Education was a high priority reform area for Pakatan Harapan before the last election. Yet Malaysia’s public universities are still going backwards under Pakatan, as they were for the previous Barisan Nasional Government.
Only two Malaysian universities were in the THES Asia Ranking in 2019. Universiti Malaya (UM) founded in 1905 was in the 300s grouping in the THES International Rankings and Universiti Kebangsaan (UKM) Malaysia formed in the early 1960s to uphold the Malay language is somewhere in the 600s grouping.
Most other Malaysian public universities are in the hundreds and low thousands in the THES rankings. They are either declining or staying stationary. Any minor improvements have been in these groupings and are not very significant. The excuse traditionally used for poor ranking performance was that Malaysian universities are young, but so are those in Hong Kong, Singapore and China which have scored very well.
In the election manifesto Pakatan promised to 1. Develop quality education, 2. Bring a renewed respect towards the teaching profession, 3. Reduce the administrative workload of academic staff, and 4. Put greater focus on technical and vocational education.
Dr. Mazlee Malik, previously an academic himself was a controversial choice for Minister of Education. Newly elected to parliament, he is inexperienced, has supported the continuation of racial quotas, and appears to be acting with a sublime religious agenda.
The major problems facing Malaysia’s universities are a reflection upon the way Malaysian general society is today. Reform is about tackling the ‘state of mind’ that is presently engulfing Malaysian public universities to bring the radical reform needed to make them relevant to contemporary society and competitive within the region.
The crux of the issue is university culture. Reforming Malaysia’s public universities requires a massive exercise in cultural transformation.
Malaysian public universities are introverted. Their set mission by the government is to primarily produce skilled and obedient workers for Malaysian industry. In response to high graduate unemployment, universities took a secondary focus on entrepreneurship. However this domain of study is taught by primarily Malay academics with little or no personal entrepreneurial or business experience. The environment for developing critical and creative thinking that is necessary to solve problems and develop commercial innovation is lacking in curriculum. Campus culture within Malaysian public universities is also rigid.
Islam has a long association with scholarship and science. However institutionalized Islam within university campuses in Malaysia is codified into practices that infer conformity, rather than diversity. In Malaysian universities the examination and discussion about other ideologies and religions is largely supressed. The religious department is really and Islamic department. Regulations, dress and behavioural codes all reflect Islamic conformity.
Another force making public universities insular are the carefully selected appointments to top university positions. All appointments to the writer’s knowledge at Vice Chancellor level, bar one, have been local Malays. The last two Vice Chancellor appointments have been people with similar Islamic beliefs to the minister of Education Dr. Mazlee. This very narrow selection pool of potential vice chancellors is preventing public universities from breaking out of their comfort zones.
Academic appointments don’t share the diversity of the land and have led to a teaching staff heavily weighted in favour of Malays. Public university teaching staffs, and administration staff for that matter don’t reflect national demographics. This is not good for diversity of ideas and meritocracy.
One of the ironic things in staff academic selection and employment is that university authorities seem more prepared to employ an Indian, Bangladeshi, or Iraqi, in favour of a local Chinese or Indian scholar.
Vice Chancellors, deans and other office bearers tend to turn their little turfs into little empires. They employ ‘their own team’ and as a consequence become nepotistic rather than meristic in their staff selection. Some universities will only employ staff from within their own state, thus drastically reducing the size of the employment pool to pick the best people for the job.
This power concentrating sense of management is not healthy in an academic environment and leads to deep campus politics.
This culture is also reflected in the academic grant system for research. Most often, it’s the senior, who have patronage that get grants rather than the best applications. The system is full of patronage and bureaucracy where those who know the system prevail and prevent the best projects from being funded. Grant selection in this conservatism seek safety and will tend to select repetitive projects that can be finalized within tight timeframes rather than novel projects that have an apparent risk involved.
Public universities have long been losing their best academics to overseas universities and even the private universities set up in Malaysia. This drain of the most experienced and senior academics was exponentially increased when the Najib Government cut staff funding and salaries for professorial staff a couple of years ago. This decision was not reversed by the Pakatan Government, so many of Malaysia’s most renown and senior professors have retired at a time they are need most to help revamp the institutions they have worked for over many years. This retired group were mainly educated in the US, UK and Australia and tend to be well connected with international academics all around the world. They have left the ship to a much younger group of academics who lack the depth of experience the old guard had. This is a great loss for Malaysian public universities.
What courses are taught at Malaysian public universities has been primarily determined at ministry rather than university level. Its been what the ministry of Education sees as what skills are needed in industry as the major criteria for what degrees and courses are taught at faculty level.
The actual curriculum designed for these courses is primarily developed by younger academic staff, who have limited experience, limited resources, time constraints, and no opportunity to visit other universities teaching similar subjects to assess the issues involved with developing a new curriculum.
Deans and their staff usually take all the overseas study trips and the junior staff are left to cut and paste a curriculum. Curriculum designers have to content with Bloom’s Taxonomy, Objective Based Education (OBE), and even irrelevant ISO considerations. At the class level teachers are so busy complying to paperwork demands when teaching, it prevents them from bringing out their best from their class through their own styles of teaching.
Teachers need to be taught how to learn within their subject areas and teaching methods within the classroom rather than how to comply with documentation.
Student Councils were ironically set up by Mahathir when he was education minister to control the student voice on campus. The Universities Act made it illegal for students to be involved in politics or protest, even though this is unconstitutional. Student Councils need to be disbanded and replaced with independent student unions. The unions should be recognized by the administration and have representation on University Board of Directors.
Students should be allowed to participate in the political system and hold forums and discussions on topics important to students and society in general.
Universities need to be centres of thought and discussion. Visitors to universities like Zakir Naik give students a narrow view, where other more diverse views should be presented to students so they can make up their own minds on issues.
There needs to be a focus on innovation and excellence (well overused word on Malaysian campuses) rather than rankings. University populations need to reflect the demography of the nation. Anything else will be dangerous and harm national welfare over the long term.
The bottom line is that the quality of degrees given out need to be questioned. There is something wrong when graduates are earning the low salaries that they are.
Students may be competent in the technical knowledge they have. They must also be competent at critical and creative thinking and be able to competently present what they know at the job level. The Malaysian Qualifications Agency (MQA) needs a major shake up on this matter as it is the keeper of degrees in the country.
What is not adequately measured in university rankings is the environment students are immersed within during their university education. University should be a total life experience. Diversity on campus will go a long way to widening the perspectives of Malaysian students for the rest of their lives.
The fact that Universiti Tunku Abdul Rahman (UTAR) has run into second best Malaysian University in less than 20 years of existence as a university is telling about the plight of Malaysian public universities.
The current Malaysian University Blueprint has failed. The very assumptions that Malaysia’s universities were built upon need to be urgently questioned. Diversity is a national asset and must take precedent over the sublime agenda in place today which has been common to both BN and Pakatan Governments.
It’s time for Pakatan to make the hard decisions.
Originally published in the Asia Sentinel