The announcement in Parliament by the higher education minister that he will retain what he sees as his prerogative to appoint vice-chancellors, appears as another indication that government control over universities will continue to be maintained.
Also, the statement appears as another retreat from the 11 resolutions he made less than a month ago. One of these resolutions pledged to strengthen the leadership in universities.
The Malaysian academic movement Gerak’s opinion is that “prerogative” as a choice of phrase does not quite describe the statutory power of appointment vested on the minister by the Universities and University Colleges Act 1971 (UUCA), popularly referred to as Auku.
Like all powers of appointment, they must conform to the statutory terms on which they are given, and be exercised for the purpose for which the power is given.
We feel compelled to draw the minister’s attention to Section 4A of the UUCA, which requires the minister to appoint a committee to advise him or her on any appointments that are made by the act.
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It is Gerak’s view that appointments of vice-chancellors must also conform to and strengthen the autonomous position of universities.
While university autonomy may not be an attribute that is supported by the bureaucracy, it is nonetheless one that is firmly recognised by Malaysian courts.
Hence, the minister’s power of appointment cannot be exercised to appoint someone as a delegate of the minister.
Instead, it must be exercised to appoint a person who has proven experience and leadership to head a university as an autonomous institution.
What is needed now is a strengthening of that advisory role of the committee to ensure that the best candidates are chosen to lead our public universities at this critical juncture.
The committee must be composed of experts in higher education, with a diverse range of perspectives and experiences. They should have a deep understanding of the challenges facing higher education today, including the impact of emerging technologies like AI, the disruptions of the Covid pandemic and the need for greater equity and access.
These events have exposed weaknesses in our higher education system. They point to the need for an urgent review of higher education processes and their impact on the position of students in higher education.
Needless to say, it is important for the minister to take a more comprehensive approach to the appointments of vice-chancellors, one that is informed by the needs and aspirations of students, faculty and staff, as well as wider society.
The appointment of vice-chancellors is a critical responsibility, and it is essential that the advisory committee under Section 4A is given the necessary resources and support to carry out its duties effectively.
This will help to ensure that the appointments are made in a transparent and merit-based manner, consistent with the principles of autonomy established by the UUCA.
We thus re-emphasise that the minister must adopt a more collaborative approach to the appointment of vice-chancellors, one that is informed by the needs and aspirations of students, faculty and staff, as well as wider society.
By doing so, we can create a higher education system that truly serves the needs of all students and helps to build a brighter and more prosperous future for our country.
In addition to the appointment of vice-chancellors, it is imperative that we review the position of higher education in this country and work towards creating a more equitable and inclusive system.
This review must take into account the impact of emerging technologies, such as AI, on higher education and seek to address the issues of access, quality and relevance that have been highlighted in recent years.
Hence, Gerak believes that a comprehensive review of higher education processes and their impact on students is urgently needed, and we urge the minister to genuinely facilitate this effort.
By doing so, we can create a higher education system that truly serves the needs of all students – one that helps to build a brighter and more prosperous future for our country. – Gerak
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