Post-election hope for HE autonomy, academic freedom

The unexpected, stunning defeat in May elections of Malaysia’s ruling Barisan Nasional coalition, which had been in power for more than six decades, has given academics fresh hope for greater university autonomy and academic freedom.

New Education Minister Maszlee Malik was formerly a lecturer at the International Islamic University Malaysia and holds a PhD from Durham University in the United Kingdom. A relative newcomer to politics, he suffered under constraints of lack of academic freedom.

On 25 May, shortly after taking up the ministerial post, he said in a speech at Sunway University in Selangor: “We need to enhance academic freedom. I was among the victims of non-academic freedom under the rule of the previous regime.”

Malik also said that he would like to personally move a bill to repeal the stifling Universities and University Colleges Act of 1971. “Please give me the honour to move it in Parliament, to remove that draconian act.”

The controversial act restricts political activities on campus. Removing it was one of the pre-election promises made by the opposition Pakatan Harapan – Alliance of Hope – which swept into power on 9 May, defeating the ruling Barisan Nasional (National Front) coalition.

The alliance is led by Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad, a former authoritarian leader who in recent years has embraced the reformists’ agenda.

The irony is that it was Mahathir, as education minister from 1974 to 1977, who amended the act to prohibit student involvement in political activities, experts noted.

It was also during this period that autonomous selection of university vice-chancellors was removed from the boards of governors of state-run universities.

The power to appoint vice-chancellors was given to the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, the king, who is also Malaysia’s head of state, based on the advice of the education minister.

The minister could also appoint deputy vice-chancellors for student affairs, for industrial affairs and for academic affairs at universities, said Zaharom Nain, chair of the Malaysian Academic Movement or GERAK, a civil society organisation. “So the freedom of institutions to make such decisions had been shifted to a single minister.”

University vice-chancellors, in turn, have the power to appoint deans, heads of schools and directors of centres in their universities, which led to the politicisation of university appointments, according to GERAK.

End political appointees

The movement has called on the new minister to replace all political appointees at public universities with experienced academics.

In a statement on 22 May, GERAK said the practice of appointing individuals on political grounds had to stop in favour of “independent-minded, honest, accountable, creative, empathetic and altruistic leaders”. This action was needed as part of reforms to make Malaysian universities “more vibrant and progressive”.

Zaharom said: “The problem with this system of political appointees is that they are not going to be picked based on academic qualities but more on the basis of whether they are for or against the government of the day.” He added that “given this environment, it has affected individual academic freedom”.

For instance, in 2014 Dr Mohammad Redzuan Othman was reportedly dismissed by the Ministry of Education as director of the University of Malaya’s Centre for Democracy and Elections, after the centre’s survey results cast the ruling coalition in poor light.

Since 1975, the integrity of academic findings and research – especially in the social sciences – was affected and academics shied away from doing critical research, observes Zaharom. “Even if there is critical research, the credibility of the knowledge generated is questioned.”

Early moves

One of the first actions by the new government has been to get rid of the National Council of Professors or MPN, with its budget of more than MYR8 million (US$2 million) a year.

The council was set up to champion research and academic excellence, and some 3,000 university professors were eligible to become members. “It was like a club, with its membership allocated to various clusters related to their areas of expertise,” explained Zaharom.

Some of the council’s professors, who often featured prominently in the media, were social scientists and economists who supported the former Barisan Nasional or BN regime right to the end and were even campaigning for the party.

“They sounded more like BN apologists than academics in different areas – talking about the so-called successes of [former prime minister] Najib [Razak]’s transformation programme and the economy, how it was improving when things were not all that hunky-dory,” said Zaharom.

In effect, they were the intellectual prop for the government, resulting in even more people questioning the credibility of academia, he added.

‘Only a handful’

But one academic, Teo Kok Seong, a member of the council, expressed concern. “We can’t deny that there are over-zealous professors among us who defended the previous administration, but this is just a handful of people,” he was reported as saying.

“Such professors can be filtered out or acted against, but to abolish the MPN, I feel it is unfair.”

In Zaharom’s opinion, the new education minister should set up a special committee or mechanism comprising recognised and respected intellectuals to look into the appointments of university leaders, especially vice-chancellors.

“It should be a fair process – rather than a purge – based on the idea of raising academic standards rather than revenge. The idea is to give back autonomy to the universities concerned and make sure the people leading universities are capable of moving things forward.”

If universities were self-governed, academics would be protected from outside influence, argued Zaharom: “Go back to the old days where the university board of directors would select, through university search committees or from the best minds of the country, the heads of universities. Autonomy would then go back to academics and not to the minister or ministry.”