Despite 17 of 20 public universities in Malaysia being awarded ‘autonomous’ status, academics have questioned whether there has been a real commitment by the government to devolve more powers to universities.
Wan Saiful Wan Jan, chief executive of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs or IDEAS in Kuala Lumpur, recently asked whether university autonomy was just government rhetoric in comments on the release of an IDEAS paper by Chang-Da Wan, entitled “The History of University Autonomy in Malaysia”.
Chang found that, although autonomous public universities are recognised as federal statutory bodies, they still have to comply with the same governance framework – salary scale, promotion criteria and procedures – as the civil service.
He concluded: “Looking into the historical development of autonomy in universities, specifically public universities, the autonomous status awarded to certain public universities only represents a fraction of the autonomy that public universities used to have.”
He said further analysis has also clearly indicated that “both public and private universities in Malaysia are not autonomous”, despite attempts to restore autonomy in universities.
“Even private universities that do not receive financial support from the government are directly controlled by the government through extensive regulations supported by legislation,” his report concluded.
Previously academics have complained that academic staff in Malaysia are not consulted in the selection of university vice-chancellors and other top positions. Instead, the vice-chancellors are decided by the federal government – and are usually politically well-connected individuals who can be ‘trusted’.
This raises questions as to whether independent-minded academics with impressive credentials are being sidelined in promotions to top positions, resulting in some leaving for greener pastures.
As for funding, following university corporatisation measures brought in by the government and hefty federal government budget cuts over the past couple of years, academics, already shouldering heavy workloads, have come under pressure to seek external funding for research work.
Yet, universities do not have full control over how to allocate funds and have to adhere to government procurement and financial procedures, noted Wan Saiful. Meanwhile, academic representation in the governance of universities has been “significantly reduced”.
The government has responded, saying autonomy is a work in progress. Higher Education Minister Idris Jusoh said the government wanted to move from being a "tight controller" to a "regulator and policy-maker".
But Professor Mohd Idrus Mohd Masirin, president of the Malaysian Academic Association Congress, pointed out that university funding still largely came from the government, so universities were still subject to government regulations to prevent discrepancies.
“The government should have a say in the budget planning and spending in public universities,” he said.
He conceded that these universities must be trusted to administer through university boards and to run programmes and monitor their implementation. “Higher education is not in the profit-making business. The funding reduction from the government forces the universities to seek money elsewhere,” he noted.
Indeed, the buzz word in university circles now appears to be penjanaan pendapatan or income generation, but there are problems with this, according to Azmil Tayeb, a lecturer at Universiti Sains Malaysia. Many universities generate easy income by holding a conference and charging “an obscene amount of money for registration fees”, he says.
“This begs the question: what is the true purpose of a conference? A space where academics can share ideas for the advancement of knowledge or a purely business venture?”
For independent-minded academics like Azmil, autonomy also means more freedom for students to control and manage their activities on campus with minimal interference from the authorities.
He said: “As of now it's very politically restrictive and students who are critical of the government or wanting to learn more about the opposition have to conduct their programmes outside campus. Any effort towards providing autonomy to the public universities has to include students' freedom to manage their affairs like it was back in the 1960s.”
In the 1960s, public universities enjoyed almost full autonomy and academic freedom despite receiving significant government financial support.
The University of Malaya, for instance, had its own constitution and was led by those who were politically and ideologically independent of the government. But the passing of the Universities and University Colleges Act in 1971 – also known by its Malay acronym AUKU – and a further amendment in 1975 allowed greater state intervention in the administration of institutions and restricted the space for academic freedom.
Wan Saiful says stronger measures are needed to promote university autonomy. He recommends that the Universities and University Colleges Act be abolished, “or at the very least amended so that our universities are fully self-governed”.
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