education (CIRHE) so that these issues and other areas of institutional reforms that need further deliberation can be looked into.

This CIRHE should be chaired by a senior academic who has been in the system and who is fully aware of the gravity of the situation of Malaysian academia. It would have the status of a royal commission of inquiry and the powers of a royal commission.

Gerak believes that among some additional key issues that need to be addressed by the CIRHE are a review of all university constitutions, rules and decision-making processes to ensure that they conform to internationally recognised standards of practice and are in harmony with human rights, academic freedom and university autonomy.

Such a committee would study and propose ways to reduce the presence of unnecessary, overlapping and burdensome red tape in universities; review centrally determined KPIs and the present MoHE obsession with ratings; reevaluate the role of accreditation agencies like the MQA and ratings like the MyRA; reevaluate promotion criteria for academics and administrators; and promote a new university culture that values openness, discussion, diversity, ideas, collegiality, transparency, ethics, meritocracy and democratic decision-making.

Gerak stands ready to assist the MoHE and other parties to achieve these fundamental institutional reforms. We believe that with the adoption of these measures, Malaysian universities and academia can finally reclaim their autonomy and freedom. Both are crucial in producing the academic excellence necessary to power our society and country out of this pandemic and forward into the brave new world of the 21st Century. – Gerak

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