By Wong Yan Ke
Recently, Higher Education Minister Khaled Nordin responded in the House of Representatives in writing to Pasir Gudang MP Hassan Karim.
The minister maintained that the Universities and University Colleges Act (UUCA) remains relevant, particularly with respect to university administration. He further argued that abolishing the act would have an adverse impact on the administrative operations of universities.
As a former member of the Committee on UUCA Abolition, with all due respect, I rebut the minister’s claims. The work to abolish the UUCA was almost complete, with only the final step of drafting a new higher education act remaining.
The committee was established in 2018 under the Pakatan Harapan government, led by former education minister Dr Maszlee Malik. The committee consisted of members from diverse backgrounds, such as university professors, constitutional experts, lawyers, academicians, students and university administrators.
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Over the course of a year and a half, the committee held numerous consultations and sought input from various stakeholders. In 2020 the committee presented a final report, six policy papers (including one on university governance) and a reference framework for the new bill.
In addition to abolishing the UUCA, the committee recommended the establishment of a new higher education act to consolidate and harmonise all existing laws related to higher education institutions.
This legislation is based on core principles such as safeguarding academic freedom, university autonomy, institutional accountability, student autonomy and freedom of association. Unfortunately, these reform agendas came to a standstill following the “Sheraton move”.
Thus, the assertion that “the abolition of the UUCA will affect the operation of universities during the transition” is fallacious. Khaled is either misinformed or, worse, the civil servants at the Ministry of Higher Education are failing to report on the progress of the UUCA’s abolition.
The minister intends to empower students by reviving student autonomy and freedom of association without abolishing the UUCA.
However, this demonstrates his ignorance of the historical context of the UUCA and the inherent contradictions in his statement. The UUCA is oppressive and draconian in nature, and cannot coexist with university autonomy, academic freedom and student empowerment.
The UUCA was enacted during the vibrant student movement in Malaysia in the 1970s. At that time, university students were politically conscious and unafraid to voice their criticisms of those in power. Even our current Prime Minister, Anwar Ibrahim, was an active participant in social movements, demonstrating his solidarity with marginalised communities.
Nonetheless, to preserve its power and legitimacy, the government implemented the UUCA, which allows the political appointment of vice-chancellors, while using this extensive authority to infiltrate campuses, direct university operations and curtail student speech and freedom of association, while also undermining student autonomy.
In the wake of the UUCA’s oppressive and draconian nature, universities witnessed a swift erosion of their values. While universities are meant to pursue truth and inspire change, many have succumbed to being mere pawns of political parties.
During the infamous 1MDB corruption scandal, in which former Prime Minister Najib Razak was allegedly involved, public universities failed to denounce the misconduct but rather openly endorsed him with large-scale 1MDB whitewashing events.
Government and universities suppress dissidents, including Umany members and other student activists. This marked a dark period in the history of higher education in Malaysia, where freedom of speech and academic freedom were stifled.
The broad-reaching impact of the UUCA on academicians, ordinary students and student organisations demands immediate and pressing higher education reform. The UUCA grants vice-chancellors (appointed by politicians) extensive power and authority in appointing deans and members of the senate, who should represent academic authority.
This power structure incentivises loyalty to the vice-chancellor and punishes those who do not comply. Academic freedom is entirely subverted: any research or public comments unfavourable to those in power could result in a denial of promotion or contract renewal.
Moreover, student organisations must navigate an arduous and bureaucratic process to hold activities. They are barred from managing finances and are subjected to unreasonable restrictions and interventions. This stifles innovation and creativity among university students.
Additionally, the infamous Articles 15 and 16 of the UUCA allow university disciplinary action against students without due process. Vice-chancellors can dismiss students or dissolve student organisations without a fair hearing or just cause, exemplified by the case of Deputy Youth and Sports Minister Adam Adli Abdul Halim.
Hence, it is abundantly clear that the UUCA is the underlying issue, with its provisions interlocked. The only way to achieve university autonomy, student autonomy and freedom of association, which Khaled claims to support, is to abolish the UUCA. Without abolishing the UUCA, any purported “student empowerment” agenda would be rendered meaningless.
Therefore, I urge cabinet members and deputy ministers to remain committed to their original intentions and manifesto, particularly those who were once student activists or leaders and were politically persecuted under the UUCA and other draconian laws.
It is crucial that the new government recommence the work of abolishing the UUCA, promoting transitional justice and restoring a fresh start for higher education institutions. – Malaysiakini
Wong Yan Ke was former president of University of Malaya Association of New Youth (Umany) and former member of the Committee on UUCA Abolition.
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