Reforming and rethinking public universities in Malaysia

Professor Dr. Mohd Tajuddin Mohd Rasdi
UCSI University

The purpose of this short writing is to help the Ministry of Higher Education reform and rethink public universities to answer some of the problems that educational bodies and the public has raised.

Firstly, there was a scathing report that said the budget for Malaysian public universities in the last few years have been on par with other developed nation but its performance in research output, employability and enrolment leaves much to be desired. Secondly, the Ministry is facing criticism to justify its massive budget cuts.

The Ministry’s weak response on university’s over dependence on public funding is at best confusing. My answer to these problems is to reexamine the role of public university and make it more relevant to our own social and economic development.

In case one has not noticed, our social fabric is in a complete shambles with racial tensions, religious bigotry and extremism, crime, health issues, drug addiction, institutional failures and mistrust and many others. Not one in many of these issues do I find any serious attention by local academics.

If we can reinstate the primary role of universities to be part and parcel directly in social development, at least we can settle 75% of our problems. We would not need any silly ranking by some dubious body to tell us whether we have addressed the issues plaguing our country. We could see ourselves how we are doing.

At the moment I don’t even remember reading any book by our eminent professors about any issue plaguing our country. If we concentrate for the next ten years at least on redirecting the research and publication efforts of the universities then the small allocated budget can be adequate to fund real issues of the day and let the academics follow through by educating the public through media articles, books for the masses and public talks as a new criteria for their promotion exercises.

I am extremely sure Malaysian philanthropists and corporate entities would now dump much financial support if they can see the direct fruits of these endeavours.

At the moment, public university academics are ordered to publish High Impact journals overseas to chase the elusive rankings but their effort has been like yang dikejar tak dapat dan yang dikendung berciciran. Then again there is the effort of dumping millions of ringgit in some glamorous research area that we have no hope to compete at the global scenario just to proclaim our illusory sense of achievement as the Malay saying goes menang sorak kampong tergadai.

Thus, in order to reinvent the role and direction of the public universities, I wish to remind our university leadership what I think a university is supposed to do in its fundamental sense.

Let us focus firstly on the idea of what a university should be. However before that, we have to look at what a ‘university’ is supposed to mean as opposed to a college or a trade school.

As I understand, a college and trade school are tasked to produce graduates with a minimal skill and knowledge to run the machines of industry and its accompanying administrative functions. We do not talk about controversial or long hair discourses that affect the nation or mankind. These diploma and degree graduates go out to assist architects, engineers, doctors and many professionals to run around completing the tasks given to them.

But a university is vastly a different entity. It is supposed to be the cooking pot of ideas…the more controversial the better. It is very funny to find a case when an application to be a professor at local public universities was rejected entirely based solely on the fact that the candidate was a controversial figure criticizing government buildings and policies on education as well as the advocate of a liberal and progressive Islam!

Fantastic! I would like to remind these professors and Vice chancellors that history is filled with controversial ideas that changed humanity. Think of Galileo, Darwin and someone close to these Muslim administrators…the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). The Prophet was hounded, exiled and punished severely for disrupting the age old tradition of worshipping many gods with his highly controversial idea of worshipping a single and an invisible god.

It is also funny to find the oldest university in Malaysia physically closing its gates and physically disrupting the flow of electricity when a renowned Malaysian politician was invited by students to deliver a lecture. For 27 years that I had worked at a public university down south, I have never heard a single controversial discourse or lecture. I had to go out of the university to attend forums by NGOs and other organizations to feed my thirst for knowledge and the truth.

In the last two decades it seems that in public universities, conformity and mediocrity gets you promoted to professors and eventually the vice chancellorship. Controversy gets you an early retirement package (which is sometimes not so bad), a terminated contract (which is not so good) or worst, a disciplinary action (you lose your pension and so, a terrible consequence).

In my almost three decades at this public university down under, I was always jealous of the vibrant and controversial discourses taking place at UM, UIAM or at UKM. Now that I have retired and am no longer in the exile of the southernmost part of the peninsular, these sterling institutions are now mere shadows of themselves.

However, I am lucky because Nottingham University Malaysia and Sunway University almost regularly hold inspiring talks and forums especially those co-organised by the Islamic Renaissance Front, the very young idealistic group called KMU or Komuniti Muslim Universal, Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs IDEAS, and the Penang Institute.

I fill my weekends with these spiritual and intellectual foods of the mind. Public universities seem to be holding forums condemning gays and lesbians, verbally attacking Christian groups, encouraging Malay supremacy attitudes and at one university, the panelists were leisurely discussing when and how to kill their fellow citizens in a kafir harbi forum! I would have added ‘A Discourse of Malay Black Magic’ at a northern university but thankfully, that was cancelled!

Apparently, at public universities, students should just concentrate on becoming architects, engineers, doctors and lawyers and let the issues of the nation and mankind be handled by those who are wise and invested with powers…the Ministers and the PM. Apparently also the architecture and administration of public universities in Malaysia are curiously similar or even identical to the running and design of a ‘sekolah asrama penuh’ (boarding school) with gates, guards and everything.

At the boarding schools, the children are protected from the dangerous elements of the world and are imprisoned monastically to do nothing but study and get 8 or 16 As. At the university, graduates are protected from unauthorized and, of course, controversial ideas or personalities so that they can study monastically without these terrible interruptions about who they are in society and what their roles should be in nation building.

So… the first reform I wish to suggest is that the university leadership should read a few books on the history of universities and that controversial ideas are the order of the day…not the exception! In the internet era, closing gates and disrupting electricity to prevent controversial talks and ideas should never be repeated ever again. The ‘maruah’ of public universities in the world was never as low as the incident at UM.

Now, some people are still unconvinced. To them controversy brings chaos and chaos is not good for learning. One must have order in society and controversy is the antithesis of peace.

To these people, I would recommend them to visit the dedicated studios of architecture schools just a week before the submission deadline. The chaos of life and untidy conditions of these studios are the incubation setting necessary to produce the fine drawings, models and computer simulations of creative architectural works. There is no short cut to meaningful and creative design solutions.

Whenever and wherever I visit any university, I look for the tell tale signs of messiness of students presence in corridors and squares. If I find them then I know it is a good university but if I find well kept lawns and clean corridors signs prohibiting students to do this and that, then I know the level of creativity at that university.

My memory of the lowest point of my academic career was when the Dean of our faculty came in and shouted at the entire group of graduating architecture students whilst the examination panels were seated for the end-of-sixth year design thesis presentation. What did the Dean shout about? To make sure that the vast multipurpose hall be spick and span clean after the examination event. I have always known that university administrators care more about their titles, car parks and buildings then students or academics.

Now, let us focus on to the graduates. What kind of graduates should the university produce? I have a completely different set of values or characteristics for graduates then I think most parents and university administrators have. I think most parents still thinks that the university is the place to get a job to earn an income.

Well, we should show these parents the unemployment figures especially among the science stream. I was told even medical students find difficulty in getting an internship placement these days. (However, architecture is still okay!)

One funny thing is that it is these same parents who lament on the deteriorating state of our society and blames the ruling party fully for this situation. Whenever I have a chance in a forum, I would shock the audience by naming these parents as the number one culprit that has destroyed the social fabric of this country.

Why? Well, it was they who cared only that their sons and daughters become architects, lawyers and doctors and never cared about anything else! In secondary school, not once did they ever ask their children whether they have friends of other races and never did they demand the schools to have programs that call for racial understanding and tolerance. All these parents want are extra tuition classes and workshops for their children to score As. Well, as the saying goes, be careful what you wish for…you might just get it!

Now, on the part of the university administrators I think they just want graduates that do not support the opposition parties and just become dutiful engineers, architects, lawyers and doctors as soon as possible. I have never read anywhere in the Ministry’s practice to encourage such behavior but our university leadership is so weak and uncertain of their own worth that they think their path to personal glory is related to such attitude.

To me, a university graduate must have four important values and or characteristics. Firstly, a university graduate must be able to appreciate other cultures and faiths then his or her own. The graduate must not be a ‘katak di bawah tempurung’ person who thinks his or her own culture is the best and others are not as good.

Graduates must be tolerant and understanding citizens of a multi-cultural and multi-faith society as well as global citizens that have more diversity. How can these graduates be a contributive member of a multi-national corporation, institution or community if he or she was taught that the ‘other’ is a kafir or dirty or too stupid for words? I have talked to many students of a particular ethnic group and I can tell you that these graduates have become bigots through their exposure to our primary, secondary and tertiary education system. Not their fault.

Secondly, graduates must have the characteristic of questioning any and all ‘authority’. College or trade school students do not have to question authority as they are trained as helpers. But university graduates who are going to be professional architects, engineers, doctors and lawyers must be imbued with the spirit of questioning some or all aspects of authority.

At the PhD level, one must question everything…every word, term, phrase, concept, ideas, rules, laws, institutions. Questioning is necessary to deconstruct knowledge and reconstruct them back into something that make sense. Questioning does not necessarily mean rebelling or rejecting. One may question and finally return back to status quo. No problem there. But in human history, civilization and experience, questioning would lead to the thesis-antithesis spiral of progress. It is through questioning that new ideas and concepts arise. It is also through questioning that one’s faith in religious beliefs or national conscience be strengthened and produce a high personal resolve or consciousness. In the West, questioning leads to luminaries like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs or Michio Kaku.

Here, in Malaysia, questioning authorities get you suspended for one semester or expulsion for ‘tarnishing the image of the university’. I am deeply sorry to say that out of the few ridiculous rules in the public universities that I have come across, this ‘tarnishing the image’ takes the whole cake.

Gandhi went to prisons so many times that I have lost count, did that tarnish his British education? Mandela spent almost a third of his life in prison, did that tarnish his university? Mahathir was hailed high, spat on, then raised even higher and now spat on again, did that tarnish the good name of the university he went to? This rule against tarnishing the good name of an institution of learning is totally demeaning to a university.

A university is a cooking pot. It’s back side is always black and dirty from the fires of cooking, but its empty vessel hold the most aromatic dish prepared. The best university has the most number of good and well meaning ‘controversial’ personalities (except Ridhuan Tee) attempting to do good to others and always stepping on established traditions, rules and norms. Again, the VC should read history books and look at the history of ideas.

Thirdly, the university graduate must have the values of ‘perjuangan’. Perjuangan means a crusade or strife or struggle to change things in society. When a graduate appreciate something bigger than himself or herself, he or she would start to question things and then come to an understanding or position. With that position and understanding the urge to do something to change inevitably follows.

To me, this is the core of creativity. Creativity comes when a problem is clearly defined. This value was once the trait of university graduates in the sixties and seventies but of late it is virtually no longer in existence.

In the recent crack down on so called ‘student activism’ only a mere handful was apprehended. I was hoping it would be in the hundreds or thousands but it was just a handful. Mediocrity has successfully set in amongst graduates in public universities after the successful campaign of the Akta University against student participatory activities in political issues.

It boggles my mind every time a VC says that students should not be political when the university is full of students with voting age. Perhaps we should raise the voting age to 45 years old then perhaps these statement by the VCs are valid. Has the election commission raised the voting age to 45? No? Well please tell me what the devil are the VC of public university saying?

The graduates are the leaders of our country in the very near future and they are not allowed to express their concerns on their own future? What nonsense is this? Sometimes I think that political nepotism is slowly but surely creeping in our society where the sons and daughters of politicians, however stupid they may be, are groomed for leadership and university graduates are mere slaves of industry and administrative machinery. This is democratic-feudalism. Why democratic? This is because we are allowed to choose only between the stupid and the even more stupid political candidates.

Fourth and last, is a trait that I have just learned from my friend who is an architect. In my questions about education and creativity, he went on and on about the graduates having to know his or herself. Graduates must explore, understand and appreciate their story lines from the early grandparents to where they are now. Only with the knowledge of the historical self can anyone have the conviction and confidence to strike out into the unknown future. My friend talked about his parents, neighbours friends, teachers, lecturers, clients, leaders all of different ethinicity and faiths but all converging in his journey of becoming a man, an architect and a citizen of this nation. His message was that everything that we went through are spices that make us who we are and that this nation was built on the foundation of the differences of cultures and faiths but common in the conviction that only together we can swim against the tide of extremism, bigotry and human indifference.

When I reflect upon his statement and look back at the many private conversations with my own students, I find much wisdom in the idea of knowing one’s personal history. As I look back at our education curriculum, this aspect is sorely missing. Well of course, you may say, there is the History and Geography subjects. Now in tertiary education we have the TITAS subject. However when I glance at all the textbooks, they have been slanted to give a particular self serving interest of one particular group of people. That won’t do.

At UTM, we once had an obligatory course called Measured Drawing. The innocent purpose was to document old buildings before they were destroyed and also to learn about construction and a little bit of history and culture. Groups of students of different races had to stay for one month at the vicinity of these houses and this had accidently produced a social result that was unexpectedly pleasing. Chinese and Indians students became anak angkat of Malay traditional families.

I think such ventures into the cultural past should be practiced by all the courses in order to bring the graduates to be rooted in the past. As of now, graduates float in cultural limbo, their eyes set on the discipline of a profession promising to bring them material wealth but a complete poverty of the soul.

For martial arts enthusiasts, in order to throw the first punch or the first kick, both feet must be firmly planted in a solid stance. So, too, our nation’s future lies precariously at the brink of soulless and history-less graduates streaming out the gates of institutional mediocrity and ignorance.

Now we come to the academics. What ideally should be their roles? There are three levels of promotions basically in a university; a Lecturer, an Associate Professor and a Professor. There are of course other grades in between and within the post itself but that is basically it.

The main role of the Lecturer is the teaching of specific subjects usually for an undergraduate degree course or a masters course. The Lecturer must strive to teach the subject in the best method possible to impart the required knowledge. There is also an element of inspiring and questioning at this level that should be encouraged to the students. The Lecturer spends almost 80 percent of his or her time perfecting this teaching responsibility by developing tools of learning like books, manuals and instructional videos. The other 20 percent of the Lecturer’s time should be devoted to some writing and research of moderate quality and number.

The Associate Professor is a post meant for Lecturers who have conducted meaningful research and produced publications that his or her peers have acknowledged the expertise. The Associate Professor must have supervised PhD level students and teach one undergraduate subject to impart his or her expertise to the course. The Associate Professor should also be involved with some public speaking activities as well as media writing to impart some of this knowledge to the public. The Associate Professors should have books expounding the boundaries of his or her expertise to the doctoral students and academics.

The Professor is tasked with three equally important roles. The first role is to supervise doctoral candidates with young Associate Professors or Lecturers to deepen and widen fields of knowledge. Publication of papers would be a priority in this activity as well as the training and molding of the next generation of scholars.

The second role is to form centers of knowledge at the level of national institutes so as the groundwork for knowledge generation and dissemination is assured when the professor leaves the university or retires. The institute would be the bustle of activities with discourses, forums, seminars and talks to inspire and gather scholars as well as the public and those concerned to be made aware of the impact to society at large.

The third important role is to be out there in the public through membership or chairmanship of government committees, NGOs and other organization to ensure that the knowledge generated gets converted into policies and ideas or activities that would change the direction of the nation and changes the perception and behavior of society. This requires many media writings and interviews as well as public lectures to various levels of society. Professors should also be invited to special Parliamentary sessions to lecture on their fields and its impact on society.

I have asked a few of my friends who are intelligent and well read MPs about research in some areas and they cannot name any of the research centres in public universities. How can MPs make good decisions when the latest findings in research are not available? The writing of books about the complex knowledge into readable materials for public consumption is a must for a democratic nation that relies on the ordinary citizen for votes and elections of officials to steer the country.

Professor Dr. Stephen Hawkins is a household name as with Professor Michiu Kaku as they have written books for laymen to understand the structure of the cosmos. Although there exists a thousand professors in Malaysia only a handful have written significant books that the layman can understand. The appointment of professors without his or her work being made to be understood by the general populace is a travesty to the real meaning of academia.

The professor should be the conscience of the nation by advising and even criticizing the political leadership in issues of his or her expertise without fear or favor. In Malaysia, that would be a tall order indeed when professors of public universities are more inclined to support whatever policies or decision that the government of the day takes. Since the Council of Professors has become part of the Prime Minister’s machinery, this development gives the thinking citizenry little to respect or trust in the consciences of these academics.

The promotion exercise of academics should not be based, as in the present, purely on a numbers game. In the present system it is how many papers, what kind of numerical value of impact and how much and how many research grants can be secured. This phenomenon has given rise to three important issues.

Firstly, researches who have discovered new and important information seldom spend any time at all following through their discoveries and turn them into important policies or educational material that would help change society. They are always in a hurry to produce more and more papers and so they would start off new researches with new partners in order to get the numbers up.

Secondly, it has given rise to the academics swapping names on papers that they have no clue to the research areas and directions. Once I knew of a lecturer who averages three papers a year but when she joined a large research group her papers jumped to 25 papers the following year!

Finally, this number game takes out the seriousness of peer referees who would be able to evaluate the contributions of an academic at the knowledge level and at the societal impact level. Although referees are still used, their importance pales in comparison to the numbers inputted into the computer before any academic can apply to be considered for promotion. Presently, all academics must ask the permission of the computers before applying for promotion!

The appointment of Associate Professors must include an interview session with not only the VC and DVC but also with at least two or three members of the profession or field outside of the university that does not answer to the VC. For the appointment of the Professor, a few important members of the public must be there to ask questions on how the candidates performance measure against the impact of his or her knowledge to society.

The ideal Vice Chancellor should be a visionary manager to ensure that each faculty and academics get the financial and infrastructure to generate, disseminate and develop knowledge. The VC should stand as tall as the Deans of each faculty as an aid to each Dean’s vision for that particular field of knowledge.

Each faculty, to me, should have their own think tank or Board of Advisors that would consists of professionals, academics and members of the society in order to ensure that the knowledge generated is appropriate and useful for the development of the nation and people. The board along with the VC shall decide the nominees of Deanship because it is the Dean who shall lead each faculty into new discovery or use of knowledge.

Presently, in Malaysia, Deans are nothing more than glorified clerks counting student numbers and other administrative stuff in excel sheets. Ideally it is the Dean who should forge ahead to make partners with other institutions to help develop the staff as well as the students and recruit new and dynamic academics to the faculty.

The Deans are also the important figures in society to answer issues plaguing the nation that lies within his or her expert areas. Have anyone ever heard a Dean respond to any issue in this country? Hardly any. Thus, the Deans should be the movers and shakers of academia, not the VC. No one should really care much about the VC, he or she should just be a manager listening to the Deans. Not so in Malaysia. The VC is King, Emperor and Lord of all he or she sees in the campus. His or her word is law. This Kingship element of the VC should stop immediately. Academia is a horizontal relationship of organization, not a vertical one like a feudal court.

I would therefore strongly suggest the following reform agenda for our public university. First and foremost is to remind every VC, Deans and academic that a public university belongs to and is accountable to the public, not just to a particular Ministry. For the appointment of the VCs, Deans and Professors, there must be some public representation in the committee that has no conflict of interest with the university or the ministry. The committee members from the public need not have a PhD but a strong sense to social commitment.

I would strongly advice that each faculty have their own board of advisors which act also as a think tank group to help channel part of the research activities of the faculty. The members must include citizens who have the potential of contributing to that particular field even though he or she does not possess a doctoral degree. The VC of universities must listen seriously to the Dean and the Board of Advisors to the faculty in matters of academic expansion, new courses and promotion criteria for the academics.

I would suggest that universities spend at least half of their activities and prove that their presence have made significant changes in society through their research, publication, public talks and seminars. The seminars which I have attended draw only the presenters as participants and none from the public at large. That won’t do.

At the end of every year, each VC along with the Deans must present to a room full of journalists, MP and ADUN where and how his or her university have contributed to the development of the society and nation in the important respects of safety, health, social and religious harmony, economy and environmental sustainability. If some researcher have discovered a massive black hole somewhere, well and fine but that is not a priority to us in this country at the moment. Research funding of more than a million RM must face a public inquiry as to its relevance and effectiveness as well as contribution to our society.

University students must be given the freedom to be active in any social or political events and organization. They must do so in a peaceful, academic and well mannered way. There is no tolerance whatsoever to such name calling as ‘Cina Babi’ that could earn these students direct expulsion from the university.

Students must also be made to involve in activities like the UTM Measured Drawing where they would discover roots of their own families as well as the cultures and beliefs of other races. No university student should graduate without spending at least a month in a family environment of a different race. Money should also be spent to take students to developed nation for at least two weeks for them to measure our country’s state of affairs with that of others directly as well as immerse themselves with a foreign culture to enrich their appreciation as global citizens.

Finally, I hope that the above suggestion can be taken up by the Ministry to reform and rethink the roles and responsibilities of our precious public universities. Let the universities, once again, be the beacon of hope for our nation and not a gravy train for selfish academics to carve their financial niche and social status. I have always said in many writings and forums as well as speeches that to me, the university is the test of the First Nation. If our graduates cannot learn to work and respect one another and have the innate feeling to change society for the better, than we, as a nation, have lost our hold to the future.

  1. #1 by drngsc on Monday, 16 January 2017 - 9:12 am

    They are doing to Education, what they did to healthcare. Make the Public healthcare system look bad, with bad press so that patients will find money ( beg, borrow or steal ) to visit private hospitals which are 80% owned by GLCs, so that GLCs can prosper. Now with education, squeeze the public schools and universities so bad, so that they get worse ( they are already bad after the millennium ), so that parents will beg, borrow or steal money to send their children to private schools and Universities. So the cronies can benefit, and our labour force suffer.

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