GERAK Press Statement on the amendments to the University and University Colleges Act
18 August 2008
GERAK, a registered society that has been actively supported by academic staff associations and unions of all public institutions of higher learning, and hence being a voice of the more than 23,000 academicians in these institutions, is of the opinion that in order for Malaysian universities to improve to the “world class” standard touted by the government, the following elements must be in place:
- Academic freedom for staff to teach, conduct research and disseminate research findings and opinions, without fear or favour
- Student autonomy to associate and express opinions in a free and open manner in order to expand their intellectual and social horizons thus ensuring graduates who are worldly, and intellectually mature
- A university culture based on intellectual integrity and academic merit
- Autonomy of universities to make decisions in the best interest of academia and society and not political interests
GERAK is pleased that the Ministry of Higher Education has started the process of amending the University and University Colleges Act (UCCA); however we are doubtful that the amendments will make any significant changes that will lead to the elements mentioned above. Although input from GERAK was obtained in July 2006, the amendments that are being put forward in the proposed bill have not satisfactorily addressed many of the concerns voiced two years ago.
In particular, we are concerned about governance, integrity and academic freedom and among the matters we are concerned with are the following:
- The committee proposed by the amending bill to choose the Vice Chancellor is a vague entity with no clear terms of reference and no indication of its membership. It is uncertain if they will be a true “search committee” which has the freedom to advertise for the post of VC or whether they will play a mere short listing role, working with candidates proposed by the Ministry. It is also unclear if the Minister has final discretion ij the choice of VC.
- The same worries and doubts apply to the composition of the Board of Directors, Senate and the selection of Deputy Vice Chancellors and Deans as well as the rules and criteria that will be used in the selection and running of these governing bodies.
- On the face of it, students have greater freedom to join organisations; however the restrictions on joining political parties and “illegal organisations”, raises problems. Regarding political parties, there is no logical reason provided in the explanatory notes, why a student has fewer rights than a non-student citizen. Regarding “illegal organisations”, this is a broad group which could include bona fide NGOs which have trouble registering with the registrar of Societies. Furthermore, the VC still has very broad discretionary powers to name any group or organisation as banned for students.
- Student expression is limited to “properly organised” forums like seminars etc. This goes against Article 10 of the Constitution which guarantees a right of speech.
- The proposed new section 15D which states that students charged with a registrable offence may be suspended by the VC goes against the principle of the presumption of innocence.
- The proposed removal of section 16A of the UUCA means that all staff disciplinary matters is now under the Statutory Bodies Discipline and Surcharge Act (SBDSA). The SBDSA is a law which covers the entire civil service and it is very restrictive, especially on the freedom of expression. Academics in public universities, although being paid by the government, are working under very different circumstances from civil servants and thus should not be subject to the same disciplinary rules
Due to the very short time the draft bill has been available for discussion and based on the serious concerns above, GERAK implores that the bill amending the UCCA is not debated in Parliament until further public discussion can take place in order for any changes to the UCCA to be meaningful and for it to be able to move our universities towards “world class” standards, which GERAK believes is what both the universities and the government wishes for.
Prof. Wan Abdul Manan Wan Muda
Pergerakan Tenaga Akademik Malaysia (GERAK)
(Malaysian Academics Movement)