Mustafa K Anuar talks to several academics about the obstacles standing in the way of far-reaching reforms to the university sector.
Racialism and a deeply entrenched preference for control are driving forces that stand between grand announcements by Education Minister Maszlee Malik on reforming the university sector and the job of actually doing it, said academics.
Soon after his appointment, Maszlee gave assurances that universities would not be abused by anyone, including himself, for political mileage.
“We will neither control and dictate to them (the universities) nor force them (to do anything). We really want the universities to enjoy their autonomy and cultivate academic freedom in their territory,” he was quoted as saying.
Five months on, what is the state of local academia following Maszlee’s announcements?
Malaysian Academic Movement (Gerak) leader Prof Zaharom Nain said there had been some degree of achievement in terms of declarations and statements of intent.
However, implementation requires more than strong words, he said. “This is not simply to cast aspersions on the minister and what he has said – and continues declaring – but more based on our awareness that the rot has set in on numerous fronts in academia and it would take much more than bold talk to bring about reform.
“There are numerous actors – and we really mean actors – on the higher education stage, who need to be either disposed of or replaced.
“There are those, working from the outside, who need to be told to lay off, if reform of the higher education sector is topmost on their minds, and not their own survival and advancement.
“We celebrate the bold intentions of the minister, but we are wary of those who, deep down, are opposed to such intentions, principally because all this while, they have gone by the mantra of control and not liberation.”
Zaharom, who is a professor at the Nottingham University Malaysia Campus, said there are at least three obstacles to university reform.
One, is the mindset of all parties concerned where the status quo preferred control, as promoted and practised under the Barisan Nasional regime.
As such, divesting control and allowing universities to be run autonomously is something the ministry should do sooner rather than later, he said.
Two, even if the minister and ministry are ready for greater university autonomy, academia and academics may not be. “Much of contemporary Malaysian academia is conservative and reactionary. That cannot be changed overnight,” Zaharom said.
The third obstacle is the “ethnicising” of virtually everything under the Malaysian sun, including higher education. This is seen in the availability of academics who should have been given the chance to lead universities to world-class status but were not allowed to do so because of their ethnicity, he said. As such, universities are left in a “continuous cycle of mediocrity”.
Universiti Malaya senior lecturer Dr Khoo Ying Hooi said academic freedom and reform do not just refer to intellectual discourse and open space but should include the bureaucracy. “It is equally important to reform the working culture in public universities, for instance, to get rid of the bureaucracy.
“While the space has arguably opened up, the bureaucracy remains the same and unchanged,” she said.
Giving university students greater political freedom by amending laws that govern higher education institutions is good but not enough, Khoo said. The ministry must also ensure education reforms in terms of, for instance, teaching political education or human rights from primary school onwards.
There is an educational gap in the teaching of civil and human rights education in response to changes in the political landscape, she added.
Hard to shake off control
Another lecturer from Universiti Malaya, who did not want to be named, spoke of her concern about political appointments in public universities.
She considered Maszlee’s appointment as International Islamic University of Malaysia (IIUM) president and his subsequent acceptance of it to be a stark contradiction to the promises made by the Pakatan Harapan government, including by Maszlee himself, that institutions of higher learning would not be used for political mileage.
She also noted other appointments to the board of directors of public universities, such as Mohd Nizam Morad who is Maszlee’s political secretary to the board of the International Islamic Univerity Malaysia and Perak PKR chief Muhammad Nur Manuty to the board of Universiti Sultan Zainal Abidin.
“(These) demonstrate a lack of commitment to do away with political appointments in institutions of higher learning.”
The secretary-general of the Ministry of Education, Mohd Ghazali Abas, is also on the board of Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, according to the institution’s website, she said.
The Universities and University Colleges Act is another mechanism that academics fear will continue to hampers students’ political and academic freedom as well as disciplinary action against academics.
“To uphold academic freedom, Act 605 of the Statutory Bodies (Discipline and Surcharge) needs to be amended to exempt all institutions of higher learning from its jurisdiction as done for other statutory bodies, such as the Central Bank of Malaysia and the EPF Board, so that academic staff do not have a sword of Damocles hanging over their heads when they exercise their right to academic freedom,” said the Universiti Malaya lecturer.
Azmil Tayeb of the School of Social Sciences in Universiti Sains Malaysia said he will not be satisfied until the Universities and University Colleges Act is repealed. “It must not be replaced with another law,” he said.
Students need the autonomy to manage their affairs on campus, including having a seat at the university senate.
Years of a paternalistic education system have left many students and staff “infantilised” and wary of taking matters into their own hands.
“There are also holdovers of the old regime that are counting on the preservation of the old status quo in spite of the minister’s pronouncements,” he said.
Instead of taking on reforms all by himself, Maszlee and his ministry would do better by establishing an independent body of respected scholars who, through consultations with various stakeholders, can craft a plan of action for restructuring higher education in Malaysia, said Zaharom.
Ngo Sheau Shi of Universiti Sains Malaysia said national search committees for each university should be formed to recruit top management personnel.
Once the top-down appointment system is replaced by a bottom-up approach in the selection of the best talents to lead higher education, then Malaysia will be in a better place to compete and adapt to a more challenging future, she said.