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Why UUCA must go: Academic freedom is key to quality education

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For a nation to grow and progress, all must preserve and respect academic freedom – especially those in power, Khoo Ying Hooi writes.

Higher Education Minister Noraini Ahmad recently confirmed that the Universities and University Colleges Act (UUCA) would not be abolished, thus overriding the previous Pakatan Harapan government’s commitment to do away with this law.

Noraini said this in a written reply to former education minister Maszlee Malik on 27 July.

The UUCA was amended in 2018 to allow university and college students to take part in on-campus political activities without fear of repercussions. Similarly, the Private Higher Educational Institutions Act 1996 and the Educational Institutions (Discipline) Act 1976 were amended for the same purpose. 

Earlier, PH had promised to repeal the UUCA to allow greater space for academic freedom. The move was also aimed at putting in place new governance and financing structures that would be more sustainable and conducive to academic freedom and university autonomy.

Although freedom of expression is enshrined in the Constitution, students have not fully enjoyed this right. They worry about the repercussions of speaking up against injustice.

Let’s look at the importance of academic freedom not only for students and academics but also in nation-building. 

Although the term academic freedom does not expressly appear in human rights instruments, some of them broadly cover much of the definition and meaning of academic freedom. For instance, Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights protects freedom of opinion, expression and belief.

Last year, I was involved in a regional project to remap and analyse human rights and peace education in South East Asia. The project was initiated by Strengthening Human Rights and Peace Research and Education in South East Asia (Shape-Sea). The report analysed the human rights and peace education status and the challenges faced by universities in the 11 countries of this region.

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In South East Asia, human rights and peace are part of the constitutions of almost all countries. In some countries, they are reflected in specific policies and legislation on human rights and peace. However, due to the differing views of the various governments on these issues, the situation of human rights and peace varies from country to country. 

In the report, academic freedom was identified as one of the key challenges in the region. The report found that the sociopolitical pattern of each country directly or indirectly affects the status and development of human rights and peace education.

For instance, in Malaysia, no university offers a human rights degree apart from several subjects on the topic.  The University of Malaya (UM), Universiti Utara Malaysia (UUM) and a few others offer human rights studies as a subject. 

Related to this, the report also identified that political will greatly affects human rights and peace policies and legislation, as well as human rights and peace education. The state’s discourse and methods for understanding human rights and peace play a vital role in shaping the development of human rights and peace education. 

At the international level, several stakeholders have developed a new index rating for countries based on their level of academic freedom. The Academic Freedom Index (AFi) is a collaborative effort by the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg in Germany; the Global Public Policy Institute, a Berlin-based think tank; the Scholars at Risk Network, a New York-based organisation that monitors academic freedom and assists threatened scholars; and the Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) Institute, based at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden.

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The AFi aims to inform stakeholders, provide monitoring yardsticks, alter incentive structures, challenge university rankings, facilitate research and promote academic freedom.

It has eight components with five indicators that are “expert-coded”: freedom of research and teaching, freedom of academic exchange and dissemination, institutional autonomy, campus integrity, and freedom of academic and cultural expression.

The other three components are based on factual data: constitutional protection of academic freedom; international legal commitment to academic freedom under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the existence of universities. 

Countries are divided into one of five brackets based on their overall academic freedom score from A to E and another category is for those with insufficient data. Malaysia falls under category C, indicating that Malaysia has much to improve on in terms of the five components, as the AFi identified. 

The concept of academic freedom has evolved, and universities and colleges have reached a consensus on it, linking it to freedom of thought.

Teaching, researching, studying, publishing, and discussing should not be subjected to restraint and interference in institutions of higher education. This is to ensure that academics and students can use rigorous research methods and professional knowledge to explore the truth in various fields to generate new knowledge. 

To preserve academic freedom, as long as the content of teaching and research topics are in line with the goal of pursuing truth and building knowledge, university authorities – regardless of their power and influence – must not interfere in the teaching and research of teachers and students.

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Now that the decision to repeal the UUCA has been reversed, rigorous debates should continue on the importance of academic freedom as the fundamental pillar of scientific progress, research collaboration, and quality higher education. The government must have a strong will for political reforms and must not interfere in campus affairs to ensure that our universities remain vibrant, dynamic and progressive.

For a nation to grow and progress, all must preserve and respect academic freedom – especially those in power. Only in this way will we be able to ensure and enjoy quality education. 

Khoo Ying Hooi
Co-editor, Aliran newsletter
22 August 2020
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