Brave New World (The Star)
20 September 2007
"The Action Plan of the National Higher Education Strategy will bring about some major changes in university governance, leadership and academic staff management, teaching and learning methods, and research and development."
A hundred years of Merdeka will see this society, this nation, achieve the unimaginable. We will have Nobel Laureates...our students and professors will dominate Ivy League universities and our own universities will be citadels of excellence for international scholars.”
This is not a prediction from the Amazing Criswell, or any other stage psychic; this is a quote from Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.
Sure, I know that the Prime Minister is just getting us all fired up and inspired. But unfortunately, having been intimately involved in higher education in Malaysia all my adult life, I am a tad cynical and this kind of “rah, rah, rah, lets go get them” motivational talk just makes me depressed. Achieve all that in 50 years? I’ll be happy to just have respectable, decent Malaysian universities in 50 years, let alone “citadels of excellence”.
Fortunately, the good people at the Higher Education Ministry aren’t so cynical. Using this Prime Ministerial Vision as a guide, they produced a National Higher Education Strategy along with an Action Plan to see it properly implemented.
I have read the Action Plan. It basically focuses Malaysian higher education objectives for the production of “Human Capital with First Class Mentality”.
These “human capital” are people who are really smart and their qualities include (but are not limited to) being trilingual, business-savvy, masters of their core subject, great communicators, team players and in their spare time helpers of orphans. With a critical mass of such folk, Malaysia can then achieve all that the Prime Minister had said we would.
To produce these super humans, our higher education institutions must improve, which is where the Action Plan comes in. According to the Plan, improvements will happen through some serious changes in university governance, leadership and academic staff management, teaching and learning methods, and research and development.
In line with these institutional changes, there will also be some other additional developments; the most interesting of these, at least to me, is the establishment of “Apex Universities”.
Looking at the Action Plan, it is clear that the Higher Education Ministry is not clueless. The basic strategies are sound and they have obviously taken into account some of the ideas that academics have been putting forward for years.
For example, university boards will be given greater autonomy from the ministry in decision-making; the appointment of the vice-chancellor will be through an open advertisement and the deciding body is to be an independent committee; there may be changes in the pay scheme for lecturers to attract better people; university courses will be more holistic (i.e. students will have to do subjects outside the comfort zone of their majors) and reality-based.
As these changes are occurring in all universities, one or two will be anointed apex university. “Apex Universities” are the top universities in the country, determined by a ministry criterion (yet to be finished) and they will be given more freedom with regard to matters like student intake and staff remuneration. In return, these elite universities must get themselves high up international rankings.
On paper these are fine strategies. My concern, however, is not so much with what is in the Action Plan but with what is not in it. First and foremost, the Action Plan needs a statement that universities will be solely merit-driven and no longer chained to racial concerns. This is especially true of the “Apex Universities”.
If we don’t do this, there is no way we are going to attract all the top brains in the country. Admittedly, the Plan says that only the best will be recruited, from the V-C to staff to students, and this implies a colour-blind policy. But this is Malaysia and race-based decision-making is part of our flesh and bone. To start to break away from it we need a clear and emphatic statement from the ministry.
Autonomy for the university boards is well and good but it must be remembered that autonomy also means political autonomy. And although the idea of an autonomous board and an independently chosen vice-chancellor are without doubt part of the ministry’s plans, does this mean that these people are truly free from any sort of political interference?
If it does not and if Umno wishes to have its fingers in higher education, then no matter what the noble intentions of this Plan is we will be stuck with decisions being made on political grounds and not academic grounds. This will only spell disaster.
If the Government is serious about universities improving, then they have to take off their party hats and let the universities be truly free of political meddling.
Then there are the students; there is much said in the Plan about better courses and graduate training schemes, yet as usual, absolutely nothing about freeing our young people from the utterly stifling University and University Colleges Act and the nonsense that Student Affairs regulations and rules imposed on them. Until our campuses become a hot bed for free thought and discussion, free association and conscience, our graduates aren’t going to be much improved.
A final point: as academic staff members in a public university my colleagues and I have been subjected to many, many grand schemes, all supposedly meant to improve us. In the end, such schemes, like the ISO certification, have made life a bureaucratic nightmare with no academic improvements to be seen.
Still, these are early days. We shall have to give the ministry a chance to prove that their plan works.