Troubling, inconsistent decisions by higher education ministry

Gerak calls on the ministry to explain to the Malaysian public what higher education policies and standards it genuinely adheres to

Public universities like UUM must remain neutral

As Malaysia faces perhaps the most difficult political-economic and health crises in her history, many major policy and strategic decisions are being left in the hands of our civil servants.

In this regard, the Malaysian academic movement, Gerak, is deeply troubled to learn of inconsistent decisions being made by the Ministry of Higher Education (MoHE). 

The most recent involves the appointment of the CEO of the Malaysian Qualifications Agency (MQA) Prof Mohammad Shatar Sabran to the board of directors of University Malaysia Pahang with effect from 16 August 2021 to 15 August 2024.

Gerak is bewildered by this appointment as it does not reflect any effort by MoHE to improve professionalism in the management of higher education institutions.

It reflects continued poor and inconsistent decision-making with little reference to agreed policies in the ministry.

Prof Shatar was formerly vice-chancellor of Universiti Pendidikan Sultan Idris. In early February 2021, he was seconded to head the MQA for a three-year term. 

The MQA is a national ‘quality assurance body’ that was set up to “monitor and oversee quality assurance practices and accreditation of national higher education”. 

This is a gargantuan task.

It is obvious that Prof Shatar already has his work cut out for him as the MQA CEO, considering the shabby state of academic quality and lack of policy direction in Malaysian higher education.

This recent University Malaysia Pahang appointment more than suggests a probable case of a conflict of interest for the MQA CEO.

On the one hand, he is tasked with maintaining academic standards at all levels of Malaysian higher education and for all institutions, private and public.

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On the other, as a member of the University Malaysia Pahang board of directors, he is now subjected to collective responsibility within the board, the autonomous policymaking body of the university.

We need to understand that both the MoHE and the MQA have their very own University Transformation Programme Green Book that aims at “Enhancing University Board Governance and Effectiveness”.

How, pray tell, can Prof Shatar’s appointment ensure the development and promotion of university autonomy in University Malaysia Pahang if this decision by the MoHE is going to undermine the university’s board and senate responsibilities as stipulated by the MoHE’s very own Green Book?

Is it also not a potential conflict of interest for a university professor of one university, on secondment to the MQA, to be appointed to sit on the board of directors of another university?

Are there really no other former academics of good international standing to serve on the Universiti Malaysia Pahang board as its “knowledgeable and experienced representative”?

Gerak firmly believes there are. But did the MoHE even try to get them to serve?

Additionally, during this pandemic, the MQA appears to have taken on the novel role of a welfare service. In early August, Shatar distributed MQA-funded food vouchers and hygiene kits to 2,000 Universti Kebangsaan Malaysia students – but not to other students elsewhere in Malaysia evidently.

What was the point of all this, beyond being a publicity stunt? Are welfare handouts a new role for the MQA? But isn’t student welfare policy the purview of university boards?

A week after this caper, the MQA was acting like a civil service super agency, instructing all higher education institutions in enhanced movement control areas through an “MQA Advisory Note” that they could relax their minimum student study hours to between 70% – 80% to maintain their student credit requirements.

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Gerak would like to ask in this regard: aren’t academic quality assurance and study requirements the responsibility of university senates?

Further, by issuing instructions to universities, aren’t the MQA and the MoHE undermining the statutory role and responsibilities of autonomous university boards and senates as enshrined by the Universities and University Colleges Act 1971 and the respective university statutes?

Where is the policy consistency here? Does the MoHE not follow through on its policies? Or is policy inconsistency the current ‘normal’ in the MoHE?

Gerak has constantly called for improved quality standards and procedures in the management of higher education. Troublingly, instead of growing professionalisation, what we see in the MoHE is inconsistent decision-making and continued policy haphazardness.

This perception is not helped when one realises that many appointments to university boards of late have been loaded with political considerations.

This policy fuzziness is also reflected in the appointment of the new vice-chancellor of Universiti Teknologi Mara, Prof Roziah Mohd Janor, who took office on 9 August 2021.

An earlier report (Utusan Malaysia, 7 August 2021) suggested she is the first woman vice-chancellor of the university. But a later report (The Star, 12 August 2021) suggested that she was appointed in an acting capacity.

Fuzziness aside, it may well be that the timing of her appointment is such that the MoHE wants the next minister to authoritatively endorse her candidacy.

But is this necessary? Especially if, in all likelihood, the decision to appoint her was made on the recommendation of the Jawatankuasa Tetap Perlantikan Naib-Canselor Universiti Awam (public university vice-chancellor appointments permanent committee), a body created to advise the minister on all vice-chancellor appointments under Section 4A of the Universities and University Colleges Act.

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But even if it was necessary to appoint Prof Roziah in an acting capacity, why then wasn’t the appointment of Prof Shatar to the University Malaysia Pahang’s board of directors similarly made in an acting capacity until the next minister took office to authoritatively endorse his candidacy? The inconsistency is so glaring.

In the wake of these disturbing inconsistencies, Gerak calls on the MoHE to explain to the Malaysian public what higher education policies and standards it genuinely adheres to.

The MoHE must also explain what standard operating procedures are currently in place, if at all, and how these troubling decisions and procedures conform to these higher education policies. – Gerak

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