Academic freedom hopes in Malaysian change of guard

Scholars want an end to stifling university legislation, but differ on proposed approach

June 12, 2018
Source: Alamy

Malaysian academics are anticipating the repeal of a widely despised higher education law as post-election optimism buoys a country enjoying its first change of government since independence.

But a former higher education chief has urged caution, saying that precipitate action could leave the sector in a vacuum.

In its pre-election manifesto, the now-ruling Pakatan Harapan coalition pledged to abolish the 1971 Universities and University Colleges Act, which in effect gives the education minister the power to appoint vice-chancellors.

Because vice-chancellors in turn appoint deputy vice-chancellors, deans, heads of department and research centre directors, the legislation gives the ruling political party de facto control over entire university leaderships.

Amendments imposed in the 1970s by Mahathir Mohamad, who has now returned as prime minister but was then education minister, also drastically restricted students’ rights to expression. They had to secure permission to demonstrate, join political parties, collect money for charity, stage dances or debates or even invite cartoonists on to campus.

While 2012 amendments allowed student activism outside campus, the act is still reviled in academic circles. The Ministry of Education is now consulting the sector about its future.

Days before his surprise appointment as education minister, former academic and newly elected MP Maszlee Malik begged for the job. Dr Maszlee, who quit the International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM) to contest the election, said that he had been “among the victims” of the UUCA. “I was telling our top leaders, please give me the honour to move the law to abolish that draconian act,” he told a forum at Sunway University in Kuala Lumpur.

Zaharom Nain, a communication studies professor at the University of Nottingham’s Malaysia campus, said that activist academics previously considered personae non gratae were now being welcomed in bureaucratic circles.

Professor Zaharom, who chairs the Malaysian Academic Movement lobby group, said that discussions were focusing on whether to repeal the act entirely or merely to “throw away the bad bits”. He said that many ministry staff favoured the former option.

“The feeling is let’s move ahead, and that’s a very healthy thing,” he said. “You can’t apply Band-Aids on a malignant tumour.”

The biggest problem with the UUCA, Professor Zaharom said, was its stifling effect on students’ performance. “They are socialised into accepting things that should be questioned.

“Instead of a culture of learning, [there] has been this culture of fear and acquiescence. The independence of the mind is constrained, and without that independence – that ability to seek out knowledge and information – it blunts creative impulses.”

Morshidi Sirat, a former director general of Higher Education Malaysia, also supported the act’s abolition but advocated starting with gradual amendments that reinstated universities’ autonomy.

Professor Morshidi said that the Department of Higher Education should eventually be replaced with a commission responsible for the sector’s overall strategic direction, budgetary matters and monitoring universities’ progress. But he said that the department and the act should be maintained until a commission had been fully established and the private higher education sector – which is regulated under different legislation – had been reviewed. Immediate abolition was “asking for trouble”, he said.

Professor Zaharom said that nobody advocated “dismantling things” without alternatives. He noted the irony that the act was likely to be axed by its 1970s enforcer – the now 92-year-old Dr Mahathir.

“Circumstances change, and we would like to think he’s changed as well,” Professor Zaharom said. “He seems to be doing the decent grandfatherly thing.”

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