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Reform our universities and their myriad of unresolved problems

Restore the National Council on Higher Education, abolish sloganeering, do away with the ‘publish-or-perish’ culture

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Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim visited Singapore earlier this year.

As part of his official task, he met the Malaysian community in Singapore, delivered a speech, and engaged in a question-and-answer session. It was an excellent speech, particularly for the following two points.

First, referring to the concept of “Malaysia Madani” (Civil and Compassionate Malaysia), Anwar said we need to move forward to transform the country, thoughtfully and together. On the issue of the economy, Anwar said we need to attract domestic and foreign investments, which can be achieved with prolonged political stability. However, while the aim is to achieve growth, we should recognise and be wary of unbridled capitalism.

Second, Anwar mentioned that politicians and the civil service bureaucracy must take their jobs seriously. Lackadaisical attitudes, unpreparedness at major meetings and discussions, and tardiness in coming to decisions have resulted in many unresolved problems.

For me, a good case in point is the myriad of unresolved problems facing our universities, which are compounded by the high turnover in ministers of higher education over the past few years, the absence of political will, and the uninformed need for endless new committees to ‘study’ these problems.

In 1996 Syed Hussein Alatas delivered a paper at a symposium. It was titled “Erring modernisation: The dilemma of developing societies”.

The talk addressed the notion of modernity and social development, and how “unbridled” development in science and technology has tipped towards the widespread provision of material needs – at the expense of the spiritual, ethical, artistic and philosophical needs of society.

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The trade-off for material development is a loss of meaning of life, a sense of alienation from nature, the “impersonalness” of human relations, the destruction of the ecosystem, selfishness, uncaring politics and loneliness.

Anwar’s “growth, but not unbridled capitalism” alludes to this, which brings me to my next point.

Restore the NCHE

Recently, the Ministry of Higher Education announced that a committee will be formed soon to review the national higher education policy. The minister said the committee will be given three months to submit findings and suggestions for improvement.

He also indicated that some policy adjustments should be implemented which demanded a change in the way of working, thinking and action.

Sounds excellent.

However, the MoHE should quickly restore the National Council on Higher Education (NCHE) instead. Rather than form endless committees, we already have the NCHE, which was established by an Act of Parliament in 1996.

The NCHE was meant to decide on policies on all matters concerning higher education.

However, due to growing political interference in the policymaking role of the NCHE, it has remained dormant since 2011.

There is an urgent need to tackle several problems in our universities which should not be done by ad-hoc committees.

Rather, the minister must have the political will to re-ignite the NCHE and systematically and intelligently bring experts on board. He must be open to various suggestions from these experts if he is serious about holistic higher education reform.

Equally important is that the MoHE must abolish sloganeering and rhetoric.

Real reforms needed

People want real reforms, carried out by committed and honest individuals, in a transparent manner.

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Over the decades, many suggestions of important reforms have been made by academics, student leaders, civil society groups, parents and the public. It is very easy for the minister and his team to access these suggestions.

They include restructuring university administration, amending laws that stifle academic freedom, abolishing silly rules like clocking in and restrictive dress codes, reviewing academics’ key performance indicators (KPIs), and putting a stop to unethical academic practices such as plagiarism, academic bullying and sexual harassment.

My additional suggestions are as follows.

The ‘publish or perish’ culture must be addressed immediately.

Mediocre work and bureaucracy

For example, the mediocre work done across various social science disciplines in Malaysian public universities is horrendous.

Yet, there are scores of newly minted professors and PhDs sprouting up like taugeh (bean sprouts) on account of the piles of publications they produce.

Also, the heavy hand of bureaucracy in university administration, the rigid departmental criteria for KPIs, and the nagging requirements for promotion must also be addressed by the minister and the re-instated NCHE.

The ministry and the council must also have serious conversations about the need to transform our attitude towards knowledge production. In other words, despite having five research universities, we need to question the kind of research being funded.

I doubt the public actually knows why these five universities have been singled out as research universities or what their status means for the allocation of the national budget. How does this affect the overall development of the country? How does this enhance the daily lives of ordinary Malaysians?

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Prejudice and discrimination

The NCHE could help plug these gaps in communication while attempting to improve the quality of the ‘knowledge transfer’ role of the university. This fulfils the ‘third mission’ of the university, which is the relevance of teaching and research for society at large.

Also, our neurosis in linking the university curriculum to market forces is dangerous. There are other values to instil in the university classroom, but this narrative is repeatedly drowned out by the ethos of material transaction, buried in market parlance.

The NCHE must openly engage all stakeholders to identify what these values are and how to bring them back to the lecture hall. For example, growing feelings of prejudice and acts of discrimination among young Malaysians is a disturbing development in our society. This must be addressed in our schools and universities.

Under the unity government, we have high hopes for the reform of both our school and university systems. With Anwar helming a reform government, there is hope. Reviving the NCHE must be a visible part of his team’s reform agenda. – Free Malaysia Today

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

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