We in the Malaysian Academic Movement (Gerak) watched in horror recently as the first sitting of Parliament in a long time collapsed into a farcical demonstration of a regime clearly out of control and, worse, devoid of solutions for the many public health, economic, education and poverty problems we now face.
Now there is talk about the end of this regime or, at least, the replacement of the few battered and wounded at the top by equally battered and wounded from the next level – just like scenes from a predictable and bad soap opera.
The Speaker, trained in law we are told, has clearly been out of his depth, impeding much-needed discussion and debate rather than facilitating them. We will not repeat the colourful description of this poor – but wealthy – man by opposition MP Ramkarpal Singh.
Instead, we wish to highlight the recent plea and proposal on the sidelines of Parliament by Simpang Renggam MP and former education minister Maszlee Malik and the related comments by Socialist Party of Malaysia (PSM) committee member Sharan Raj.
For the duration of this pandemic, Maszlee has consistently provided proposals that address education problems that students, teachers and parents are facing due to this pandemic.
Needless to say, his proposals appear to have fallen on deaf ears. Indeed, we could say the same for any suggestions proposed by groups and individuals in Malaysia who are not part of the regime.
Both education ministries are no different and appear to have been provided some manual authorising them to act bodoh sombong (stupid but arrogant) when questioned and criticised. Indeed, their stance reflects the proverbial hapless deer caught in the headlights of Malaysia’s most dire political crisis spawned by this pandemic. And yet they also behave like arrogant aristocrats who disdain being pushed for coherent policy responses.
Gerak’s stand, to be clear, is that the long-term survival and success of the higher education sector in Malaysia requires structural and systemic reforms.
Nonetheless, we feel that with the present crisis, short-term solutions need to be considered to prevent the virtual destruction of the sector.
In this regard, we turn to Maszlee’s latest appeal for the regime to address the desperate situation private higher education is facing right now. Essentially, while the pandemic has hit Malaysian higher education severely, it is the private higher education sector that appears to have been the most badly hit.
Pre-Covid and pre-lockdown, this sector, according to reports, had over a 40% share of tertiary-level students (530,000 students) in Malaysia, contributing more than RM30bn to the country’s income in 2018. It is a very important sector for the country but has needed assistance over the past year. Sadly, help in a concerted, planned manner evidently has not been forthcoming.
This pandemic and the ensuing crisis do really provide us with the opportunity to separate the wheat from the chaff.
There are ‘mushroom colleges‘, as Raj aptly calls them – private higher education institutions actually set up to exploit the poorer public and provide education of dubious quality. How they got accreditation in the first place only the authorities can explain. Off hand, the term ‘political crony’ often enough crops up.
The point is these dubious institutions should not be saved. But their students will need rescuing, and locating them in the many public vocational colleges, as proposed by Raj, could be the answer.
The opportunity for a genuine qualitative assessment and much-needed pruning – and not political bailing out – of the private higher education sector can and must be taken by the authorities.
This must be done systematically and professionally, led by a team of genuine and independent academic experts, certainly not the Malaysian Qualifications Agency (MQA), hindered by its own credibility issues.
Whether it is pruning, tax exemptions, a tax holiday, tuition fee subsidies or the transfer of academically qualified students to other public institutes of higher education, as have been proposed by both Maszlee and Raj, the Ministry of Higher Education must devise a workable rescue plan.
It hasn’t done so yet. Or at least nothing substantial has been announced and implemented. The Ministry must come out of its deep slumber. It must stop mucking about, like playing politics with boardroom and other senior appointments to our public universities.
It needs to seriously address crucial issues of survival faced by all these institutions, especially the private ones – institutions that are supposed to help educate and prepare a post-pandemic generation.
Precious time has been wasted already, due largely to the ineptness of quite useless people at the very top of the ministry.
We really cannot afford such incompetence and indecisiveness anymore. Good proposals have been provided by people such as Maszlee and Sharan Raj.
We need the ministry to seriously consider these proposals and plan and act wisely now. Not tomorrow, not next week, certainly not next year. – Gerak