11 April 2014
Ambiga Sreenevasan was barred by university authorities from speaking at an event organised by the students of the Faculty of Law, University of Malaya. The reasons for this barring are a mystery at the moment, but doubtlessly it will have to do with Ambiga’s supposed anti-government stance.
This little episode is of course extremely embarrassing to me because it happened in my Faculty. I wish to make it clear here that the Faculty had nothing to do with the barring. To the best of my knowledge that order came from the Student Affairs Department. It seems odd that a university would not understand the principle of free speech, seeing as how this is a right which is intrinsically linked to the concept of academic freedom. But then, I have long ceased to be surprised at how some people who should value certain principles simply don’t do so.Be that as it may, what I wish to discuss here is about the reaction to this little blot on UM’s reputation. Perusing the comments pages of several internet news sites, there appears to be this constant cry about how lousy Malaysian universities are and how they are certainly not world class. This is all well and good, but one has to ask the question; what do we mean when we say “world class”?
Some commentators point to the various international rankings that show Malaysian universities as being low on the list. This is a good reference point, if what you are concerned about is purely academic publications, number of international staff and students, and the reputation of the university amongst their peers.
My point is that even if a university is utterly devoid of freedom for their students, that is to say, their student body are strictly controlled and they have no room to organise themselves; this does not mean that they will necessarily do badly on the ranking tables because student freedom is not one of the criteria that these ranking organisations look at.
Conversely, having an independent, free and autonomous student body does not mean that the university will shoot up the rankings. Therefore, I am very cautious about using international rankings as the only method of judging a university’s quality.
Having said that, any university worth its salt must provide the maximum freedom to its staff and students. Staff must be free to research what they want and to publish and speak about that research. Student autonomy has to be respected in the form of independent self-governance, and their intellectual, social and political endeavours must not be controlled by university authorities.
Will such measures make a university “world class”? Frankly I don’t know and I don’t care. What it will do is ensure vibrant research and publication on the part of their academic staff and a student body that will be independent, mature and intellectually unafraid. This by itself is something to be proud off. Unfortunately, these values do not seem to be high on the agenda of our universities. World class or not, high rankings or not, this shortcoming makes them all the poorer.