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LETTER | Let’s reform our higher education system

LETTER | On the eve of the 15th general election (GE15), Pergerakan Tenaga Akademik Malaysia (Gerak) stands firmly behind Pakatan Harapan (Harapan) as the coalition of choice to lead Malaysia out of the multiple crises it finds itself in, including the crisis confronting our higher education.

But why Harapan? Quite simply, because it is the only coalition in the history of Gerak’s existence – and we have been around for more than a few years – that reached out to us and other reform-minded civil society organisations (CSOs) during its brief tenure from 2018 to 2020.

There were genuine attempts to work together to repair much of the damage that had been inflicted by the BN regime, that for decades, was arrogant and at the same time, was incompetent in handling our higher education sector.

After the Sheraton Move in 2020, after the betrayals against the people’s mandate, very little progress has been made by the regime that wrested power and higher education in Malaysia remains in a crisis.

Hence, for us, the two opposing factors – Harapan’s willingness to genuinely address our higher education crisis and collaborate with concerned organisations like Gerak to come up with democratic solutions, and the sheer incompetence and indifference, on the other hand, of the caretaker minister and her minions – enjoins us to take this stand.

Hence, Gerak also offers a summary of the main issues affecting higher education that the new government must address urgently.

Reactivate the National Council on Higher Education

There are at least six Acts of Parliament dealing with the establishment and management of higher education institutions.

There are no less than six different types of degree-awarding institutions with about six types of universities.

The divisions, including the public and private, are the result of ad hoc policies devised by politicians out of political rather than educational considerations. There is currently no single authority to unite the system and coordinate its role in the development of higher education.

Harmonisation of the system will require the establishment of a higher education commission or similar entity to regulate the different types of institutions, subject to the same standards, and bring them within a single funding regime.

The National Council on Higher Education, established by an Act of Parliament in 1996, was to coordinate the policies on higher education, which the minister was to implement.

The council ceased to function from 2013 onward, without any reasons being given. Widening the scope and constitution of the council and giving it powers of enforcement may be an alternative to the establishment of a commission.

Whatever the solution, there have to be safeguards against noncompliance by the government with the laws it passes.

Limit government interference in varsities

There is excessive interference by our government in the educational processes of higher education institutions.

In the case of private institutions, the interference is written into Act 555 which regulates private universities and colleges.

Public universities and higher education institutions, like government-linked companies (GLCs) are used by the ruling dynasties to reward political loyalists.

The government’s power to appoint university vice-chancellors, their deputies and directors on the board of universities has impacted university governance and the accountability by the senior officials of the university and its board of directors.

Instead of focusing their duties on the university community of academics, students and the public, these officials act to appease the government and seek its patronage.

The appointment of vice-chancellors, their deputies and directors must be made by an independent agency such the proposed commission or a reconstituted National Council on Higher Education.

Codify laws to protect students’ and academics’ rights

There are attributes associated with universities without which they lose their special character.

The Universities and University Colleges Act 1971 (UUCA)is silent on matters such as university autonomy, academic freedom and students’ right to participate in the governance of universities, all of which are important attributes for the university, academics and students to play their respective roles in the university.

These essential attributes must be legislated. UUCA or any new legislation that is passed must entrench these essential rights.

Protecting undergraduates’ interests

Despite the rhetoric of student-centred education, current legislation on higher education provides little to safeguard the interests of students.

Most of the provisions directed at students deal with discipline and what they are prohibited from doing. There is a provision under Act 555 which allows the Higher Education Ministry to take action against the institution when students’ interests are under threat, but the provision lacks clarity to be of any practical use.

There are no similar provisions in the other legislation. Without any legislative safeguards, students have to rely on their contractual relationship with the institution.

Although the Consumer Protection Act 1999 was amended 10 years ago to extend protection to students, recent cases where students were stranded with courses that were not accredited show that neither the Higher Education Ministry, Malaysian Qualifications Agency (MQA) nor the Consumer Tribunal was able to adequately resolve the students’ problems.

Inclusiveness and non-discrimination

A root problem that affects not just the higher education system but many other aspects of civil rights is entrenched discriminatory practices to appointments to public office.

Discrimination is rampant in our public universities and higher education institutions as well.

The solution is simple, but its implementation requires a commitment from the government to change these discriminatory practices, not only in the admission of students but in the appointments of vice-chancellors and directors.

Ignoring this weakness in the system will leave our universities simply as entities bearing that description, like places of worship that have burnt their basic documents.

Endorsed by:

Zaharom Nain, Chair, Pergerakan Tenaga Akademik Malaysia (GERAK)

Wan Manan Wan Muda, Foundation Chair, GERAK

Andrew Aeria, Exco, GERAK

U.K. Menon, Life member, GERAK

Azmyl Yunus, General Secretary, GERAK

Chris Chong, Member, Gerak

Muhammad Adli Musa, Exco, GERAK

Ngo Sheua Shi, Exco, GERAK

Yuwana Podin, Exco, GERAK

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

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