Education was a high priority reform area for Pakatan Harapan before the last election. Yet Malaysia's public universities are still going backwards under Pakatan, as they were with the previous Barisan Nasional government.
Only two Malaysian universities were in the THES Asia Ranking in 2019. Universiti Malaya (UM) founded in 1905 was in the 300s grouping in the THES International Rankings and Universiti Kebangsaan (UKM) Malaysia, formed in the early 1960s to uphold the Malay language, is somewhere in the 600s grouping.
Most other Malaysian public universities are in the hundreds and low thousands in the THES rankings. They are either declining or staying stationary. Any minor improvements have been within these groupings and are not very significant. The excuse traditionally used for poor ranking performance was that Malaysian universities are young, but so are those in Hong Kong, Singapore and China, which have scored very well.
In the election manifesto Pakatan promised to: 1. Develop quality education; 2. Bring a renewed respect towards the teaching profession; 3. Reduce the administrative workload of academic staff; and 4. Put greater focus on technical and vocational education.
Dr. Mazlee Malik, previously an academic himself, was a controversial choice for Minister of Education. Newly elected to parliament, he is inexperienced, has supported the continuation of racial quotas, and appears to be acting with an overarching religious agenda.
The major problems facing Malaysia's universities are a reflection of the way Malaysian society in general is today. Reform is about tackling the 'state of mind' that presently engulfs Malaysian public universities in order to bring about the radical reform needed to make them relevant to contemporary society and also competitive within the region.
The crux of the issue is university culture. Reforming Malaysia's public universities requires a massive exercise in cultural transformation.
Malaysian public universities are introverted. Their primary mission, set by the government, is to produce skilled and obedient workers for Malaysian industry. In response to high graduate unemployment, universities put a secondary focus on entrepreneurship. However, this domain of study is taught by primarily Malay academics with little or no personal entrepreneurial or business experience. The environment for developing critical and creative thinking that is necessary to solve problems and develop commercial innovation is lacking in curriculum. Campus culture within Malaysian public universities is also rigid.
Islam has a long association with scholarship and science. However, institutionalized Islam within university campuses in Malaysia is codified into practices that impose conformity, rather than diversity. In Malaysian universities the examination and discussion of other ideologies and religions is largely supressed. The religious department is really an Islamic department. Regulations, dress and behavioural codes all reflect Islamic conformity.
Another force making public universities insular: carefully selected appointments to top university positions. All appointments at Vice Chancellor level, to this writer's knowledge, bar one, have been local Malays. The last two Vice Chancellor appointments have been people with similar Islamic beliefs to the Minister of Education Dr. Mazlee. This very narrow selection pool of potential vice chancellors is preventing public universities from breaking out of their comfort zones.
Academic appointments don't share the diversity of the nation and have led to a teaching staff heavily weighted in favour of Malays. Public university teaching staffs, and administration staff for that matter, don't reflect national demographics. This is not good for diversity of ideas or for meritocracy.
One of the ironic practices in staff academic selection and employment is that university authorities seem more prepared to employ an Indian, Bangladeshi, or Iraqi rather than a local Chinese or Indian scholar.
Vice Chancellors, deans and other office bearers tend to turn their little turfs into little empires. They employ 'their own team' and as a consequence become nepotistic rather than meritistic in their staff selection. Some universities will only employ staff from within their own state, thus drastically reducing the size of the employment pool for picking the best people for the job.
This power-concentrating approach to management is not healthy in an academic environment and leads to deep campus politics.
This culture is also reflected in the academic grant system for research. Most often, it's the senior researchers, those with patronage, who get grants – rather than the best applications. The system is full of patronage and bureaucracy where those who know the system prevail, preventing the best projects from being funded. Grant selection is conservative. Selectors seek safety and will tend to choose repetitive projects that can be finalized within tight timeframes rather than novel projects with an apparent risk.
Public universities have long been losing their best academics to overseas universities and even the private universities set up in Malaysia. This drain of the most experienced and senior academics was exponentially increased when the Najib Government cut staff funding and salaries for professorial staff a couple of years ago. The decision was not reversed by the Pakatan Government, so now many of Malaysia's most renowned and senior professors have retired at the very moment they are most needed to help revamp the institutions where they have worked for many years. This retired group were mainly educated in the US, UK and Australia and tend to be well connected, networked with fellow academics all around the world. They have left the ship, turning it over to a much younger group of academics who lack the depth of experience of the old guard. This is a great loss for Malaysian public universities.
The courses taught at Malaysian public universities have been primarily determined at ministry rather than university level. The degrees and courses taught at faculty level are chosen according to Ministry of Education criteria: what the ministry sees as the skills needed in industry.
The actual curriculum designed for these courses is primarily developed by younger academic staff, who have limited experience, limited resources, time constraints, and no opportunity to visit other universities teaching similar subjects to assess the issues involved with developing a new curriculum.
Deans and their staff usually take all the overseas study trips and the junior staff are left to cut and paste a curriculum. Curriculum designers have to contend with Bloom's Taxonomy, Objective Based Education (OBE), and even irrelevant ISO considerations. At the class level, teachers are so busy complying to paperwork demands when teaching, they're prevented from bringing out the best from their students through their own styles of teaching.
Teachers need to be taught about teaching methods within the classroom and how to learn within their subject areas, rather than how to comply with documentation.
Ironically, student councils were set up by Mahathir when he was education minister to control the student voice on campus. The Universities Act made it illegal for students to be involved in politics or to protest, even though prohibition is unconstitutional. Student Councils need to be disbanded and replaced with independent student unions. The unions should be recognized by the administration and have representation on University Board of Directors.
Students should be allowed to participate in the political system and hold forums and discussions on topics important to students and society in general.
Universities need to be centres of thought and discussion. Visitors to universities, like Zakir Naik, give students a narrow view, whereas other more diverse views should be presented to students so they can make up their own minds on issues.
There should be a focus on innovation and excellence (an overused word on Malaysian campuses) rather than rankings. University populations need to reflect the demography of the nation. Anything else will be dangerous and harm national welfare over the long term.
The bottom line is that the quality of degrees awarded must be questioned. There is something wrong when university graduates earn the low salaries that they are earning.
Students may be competent in the technical knowledge they have. They must also be competent at critical and creative thinking and be able to competently present what they know at the job level. The Malaysian Qualifications Agency (MQA) needs a major shake up on this matter, as it is the keeper of degrees in the country.
What is not adequately measured in university rankings is the environment students are immersed within during their university education. University should be a total life experience. Diversity on campus will go a long way to widening the perspectives of Malaysian students for the rest of their lives.
The fact that Universiti Tunku Abdul Rahman (UTAR) has already run up the charts to second best Malaysian university in less than 20 years of existence as a university tells us something about the plight of Malaysian public universities.
The current Malaysian university blueprint has failed. The very assumptions Malaysia's universities were built upon need to be urgently questioned. Diversity is a national asset and must take precedence over today's inadequate and religious agenda shared by both BN and Pakatan Governments.
It's time for Pakatan to make the hard decisions.