What should student freedom look like and where should it start? Mustafa K Anuar speaks to lecturers and students.
Education Minister Maszlee Malik has promised university students greater political freedom and has instructed institutions to allow students to organise their own programmes and forums.
But other than allowing a speakers’ corner to encourage freedom of expression, what student freedom should really look like and where it should start still has universities fumbling in the dark.
Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia’s Mohd Hariszuan Jaharudin said even after Maszlee’s announcements, campus elections at UKM are still conducted by the students’ affairs department (HEP), instead of a students’ body.
Having said that, however, the research fellow of the Institute of Malaysian and International Studies (Ikmas) said students may not have been able to independently manage the election after years of being spoon-fed “guidance” from the students’ affairs department.
Hariszuan, a former student activist, believes that students should reclaim political autonomy so that they can conduct elections on their own. The final objective is, he said, to cease the role of the department.
“The autonomy that is hoped for in the context of campus politics is the students’ freedom to determine their activities and have control over their finances, which are now undertaken by HEP,” he said.
Students should be aware that they have the right to manage their finances in relation to their campus activities, part of which is derived from student fees, he said.
“Students should demand that their fees go directly to the students’ body, such as the Students’ Representatives Council or students’ union, and also demand accountability of this body should financial mismanagement occur. This helps promote soft skills among students.”
He said freedom doesn’t necessarily determine academic excellence, even though this is an important prerequisite. “University autonomy should also mean the autonomy of faculties. Every faculty should have the freedom to determine its own measuring rod. It is not fair to impose a certain standard on all faculties.”
Hariszuan said a large number of academics and administrative staff today are products of 50 years of the Universities and University Colleges Act, which governs what students and academics can and cannot do.
“(Academics in public universities) feel that as government servants, they should behave as such – guided by the same manual and a daily culture of punch in/punch out.
“It requires more than just media statements from an education minister to make them change their attitude.”
Lack of critical thinking
What is missing for Hariszuan is the absence of a critical culture, be it among academics or students. “And the root of this problem can be traced to the schools. It is, therefore, impossible or unfair to place the burden of changing attitudes solely on the universities.”
Tasha, a student at a public university in the north of the peninsula, is still cynical of the professed guarantee of students’ political freedom. “Has the Education Ministry provided guidelines of any sort, or enforced anything in black and white, so that the universities have no choice but to comply?” she asked.
Deeper than that is the matter of undoing the damage of suppressed ideas and voices over a long period of time, she said. “We’ve gone to the extent of actually being afraid of discourse, on the grounds that it will offend people.
“But we’re okay with ‘discourse’ in the name of religion despite such things being oppressive or offensive by nature.
“Personally, I think that academic excellence will naturally follow if ideas are allowed to flow through, and there is room for discussion without fear of repercussions for ‘saying the wrong thing’ or ‘offending’ people.
“I’m hoping that the intellectual vibrancy we all crave for can be cultivated by simply allowing an open space to flourish.”