A fuzzy no to 'noodle factories'

March 21, 1997

The Malaysian parliament has pushed through final amendments to legislation which sets universities on the path to being run like corporations.

Ministers are optimistic about the impact of changes to the 1971 Universities and University Colleges Act, but many leading academics and the academic community are not.

They adamantly oppose incorporation. But they are also bitterly disappointed that the changes did not include an easing of stifling provisions, enacted following student activism in the early 1970s, which cripple campus political and social debate and activities.

Many academics find it ironic that such a central cause of dissatisfaction was retained despite far-reaching reforms in other areas.

The government had promised amendments to those provisions several years ago when it became clear that the legal constraints on students and lecturers had not only restored calm but led to "intellectual atrophy".

Wan Moktar Wan Yusoff, president of the University Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) staff union, said: "Politicians make a lot of promises."

Many observers are surprised at the muted reaction from university students and staff, especially considering the vigorous campaign of previous years to repeal the restricting provisions.

Academics are still smarting at the lack of consultation and most appear to have a fuzzy notion of what incorporation will mean in practice. They point to the erosion of educational values and the anti-intellectual vocationalism in the institutions of countries which have adopted a corporate business model.

Syed Hussein Alatas, former University of Malaya vice chancellor, speaking at a conference in Malaysia recently, said that the function of a university was "not to look for profit and meet manpower training needs, but to educate and create a thinking society with an intellectual background and personality".

There were, he said, many cultures that promoted dedication, discipline and efficiency, and these were not just the monopoly of corporate business culture.

Predictions about manpower needs invariably turn out to be wrong. Critics point to the numbers of graduates on the dole in more developed countries around the world, including specialists in those disciplines earmarked as expanding by the forecasters.

Wan Hashim Wan Teh, also of UKM, complained: "We are the last to know when we should be the first to be informed."

Another professor said the most recent amendments will pave the way for universities to become "institutions of higher training, run like noodle factories".

The amendments include the abolition of university courts, the replacement of university councils with boards of directors, the reduction of university senates from 300 to about 40 members, the empowerment institutions to borrow money, enter into business ventures, set up companies and corporations, acquire and hold investment shares, and allowing boards to appoint separate disciplinary committees for different categories of staff.

The amendments appear to give greater autonomy to the administration of universities. It is hoped university boards of directors will be able to operate more independently under the the supervision of the new National Council on Higher Education.

Under the old structure the university council had to refer to the ministry on almost everything, from starting new programmes to creating new posts.

However, some academics are concerned that a radically reduced senate may mean less consultation and feedback on university policy. The old senates thrashed out policies very democratically with a membership which included the vice chancellor, deputy vice chancellors, deans, faculty representatives and professors. Policy matters were turned inside-out before they were passed or rejected.

The changes do not give universities the right to decide on new courses, an issue which has long been a sore point with academics. The power to decide on courses continues to belong to the minister.

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