An agenda for the reform and development of higher education in Malaysia

On the eve of GE15, GERAK stands firmly behind Pakatan Harapan (PH) as the coalition of choice to lead Malaysia out of the multiple crises it finds itself in, including the crisis confronting Malaysian higher education.

But why PH? Quite simply, because it is the only coalition in the history of GERAK’s existence – and we have been around for more than a few years – that reached out to us and other reform-minded civil society organisations (CSOs) during its brief tenure from 2018 to 2020.

There were genuine attempts to work together to repair much of the damage that had been inflicted by a BN regime that for many decades was arrogant at the same time as it was incompetent, certainly in handling our higher education sector.

After the Sheraton Move of 2020, after the betrayals against the people’s mandate, very little progress has been made by the regime that wrested power, and higher education in Malaysia remains in a crisis.

Hence, for us, the two opposing factors – PH’s willingness to genuinely address our higher education crisis and collaborate with concerned organisations like GERAK to come up with democratic solutions, and the sheer incompetence and indifference, on the other hand, of the caretaker minister and her minions – enjoins us to take this stand.

Together with this stand, GERAK also offers a summary of the main issues affecting higher education that the new Government must address urgently.

1. The system is highly divided with different sets of policies and laws regulating the different divisions of the system.
There are at least six acts of parliament dealing with the establishment and management of higher education institutions. There are no less than six different types of degree-awarding institutions with about 6 types of universities. The divisions, including the public/private division are the result of ad hoc policies devised by politicians out of political rather than educational considerations. There is currently no single authority to unite the system and coordinate its role in the development of higher education.

Harmonization of the system will require the establishment of a higher education commission or similar entity to regulate the different types of institutions, subject to the same standards, and bring them within a single funding regime. The National Council on Higher Education, established by an act of parliament in 1996, was to coordinate the policies on higher education, which the Minister was to implement. The Council ceased to function from 2013, without any reasons being given. Widening the scope and constitution of the council and giving it powers of enforcement may be an alternative to the establishment of a commission. Whatever the solution, there has to be safeguards against noncompliance by the government of the laws it passes.

2. Government interference in the governance and management of higher education institutions.
There is excessive interference by government in the educational processes of higher education institutions. In the case of private institutions, the interference is written into Act 555 which regulates private universities and colleges. Public universities and higher education institutions, like Government Linked Companies (GLCs) are used by the ruling dynasties to reward political loyalists. Government’s power to appoint university VCs and DVCs and directors on the board of universities has impacted on university governance and the accountability by the senior officials of the university and the board of directors. Instead of focusing their duties on the university community of academics and students and the public, these officials act to appease the government and seek its patronage. The appointment of VCs, DVCs and directors must be made by an independent agency such the proposed commission or a reconstituted National Council on Higher Education.

3. The main legislation on universities strips universities of their essential attributes. The institutions established are universities in name only.
There are attributes associated with universities without which they lose their special character. The Universities and University Colleges Act 1971 is silent on matters such as university autonomy, academic freedom and students’ right to participate in the governance of universities, all of which are important attributes for the university, the academics and the students to play their respective roles in the university. These essential attributes must be legislated. The Universities and University Colleges Act 1971 or any new legislation that is passed must entrench these essential rights.

4. Students.
Despite the rhetoric of student-centred education, current legislation on higher education provides little to safeguard the interests of students. Most of the provisions directed at students deal with discipline and what they are prohibited from doing. There is a provision under Act 555 which allows the MOHE to take action against the institution when students’ interests are under threat, but the provision lacks clarity to be of any practical use. There are no similar provisions in the other legislation.

Without any legislative safeguards, students have to rely on their contractual relationship with the institution. Although the Consumer Protection Act 1999 was amended 10 years ago to extend protection to students, recent cases where students were stranded with courses that were not accredited shows that neither the MOHE, the MQA or the Consumer Tribunal were able to adequately resolve the students’ problems.

5. Inclusiveness
A root problem that affects not just the higher education system but many other aspects of civil rights are entrenched discriminatory practices to appointments to public office. Discrimination is rampant in our public universities and higher education institutions. The solution is simple, but its implementation requires a commitment from government to change these discriminatory practices, not only in the admission of students but to the appointments of VCs and directors. Ignoring this weakness in the system will leave our universities simply as entities bearing that description. Like places of worship that have burnt their basic documents.

Zaharom Nain, Chair, Pergerakan Tenaga Akademik Malaysia (GERAK)
Wan Manan Wan Muda, Foundation Chair, GERAK
Andrew Aeria, Exco, GERAK
U.K. Menon, Life member, GERAK
Azmyl Yunor, General Secretary, GERAK
Chris Chong, Member, Gerak
Muhammad Adli Musa, Exco, GERAK
Ngo Sheua Shi, Exco, GERAK
Yuwana Podin, Exco, GERAK