UUCA amendment: Empowering students is not just about granting them the right to raise funds

The amendment overlooks restrictions in the act that run contrary to the spirit of academic freedom and violate the right to free speech and assembly

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By UK Menon

The recently passed Universities and University Colleges (Amendment) Act 2023 (amended UUCA) makes no significant changes to the law despite claims that the amendment contributes to the empowerment of students and student bodies.

The focus of the change is on the student disciplinary provisions of the principal UUCA dealing with the collection of money by students or student bodies.

Before the amendment, Section 15A of the UUCA prohibited students or student bodies in a university from collecting money or other property from anyone. However, under those provisions, the vice-chancellor of the university could, if he thought fit, exempt students from the statutory prohibition.

The amendment changes the words of the old Section 15A by providing that students may now make, organise or take part in any collection of money or receive money or any other contributions from any person or body of persons.

However, the new Section 15A does not give students an unconditional right to collect or receive money. The right must be exercised in compliance with any regulations that the university board may lay down.

Thus, whereas under the previous provision, the vice-chancellor could exempt students from the prohibition in the old Section 15A, under the new Section 15A, the right to collect money is subject to regulations that may be prescribed by the university board. This means that the extent of the new statutory right can only be established once the university boards begin to lay down the terms upon which the students may exercise the right.

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Since the amended UUCA does not qualify the discretionary power of the board to make regulations on the matter, it may well be that the ensuing regulations of the board will simply revert to the position before the amendment.

The recent amendment may have its origins in one of the eleven New Year’s resolutions announced by the previous higher education minister, Khaled Nordin, when he took up his portfolio in early 2023.

The then minister’s eleventh resolution focused on student empowerment, which involved giving students more responsibility and decision-making opportunities within what the minister said was a broader context of student rights.

The minister was concerned that students were increasingly living and interacting in virtual and digital environments, taking them away from the campus environment.

To address this issue, the minister proposed to allow students to govern campus life themselves, which would involve managing student unions and small businesses such as bookshops, cafeterias and pharmacies. The earnings from these businesses, the minister proposed, could be used to support student activities.

The current Higher Education Minister, Zambry Abd Kadir, also spoke about students in higher education in his inaugural speech at the University of Malaya on 12 January 2024 (Landasan Hala Tuju Kementerian Pendidikan Tinggi 2024).

The minister’s focus was not on empowerment but on the ‘shaping of minds and characters’ and higher education serving as a platform for “human transformation” and “culture-building” to propel the country into becoming an advanced nation.

Regardless of the origins of the amendment to the UUCA, the notion that student empowerment merely revolves around the right to raise funds and conduct business activities on campus reflects a profound misunderstanding by the authorities about what student empowerment really means.

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Student empowerment within the campus involves fostering an environment where students feel valued, respected and empowered to voice their opinions, advocate for their needs and contribute meaningfully to shaping their educational experiences. It involves fostering a culture of inclusivity, collaboration and shared governance, where students are recognised as integral stakeholders in the university community.

Beyond the campus, it means empowering them to become proactive members of society, capable of effecting positive change and contributing to the betterment of their communities. It is about instilling in students the confidence, skills and sense of responsibility needed to prepare them to become informed, engaged citizens and leaders in their respective fields.

The UUCA amendment focuses only on the students’ right to raise funds while overlooking other issues, such as restrictions in the UUCA and the university disciplinary rules that are contrary to the spirit of academic freedom and violate principles of free speech and assembly.

Genuine student empowerment entails recognising and respecting the diverse voices, perspectives and aspirations within the student body, rather than simply delegating financial responsibilities without addressing the underlying structural barriers and power dynamics that hinder free speech and assembly within the campus.

UK Menon is a lawyer who left practice to teach law, and then combined law with education and developed an expertise in law and education. He finds politics to be unduly interfering in education, using law as an instrument for that interference, and feels that a better knowledge of those laws will help minimise that interference.

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.
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