HIGHER EDUCATION REFORM IN MALAYSIA
Submission to Minister of Education YB Dr Maszlee Malik
Ministry of Education, No. 2, Tower 2, Jalan P5/6, Precinct 5,
62200 Putrajaya, Malaysia
11 June 2018
Faisal S. Hazis
Lee Hwok Aun
Pergerakan Tenaga Akademik Malaysia (GERAK)
Member of Education International since 2009
89 Jalan Athinahapan, Taman Tun Dr Ismail
60000 Kuala Lumpur
Contact Person: Prof. Zaharom Nain, Chairman
Higher Education Reform in Malaysia
Pergerakan Tenaga Akademik Malaysia (GERAK) joins the rakyat in celebrating GE14 and welcomes the dawn of a new Malaysia. It is a culmination of our aspirations to witness a peaceful and democratic transition of power that ushers in a coalition that promises a wide array of pressing institutional reforms. Regardless of political persuasion, this is a moment of national pride, joy, camaraderie and fulfillment.
GERAK appreciates the new government being mindful of the need for broad, meaningful and effective institutional change. We look forward to the translation of its many manifesto pledges into a policy programme of progressive action.
As academics and scholar-practitioners involved in teaching, research and publication, GERAK is especially eager to see institutional reforms in higher education. We draw on our firsthand knowledge of the problems ailing our universities, as well as the latent potential that can be tapped. We wish to highlight a few key areas of reforms that we believe will help make our universities become more vibrant, excellent and progressive.
1. Restructure University Administration
Malaysia’s higher education institutions have for too long been under the yoke of the Ministry of Education (MoE). Top university managements have rarely spoken independently, let alone analytically. This relationship needs to be reset, from the current overt hierarchy and political subordination to one of mutual respect and critical engagement. This we believe can be achieved via the following:
1.1 Replace all ‘politically appointed’ Vice Chancellors, Deputy Vice Chancellors, Chairman and Boards of Directors - The practice of appointing Chairman, Board of Directors, Vice Chancellors, Deputy Vice Chancellors and other top university administrators on the basis of
political patronage and loyalty has to stop. Instead, we urge the new government to immediately replace all these political appointees with respected, independent-minded, analytical and accountable leaders.
1.2 Establish National Search Committees to appoint the new university top management – In this interim period, we urge that the appointment of new Vice Chancellors, Deputy Vice Chancellors, Chairman and Board of Directors be undertaken by a National Search Committee comprising eminent scholars (serving or retired academics), civil society and corporate leaders, and MoE officials appointed by the Minister. For subsequent appointments, we suggest that each university be authorised to set up its own Committee which shall be fully empowered to nominate its own members and proceed to appoint new university administrators. GERAK is also calling for the introduction of term limits to all top university administrative posts to that of two (2) three (3) year terms, i.e. 6 years maximum.
1.3 Review the membership criteria of Board of Directors and the composition of the University Senate - GERAK also requests a review of the membership criteria of the Board of Directors and composition of the University Senate. The board must include at least one representative from the academic staff association, support staff union and alumni who have hitherto been sidelined from the existing management structure. These groups have a role to play in the running of the university and can provide check and balance. GERAK is adamant that politicians and ex-politicians appointed on the basis of patronage have NO ROLE in University Boards.
The University Senate is another equally important academic decisionmaking body that has long been dominated by the patronage politics of top university managements. Hence, there is a need to reform the composition of University Senates by opening up membership to academics not holding any administrative role who are freely elected to the Senate by their peers. The total number of these nonadministrative academics must equal that of the Deans, Directors and other ex-officio members of the University Senate.
1.4 Trim central university leadership - We request the downsizing of all central university leadership posts in line with the need to empower faculties, centres/institutes, academics and students. Among the posts that should be abolished are that of Deputy Vice Chancellor (Student Affairs) and Pro Vice Chancellors. Student Affairs can be coordinated by a Student Affairs Office.
1.5 Review the appointment of Faculty/Institute/Centre heads – Another area of reform is the appointment of Deans, Deputy Deans, Directors and Deputy Directors based on political or personal loyalties that presently tend to perpetuate a culture of fear and/or blind loyalty. At present, the procedure of appointing academic administrators to these positions varies from university to university. Some provide the platform to nominate a few candidates but the Vice Chancellor ultimately has the power to appoint anybody that he or she deems fit.
Some Vice Chancellors just consult a few faculty members before making an appointment. Other Vice Chancellors do not consult any faculty members but unilaterally appoint individuals who support him or her. Hence, GERAK proposes that the position of Deans, Deputy Deans, Directors and Deputy Directors should be decided via a free and transparent election process among faculty members. We also strongly urge that holders of such positions be limited to two (2) consecutive terms of three (3) years each; six (6) years maximum term limit.
1.6 Decentralize powers at all levels - We need a reset from the current managerialism that operates on the basis of distrust, excessive monitoring and standardization, toward a new mode based on trust, substantive accountability and specialization. This includes more decision-making power in the hands of Deans and heads of departments on matters of recruitment, teaching programmes, discipline-specific assessment and promotion criteria. The Faculty Meeting must also be immediately revived, recognised and respected as the authoritative decision-making body of the Faculty. Meanwhile, a gradual and methodical process of replacing Deans, Deputies, Heads of Departments, etc. can be implemented.
1.7 Change the status of top bureaucratic posts - The posts of Registrar, Chief Librarian, Bursar, Director of Assets and Chief Information Officer, should be re-designated as contract positions payable via an allowance that is separate from the permanent service and salary grade positions of senior bureaucrats. This is to ensure that underperforming senior bureaucrats would not continue to occupy these positions. As well, rotation of such positions would allow for rejuvenation and fresh ideas within the University System.
2. Abolish/Amend Laws that Stifle Academic Freedom
Laws that stifle academic freedom impact negatively on academic excellence as they inhibit analytical and independent thinking crucial for expanding the boundaries of knowledge and guaranteeing the quality, accuracy and objectivity of scholarship. To uphold academic freedom in the New Malaysia, the following legislation should be repealed or amended:
2.1 Repeal the Universities and University Colleges Act (UUCA) – The UUCA is tainted by virtue of it being used, since its inception, to punish dissent and defuse protests. It remains an authoritarian state’s tool of control that contradicts the principles enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We strongly urge the government to replace it with legislation that efficiently regulates the autonomous functioning of universities and protects the freedom of university students and staff in our academic pursuits – underpinned by fundamental protections of freedom of thought and expression. This would ensure our universities function according to recognized international standards and norms.
2.2 Amend Act 605 of the Statutory Bodies (Discipline and Surcharge) – Act 605 needs to be amended to exempt all institutions of higher learning from its authority as has been done for other statutory bodies, for example, the Central Bank of Malaysia and the EPF Board. Only via an amendment to Act 605 can academic staff then be free to participate in the life of academia without fear of administrative sanctions by the civil service.
2.3 Repeal other laws and administrative requirements – Other legislation detrimental to academic freedom are the Sedition Act and the Anti-Fake News Act, while the Aku Janji is a repressive administrative requirement. All do not help build a healthy university environment. GERAK calls for the abolishment of these acts and repressive administrative requirements.
2.4 In place of these laws and repressive administrative requirements, GERAK strongly calls for the enactment of a Freedom of Information Act that will facilitate access for the academic community to the wealth of data presently gathered by numerous government agencies but unavailable to the academic community. Access to a broad range of information produces reliable research and validates good scholarship.
The above measures, GERAK believes, will nurture a culture of freedom of inquiry and expression instead of a culture of fear that is antithetical to critical thinking and creativity. The above measures would also strongly uphold the principle of academic freedom as enshrined in UNESCO’s Recommendation Concerning the Status of Higher Education Teaching Personnel, 1997.
3. Widen Access to Higher Education Institutions
The percentage of enrollment for the 17-23 age cohort in higher education institutions in Malaysia in 2015 was quite low at 26%. Malaysia was ranked at 99 out of 186 countries under the UNESCO gross enrolment for tertiary education. Thailand’s average was 48.9%, China was 43.4%, Philippines at 35.2% and India was 26.9%.
3.1 Increase student intake - Based on the above statistics, it is timely and necessary for the government to increase the number of places in our higher education institutions. Besides opening up more places (especially for TVET), the Ministry should also provide more financial aid to students so as to encourage them to further their studies without being excessively burdened by loans.
3.2 Increase access for students from disadvantaged households – Students from disadvantaged households - based on parents' income and educational attainment - and those who are the first in a family to attain tertiary education must be promoted on a preferential basis.
3.3 Shift from centralized admissions to autonomous admissions – Our public universities must shift from a centralized admissions system to that of autonomous admissions. Each university must be mandated to pursue meritocracy alongside diversity (not just ethnic but also based on region, socioeconomic background, language, nationality, special needs and other relevant criteria).
4. Uphold Meritocracy over ‘Kulitocracy’
We acknowledge the need for and the legitimacy of affirmative action programmes begun under the New Economic Policy (1971). Nonetheless, we also agree with the numerous critical observations that there remain serious problems at the level of implementation. Many who are supposed to benefit from these programmes end up being marginalised while other communities feel unjustly ignored.
4.1 Provide equal opportunity and access to all stages of education - GERAK proposes that the MoE take the lead in looking at crucial questions of equal opportunity and access to all stages of education, with the aim of replacing monolithic ethnic criteria with other fairer measures. This, we believe, will provide the basis for excellence combined with justice.
4.2 Ensure student enrolment is based on merit along with an affirmative preference to students from disadvantaged backgrounds - In this regard, GERAK proposes that university and higher education admissions in general be based on merit along with an affirmative preference given to students from disadvantaged and special needs backgrounds. The enrolment of university students should also reflect the diversity of Malaysian society (i.e. ethnicity, religion, gender, class and age). We believe that a more comprehensive and fairer system of selection (i.e. a means test for the economically disadvantaged), would clearly begin to address issues of lop-sided student demography in the public tertiary education system.
4.3 Ensure faculty recruitment is based on merit - Similarly, in the area of faculty recruitment and training, the efficacy of the seemingly dated Bumiputera - non-Bumiputera dichotomy needs to be re-examined. A system where one ethnic group dominates in public universities while others flock to the private sector is an unhealthy one that only reinforces the idea of and deepens segregation in our society. We must move towards a situation where our (public) universities attract the best talents (preferably Malaysians) and provide training opportunities (PhD scholarships, TVET, for example) to all deserving cases. The system of providing funding purely for Bumiputra candidates (ASTS, SLAB, for example) needs to be re-examined.
4.4 Establish an Office for Diversity and Inclusion - To assist universities achieve these ends, GERAK strongly suggests that all universities establish an Office for Diversity and Inclusion that will assist university administrators to recruit a more diverse faculty and student population in a more just manner.
5. Introduce creative pedagogy and alternative assessment practices
Universities need to eradicate rigidity in the pedagogical practice that becomes the causal factor for learning via rote memorization. Such an approach produces graduates that lack confidence and initiative, are reserved, less analytical and thus less dynamic. To keep pace and to progress in this fast-changing world, it is timely for a more creative pedagogy that promotes academic empowerment and freedom in teaching, as proposed by the 1997 UNESCO Recommendation concerning the status of Higher Education Teaching Personnel.
5.1 Introduce creative pedagogy and alternative assessment - Creative pedagogy and alternative assessment demand flexibility in many areas. It is a call to consider possibilities, understand things in new ways, value and integrate ideas and practices that are accepted and considered as good (if not best) standards of past, present and future. Being creative requires a transformation of existing ideas, programmes, and even practices in view of producing higher education academics and learners who are able to solve problems, overcome challenges and who are open to dialogue and intellectual discourse, and who will provide innovative or alternative solutions.
5.2 Eliminate mundane practices that restrict diversity in thinking and teaching - Valuing flexibility in practice, universities should put a stop to student attendance ticking, academic clock-in/out system, learning just within the four walls, and filling up unnecessary MQA forms and requirements (which should be done by administrators, if need be). These are the mundane, time-consuming practices that restrict diversity in thinking and suppress professional academic autonomy.
5.3 Allow academics to focus on teaching, research and writing - Academics should be given freedom and trust to carry out their scholarly responsibilities. More time has to be allocated for academics to do research and design their lessons and assessments by reducing administrative bureaucracy. Of course, suitable mechanisms could be designed and employed to monitor progress and quality of Higher Education. This could be done professionally through (internal/external) peer-review practices and self-accreditation. Freedom is necessary for developing creativity, promoting analytical and independent thinking and developing ethical norms among Higher Education academics and learners.
5.4 Empower academics - Academics need to be entrusted with greater latitude and flexibility, especially in determining the content of their courses. In some universities, even changing the weightage of assignments in a course's continuing assessment requires faculty approval. Such changes should only require the instructor informing the head of department. Excessive bureaucratic requirements are burdensome to academics and serve auditors rather than students. Excessive bureaucratic requirements result in rigid and retrograde teaching practices, e.g. standardized answers and regurgitation, because the "quality management" process demands that answer schemes are recorded and matched with course contents.
6. Review Academics’ Key Performance Index (KPI)
Presently, there is too much unfairness in the assessment of academics for promotion and annual KPI evaluation. While there is standardization, different universities are using different criteria and weightage to evaluate academic staff. Furthermore, the criteria used are based on administratively-driven university ranking criteria and not on sound academic reasoning. Worse, political patronage and individual loyalties have played a major role in academic promotions. Often, this has resulted in the appointments of professors and academic promotions of those with little or no scholarly background. To improve promotion criteria, we urge the following:
6.1 Introduce KPIs that are reflective of UNESCO’s recommendations - GERAK strongly supports the idea that the criteria for assessment should be in compliance with the ‘1997 UNESCO Recommendation on the Status of Higher Education Teaching Personnel’. The Recommendation states that academics should do four things: teach, do research, contribute to society and be mobile. Examples of criteria that can be used are: (1) teaching - teaching observation, number of graduated postgraduates; (2) research - number of refereed papers, journal articles, books, number of citations, H index; (3) contribution to society - articles in newspapers or popular journals/magazines, public talks, exhibitions, artistic/theatrical performances, community involvement; (4) mobility - presentations in local/overseas conferences, papers with international authors, and sabbaticals or research leave taken overseas.
6.2 Stop the obsession with ISI publications - Universities should allow academics to publish in all reputable journals without discriminating against non-ISI ones. The publication of books or chapters in books (especially among social science, humanities and arts scholars) should also be promoted and not be deemed as second-class publications. Our universities should also upgrade Malay language journals to international standards so that rewards for publishing in Malay may not be less than for in international journals.
7. Dissolve Majlis Professor Negara (MPN)
At many instances since it was formed, MPN has been used to legitimize the previous ruling political party, justifying policies based on race and religious sentiments rather than promoting knowledge and ethical values that help support nation-building. In other words, MPN has been beholden to the powers that be and not to the search for truth or the creation of knowledge. Hence it should be dissolved immediately.
7.1 Professors should have the freedom to engage with stakeholders and others and should not be institutionalized. They should have the freedom to engage with any authority, whether the government, civil society organisations (CSOs), corporations, or any other individuals/groups without the need to go through a council like the MPN.
7.2 Wastage of public funds – Worst and most embarrassingly, the MPN reportedly has been receiving an annual grant of about RM8 million from the government. And yet the council has yet to produce any scholarly study that has made a significant contribution to the betterment of the country.
8. Provide a Safe and Inclusive Working Environment
Sexual harassment is a major issue of concern in institutions of higher learning as it creates a non-conducive and unsafe environment for the well-being of the academic community. This issue has not been addressed effectively or has been simply ignored.
8.1 Increase awareness on the sexual harassment code and mechanism – GERAK strongly supports the implementation of a sexual harassment code and complaint/redress mechanism in all universities (public and private) to address sexual harassment. These codes and complaint/redress mechanisms must be well-publicized and included in welcome/orientation information packs for all students when they begin their university education and for all staff when they are employed. Where the code and complaint/redress mechanism has not been put into place, particularly in private universities, these are to be established soonest so as to bring our universities in line with internationally-recognised global standards of gender sensitivity and behaviour.
8.2 Introduce periodic gender sensitisation programmes – GERAK proposes periodic gender sensitization programmes be conducted for first responders of cases involving sexual harassment, especially heads of departments or wardens. Such trainings would improve the effective handling of cases and also emphasize the severity of the issue. Our universities in the new Malaysia must not trivialise or sweep cases of sexual harassment under the carpet. To ensure the effectiveness of these gender sensitisation programmes, an annual university allocation to raise awareness of the issue must be budgeted for.
8.3 Ensure that universities to be held accountable – University Vice-Chancellors and Registrars must be held responsible for any failure to take appropriate action on or for covering-up reported cases of sexual harassment. Case statistics that are received must be investigated, and their outcomes must be publicized and made available to the campus community. The involvement of academic staff associations/unions is paramount and representatives must be incorporated in all complaint/redress mechanisms or panels to investigate such cases.
9. Stop Unethical Academic Practices – Plagiarism, Cheating and Academic Bullying
There have been too many cases uncovered of plagiarism, cheating during assignments/exams and academic bullying in our universities. These unethical even illegal practices inhibit genuine scholarship and impede creativity. They stymie originality of thought and intellectual growth. Their prevalence reflects the tendency of some university students and academics to involve themselves in repugnant practices that are antithetical to genuine scholarship. These unethical practices ultimately undermine the very foundations of knowledge and eventually the country’s progress. GERAK strongly proposes that the following be implemented soonest:
9.1 Root out academic plagiarism and cheating – There is no excuse or explanation that justifies plagiarism or cheating, whether by academic staff or students. The normal penalty for such unethical practice is a severe reprimand/sanction leading to expulsion from study/employment from the university depending on the gravity of the offence. However, all so accused must be given a fair hearing for their alleged offences. Students/Academics found guilty of plagiarism/cheating and expelled from university must not be readmitted into any university setting to continue academic careers or to resume their studies.
9.2 Stop academic bullying - Academic bullying seems to be on the rise. Many students and academics feel intense pressure to publish material (irrespective of its scholarly significance or value) with the advent of institutionalised policies for postgraduate students to copublish with their academic supervisor/s. This is a practice unheard of previously in the humanities, arts and social science disciplines. Allegedly, senior academic staff often pressure subordinates under their authority to include their names in publications as seen by the diverse areas of publication of some senior academics that are clearly unrelated to their known expertise. Contract staff are particularly vulnerable to such bullying. GERAK proposes that periodic awareness raising of these unethical practices needs to be highlighted with an ethical code and a complaints/redress mechanism established to combat this problem. The unethical requirement for postgraduate students to publish with their supervisor/s in the humanities, arts and social science disciplines has to end.
9.3 Establish an Office of the University Ombudsman – To ensure our universities live up to internationally-recognised global standards of ethical principles and scholarly excellence, GERAK proposes that all universities establish an Office of the University Ombudsman that will provide independent oversight and be responsible for monitoring both academic and other non-academic rights and quality standards. The Office of the University Ombudsman shall be vested with the authority to hold the University Administration accountable to maintain internationally-recognised academic standards of practice that guarantee academic integrity, autonomy and high-quality scholarship.
10. Establish the Committee on Institutional Reforms of Higher Education
GERAK urges the new Minister of Education to establish a Committee on Institutional Reforms of Higher Education (CIRHE) so that these issues and other areas of institutional reforms that need further deliberation can be looked into. This CIRHE should be chaired by a senior academic who has been in the system and who is fully aware of the gravity of the situation of Malaysian academia.
GERAK believes that among some additional key issues that need to be addressed by the CIRHE are a review of all university constitutions, rules and decision-making processes to ensure that they conform to internationally-recognised standards of practice and are in harmony with human rights, academic freedom and university autonomy. Such a committee would study and propose ways to reduce the presence of unnecessary, overlapping and burdensome red tape in universities; review centrally determined KPIs and the present MOE obsession with ratings; re-evaluate the role of accreditation agencies like MQA and MyRA; re-evaluate promotion criteria for academics and administrators; and promote a new university culture that values openness, discussion, diversity, ideas, collegiality, transparency, ethics meritocracy and democratic decision-making.
GERAK stands ready to assist the MoE to achieve these fundamental institutional reforms, whether in terms of creative ideas, developing innovative policy measures or via the secondment of any of its suitably qualified members to any ministerial committee, if so required.
GERAK believes that with the adoption of these measures, Malaysian universities and academia can finally reclaim their autonomy and freedom. Both are crucial in producing the academic excellence necessary to power our society and country forward into the brave new world of the 21st Century.