IN Malaysia, for the past few decades, universities have functioned as entities isolated from society at large. This divide can in large part be attributed to a number of factors.
Firstly, publicly funded universities came to be funded by the state. Such funding enabled the government to exercise controls and set the parameters for meaningful interactions between academics and students on the one hand and society at large. These arrangements were part and parcel of the authoritarian nature of governance. Fears of the universities becoming centres for social reforms and political opposition to the party in power were motivating factors for the adoption of regularity powers to curtail interactions.
The strict controls, which academics and students were subjected to, namely the University and Colleges Act, popularly known as AUKU, suppressed not only intellectual discourses
but also independent and critical thinking ― attributes core to the growth of institutions of tertiary learning. Students too were protected from outside influences, and public universities especially came to be treated as adjuncts to the government and lacked the freedom to manage their affairs. Unlike universities in more advanced countries such as the United Kingdom, the European Union and the United States, Malaysian universities are less autonomous and independent. Lacking autonomy, Malaysian public universities become over the years isolated entities; academic staff functioned as public servants; students were treated in the same way as secondary school students. There are few if any events on campuses in which the public participated.
Attempts at breaking loose from the stifling environment did not happen as the prevailing climate was not conducive. For example, the National Council of Professors, initially a noble
initiative to link academics with government and society, and to provide the much-needed space for dialogue between the academia and other stakeholders for societal reformation was hijacked by certain individuals for their self-interests and gains.
Universities need a conducive environment for teaching and learning. Teaching and learning must be the core business of a university.
Malaysian public universities sadly have not evolved sufficiently in this regard.
One important mantra that all universities hold to is quality breeds quality. Universities must recruit talented students and more importantly talented faculty. Regrettably, Malaysia has fallen short in this regard as the government has placed great stress on quantity over quality.
Another feature of the Malaysian scene has been the sharp divide between faculty and students. This can be linked to large class sizes that limit interactions between students and faculty. While it is impractical to pattern learning processes to ancient norms as prevailing in ancient Greece, there is never the less a need to tailor class sizes and teaching methods to those that permit closer interactions.
The peripatetic Greek philosophers walked around green gardens for academic discourse, asking probing questions ― an environment that encourages independent thinking.
Following the 14th General Election, the Academia and the community nation embarked on pursuing major institutional reforms. It is critical that the reform agenda includes comprehensive reforms covering tertiary education. These reforms, among others, should embrace greater autonomy and more flexible financing, e.g. Block Grants distributed by a Universities Grants Commission. Public universities should seek out funding for named Chairs. This exercise will draw universities and the private sector closer, and also reach out to alumni for endowments to bind links. These strategic exercises will allow for greater student autonomy and self-government at public universities.
Another critical dimension to the independence of universities is the empowerment of academics.
Here, academic associations play a significant role.
New reforms and developments that run contrary to the ideals and values of the university should not be tolerated. What W. R. Niblett, the prominent British educationist, identified as an “absence of outrage”, that is “a tired and defeated acceptance of changes”, is a dangerous situation that had somehow found its way among Malaysian academicians. This “silence” is mostly due to the bureaucratisation of the nation’s universities.
The bureaucratisation of universities, which began with the intrusion of government rules and regulations into universities to curb their freedom, has now virtually reduced the learning institutions into appendages of the government. In the interest of the advancement of the academia, this must be stopped immediately. Bureaucratic interventions and excessive demands diminish the ability of academics in fulfilling their responsibilities.
Failure of this nature is detrimental to the creation of a responsible and world-class academic community. Most importantly, bureaucratisation of universities is an issue that needs to be immediately addressed to propel them forward.
It is crucial that bureaucrats understand the neutrality of academics, the intellectual freedom that academics should enjoy, help promote discourses on issues of the day to society at large. The gradual encroachment by bureaucrats into decision-making positions in academia, in limiting resources for the academic, and not providing the underlying support ― support concerning facilities, human resource and funding ― for scholarship to thrive is detrimental to nation-building.
The imposition of New Public Management methods and procedures for quality control processes and the evaluation exercises are not only alien to an academic environment but also time-consuming. It has forced academics to focus on fulfilling the performance indices for their promotions. Thus New Public Management, which was meant to enhance productivity and efficiency, has worked to the detriment of the core business of the academic ― scholarship.
Overall, academics fail to embrace the essence of an academic community as these time-consuming procedures pull the academia away from their duties and responsibilities for their students and the community. Just like any other community, people do not live in isolation but in inter-connectedness and interdependence.
Academics do not stand apart from the community but are a part of it. There is a need to revisit the barriers imposed in the creation of interconnectedness for the benefit of the country and its citizens.
Malaysian public universities must become innovative, creative and think boldly about how to capitalise, leverage, and rebuild the country’s reputation as a dynamic, vibrant and open liberal economy situated in the world’s fastest-growing region of Southeast Asia and the broader Asian side of the Pacific Rim. There is a need for a branding and marketing strategy that profiles and stresses the locational advantages of our public universities. For Malaysia to become known as an attractive and sought after higher education hub not only because of the quality and standards of academic excellence offered but also because of the dynamism and vibrancy of our country’s economy and development, it must first undertake reforms touching on many features of the educational system.
Shakila Yacob is professor of business history at the Department of History, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences and executive director at the International Institute of Public Policy and Management, University of Malaya (UM). She also serves as a director at the Center for Civilisational Dialogue, UM.