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LETTER | Wastage of funds and injustice in public universities

LETTER | Lately, there has been a lot of resentment expressed by various members of the academic community voicing their concern, anger and frustration over a range of issues besieging the higher education community in this country. 

These issues, among others, involved the covering up of sexual harassment cases, the appointment of unsuitable candidates as vice-chancellors, the appointment of politicians as members of universities’ boards of directors, the prevalence of academic staff of questionable quality and the apparent surge in the appearance of kangkung professors in our midst.

Of the above-listed issues, I would like to bring to attention the issues which relatively have not been dwelt upon in detail; the prevalence of academics of questionable quality and the thriving of kangkung culture among our professors.

On the issue of the quality of the academic staff, it must be admitted that we have a mixed bag of academics within our higher education system, ranging from those who are totally useless to those of highly credible standing. 

Academics are appointed to their posts from junior lecturers to senior professors based on a prescribed grade level adopted by all public universities. The criteria and standard of their subsequent promotions, however, differ from one university to the other. 

This is the starting point where the disparity in quality begins. Senior universities tend to be more stringent with their promotion screening, while those newer universities tend to be more lenient in their consideration.

The resulting outcome led to the situation where we have academics within the same discipline and holding the same grade, but with disparate levels of academic competence.

In senior universities where stringent criteria are applied, it would take years for lecturers to develop their knowledge and, more importantly, their experience and maturity before they can be considered to be promoted to associate professors or professors.

In some newer universities, however, promotions to associate professors and professors are liberally given to those who even have barely ten years of teaching experience. This is especially telling in the areas of Social Science. 

Ironically some of these associate professors and professors are hardly at par in terms of their academic competence with lecturers or senior lecturers teaching in the senior universities.

The rush to promote less qualified academics by these universities is partly driven by the universities desire to enhance their image by adding in more “experts” to their list of academic staff in their employ. Never mind that these “experts” are likely to be lying low and would try to avoid any external exposure lest their lack of competence would be revealed.

Apart from being an image enhancement exercise, promotions made also served as a means of rewarding those who are good at apple polishing and those with the “right” political attitude.

Contrary to the image that they were intended to portray, this category of academics, like a drove of donkeys comfortably settled in their corral, serve no useful purpose in the effort to push the envelopes of academic knowledge. 

To preserve this lopsided status quo and to ensure that this vicious cycle of mediocrity continues, these academics would go all the way out to the extend of establishing a cartel among themselves just to ensure that academics of credible standing will not be admitted in their midst.

These academics are, however, useful in endorsing political views and arguments of the government in power. With the titles, Dr, associate professor or professor, these academics lend hollow credibility to these political arguments, intended for the consumption of the unthinking and easily impressionable public. 

Their arguments are mostly devoid of academic theory or facts that are the prerequisite elements in providing credibility and forming the basis of any academic discourse.

Kangkung professors come from this talent pool. As pointed out by Sharifah Munirah Alatas in her Malaysiakini article on June 28, 2021 “Metaphors and the kangkung professors”, this kangkung phenomenon is even more apparent these days. 

As rightly pointed out by Sharifah, with the mushrooming of online webinars and panel discussions by the presence of Covid 19 pandemic, more academics including those who hitherto have been hiding behind their titles to come forward and take advantage of this laissez-faire environment to peddle their “expertise” online.

Apart from producing kangkung academics, unfairly rewarding the undeserving with easy promotion and denying the deserving their due recognition, the current evaluation system for academic staff organised by individual universities are a source of potential waste of government fund. 

The amount of taxpayers’ money spent on these underperforming academics could well be channelled to other deserving national efforts, especially when the country is struggling to come to terms with the current Covid 19 situation.

To get around the problem, it is suggested that standardised promotion criteria and standards, covering all academic disciplines be jointly formulated and monitored by the universities. 

The promotion evaluation exercise should emphasise objectivity, quality and equality across the board. 

Only with such a mechanism in place could we identify real academics from the pseudo academics that occupy our higher education system.   

The writer is an academic in a public university and an exco member of Pergerakan Tenaga Akademik Malaysia (Gerak).

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.

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