New government creates separate higher education ministry

Academic groups have welcomed the decision by Malaysia’s new prime minister, Muhyiddin Yassin, to split the existing unwieldly education ministry into two: a higher education ministry under a new minister, Noraini Ahmad – one of five women members of the new 30-member cabinet – and a separate education ministry overseeing the primary and secondary sectors.

As she started in office on 10 March, Ahmad said her focus in the job would be to improve higher education performance at both national and international level.

Khairy Jamaluddin, a former youth and sports minister under the UMNO government of 2013-18, joins the cabinet as science, technology and innovation minister.

Muhyiddin was sworn in on 1 March after the unexpected collapse of the Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope) or PH coalition. Muhyiddin as president of Bersatu, the Malay-dominated Malaysian United Indigenous Party, pulled out of the alliance precipitating its collapse.

The Malaysian Academic Association Congress (MAAC) said in a statement that a separated higher education ministry would mean more focused development of higher education institutions.

Reintroducing a separate higher education ministry “will enable the ministers responsible for education and higher education to focus on their respective agendas based on their different levels (or requirements) and interests,” MAAC President Idrus Mohd Masirin was quoted by Malaysia’s Bernama news agency as saying.

The two ministries were split in 2004, merged again in 2013 and split again in 2015, before being merged under PH education minister Maszlee Malik after PH stormed to a historic victory in the May 2018 national elections, upending six decades of UMNO rule.

“Education is a very broad area. Its concept and system at school and university levels are different, so I welcome the government’s decision to place them under different ministries,” said R Badlishah Ahmad, vice-chancellor of Universiti Malaysia Perlis, in a statement issued on 10 March.

He added that university research plays an important role as an agent of transformation for industries, which would be easier to realise under a separate ministry.

‘A nightmare for all involved’

Academics said that under the education ministry, which had a major task to improve access and equity in the school system, higher education had not been a focus.

“In the past, a separate ministry for higher education was undoubtedly more focused in terms of visioning, planning and the delivery of quality higher education,” said Morshidi Sirat, professor in the department of humanities at Universiti Sains Malaysia, who was director general for higher education in the then stand-alone higher education ministry in 2013-14, and deputy director general in the ministry prior to that.

“While seamless education from primary to secondary and then post-secondary to tertiary is a good idea, managing such a huge and very complex ministry with top heavy bureaucracy and administrative structure is a nightmare for all involved,” Morshidi told University World News.

“As one ministry, many policy items pertaining to higher education are considered as secondary compared to the school sector. And meetings were generally dominated by the school sector. Ministers of education put much more emphasis on the school sector as this is their ‘power base’. Financial allocations for the ministry of education are also generally heavier for the school sector,” he added.

However, Morshidi also noted that “the advantage of one ministry was that problems pertaining to school and universities could be discussed and decided by one minister of education. And everyone must toe the line. With two ministries, there is always a tendency to side with the ministry of education in terms of issues pertaining to students’ progression from school to universities.”

Return to internationalisation agenda

Academics predict at least a partial return to past policies on higher education as Muhyiddin was education minister under the previous UMNO government of Najib Razak. Increased autonomy for universities to generate some of their own income, but which led to financial pressures for some public universities, also came in under Razak.

Previous UMNO higher education policies include the internationalisation agenda – although this was undermined by huge budget cuts to higher education in 2016 and 2017.

“Evidently, even with massive cuts during 2016-18, Malaysian public universities have maintained their global rankings. Something must be working here. But, actually, public universities have been digging deep into their reserves for the past three years. This is not sustainable in the longer term,” Morshidi said.

“Internationalisation of higher education has always been emphasised [whether] under one or two ministries,” he noted, but said internationalisation was also highly dependent on the home ministry, which oversees immigration, student visas and other requirements.

Morshidi said it was important to go back to the internationalisation agenda to make the country “an international hub for education and talent”.

However, “unless and until the home ministry sees this as an important national agenda, there will be hiccups in terms of policy and implementation.”

Global prominence is considered important for higher education, Morshidi said, but nonetheless credited Maszlee for his “emphasis on core values, national education philosophy and initiatives beyond global rankings”.

Maszlee notably issued a directive to universities not to “obsess about global rankings”.

PH achievements under Maszlee

The Malaysian Academic Movement or GERAK, the PH-supporting civil society organisation which had also called for the splitting of the education ministry to separate the higher education ministry, said at the time of Maszlee’s resignation in January that Maszlee had also “set in motion the dismantling of the much-criticised and abused Universities and University Colleges Act”, which had placed restrictions on students’ political activities on campus.

“Based on a genuine concern for academic freedom and autonomy,” Maszlee set up a committee that had been “hard at work” to repeal the act, GERAK said in a recent statement.

Amendments to the act were passed in parliament on 10 December 2019, but a more comprehensive law to replace the act was not achieved before Maszlee resigned on 3 January.

Maszlee also set up an independent committee for the selection of public university vice-chancellors last year to depoliticise the selection of public university heads. However, this was largely resisted by the incumbents who “used the old standard practice of garnering the support of powerful individuals and institutions outside academia”, GERAK said in its statement.

GERAK also credited Maszlee with setting up an independent Integrity Committee “outside the confines and possible constraints” of the ministry to investigate fraud and malpractices within universities.