Malaysian public universities’ worst nightmare is beginning, with local private universities rapidly rising and making their presence felt in university rankings.
The respected World University Rankings now places Universiti Tunku Abdul Rahman (UTAR) as the country’s second-best university just behind its oldest public university, University Malaya (UM). QS International University Rankings this year placed the private UCSI University sixth and Taylors University eighth. Other rankings mention Swinburne University of Technology, International Medical University, HELP University, and Sunway University among others as being in Malaysia’s top 10.
Malaysian public universities and the Ministry of Education have been fixated on rankings for many years. Any small rise in any ranking is extolled by the media. Malaysia even has its own domestic ranking system SETARA, but this is not without criticisms. In 2017, the Malaysian Qualifications Agency (MQA) gave eight universities the highest ranking of six stars and 21 the second highest ranking of five, indicating there is not much room for these universities to improve.
This nonsensical ranking system ignores the wide gulf between Malaysian universities and universities in the rest of the world.
What is hindering Malaysian public universities from achieving their full potential? It seems to be their sense of purpose.
University mission statements are public pronouncements of the institution’s purpose, ambition, and values. The general mission statements of the country’s public universities state the prime purpose as producing graduates who will be skilled and highly sought after employees of industry. This is a mechanistic, utilitarian approach, a discourse that is purely industrial and regimented.
What is absent is the desire to assemble a diverse intellectual community and pursue knowledge and education for the betterment of the individual and society — something more holistic than the narrow education path extolled in these outmoded mission statements.
Many graduate qualifications don’t match the country’s needs. There is a large surplus of graduates with technical degrees that can’t be absorbed into the workforce. Graduate unemployment was 9.6 percent or 204,000 at the end of 2108.
These mismatches and surpluses are the result of the insistence of central control by the Ministry of Education. There is lack of autonomy in public universities about what courses can be taught. The Ministry of Education operates like a ministry would in the Soviet Union during the 1950s.
The Malay Agenda
Malaysia’s public universities are an instrument of the government of the day.
One vice chancellor told Asia Sentinel that an important covert role of public universities is to pursue the “Malay Agenda.” This is reflected in the ethnic mix of academic, administration, security, and maintenance staff, and the high percentage of Malays in university student populations. Public universities prefer to employ foreign Muslim academic staff from India, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Iraq, rather than Malaysian citizens who are of Chinese or Indian origin. Most, if not nearly all office holders at public universities are Malay. Administration staff numbers tend to be bloated and inefficient due to lenient work procedures compared to their private counterparts.
Public universities are Malay bastions. They have become enclaves not demographically representative of the communities they serve. Organization is extremely hierarchical and authoritarian. Expertise is recognised through position and not knowledge. This creates a master-servant, rather than collegiate culture within faculties and administrative departments. In such environments, nepotism over powers meritocracy. Thus, there is little positive within these environments for people with fresh ideas and constructive criticisms. People who question and try to improve things usually don’t last long.
What is holding public universities back is the Malay Agenda, which is not conducive with diversity, critical thinking or intellectualism.
The Islamic Agenda
The appointment of Maszlee Malik as the Minister of Education has exacerbated the furtherance of an Islamic agenda in public universities. This is not in the Malaysia Education Blueprint 2015-2025 (Higher Education) or an edict approved by Federal Cabinet. It’s not part of the Pakatan Harapan election manifesto. Malaysian universities are being reformed in Maszlee’s vision rather than the national policy. The minister’s infusion into public universities of his Islamic vision is not the moderate, tolerant and accommodating Islam that Malays have practiced for hundreds of years but a Salafi-Wahabism slant that demands conformity and strict adherence.
This form of environment within public universities runs against the principle of diversity, free expression, critical thinking and creativity. The resulting organizational culture is an authoritarian environment that frowns upon freedom of expression of different ideas and diversity.
Malaysia is now witnessing the opening of a fissure into two completely different philosophies of higher education. On one side are the public universities with a structure and culture purporting to produce industrial fodder, and on the other side a private higher education sector made up of domestic private universities and Malaysian campuses of foreign universities which are beginning to emerge and being recognized in international rankings. One side carries the “Malay-Islamic” agenda of exclusion and the other, the pursuit of meritocracy.
The flaws within the public university system need to be firstly publicly acknowledged, then corrected. To date, the government has never conceded that it is pursuing the “Malay Agenda” in public universities. This is the subliminal agenda that is preventing any meaningful change and turning universities inward into their own introspection. Public universities can’t be changed without changing the intentions of the top echelon of government.
The first question is whether public universities should be pursuing Malay-Islamic agenda, or pursuing excellence in education and learning? This is where the reform process must begin.
The second question is whether public universities should follow the mechanistic development agenda or regenerate into something else? This question requires much informed discussion with various stakeholders.
This demands honest discussion. If the government wants to maintain the Malay-Islamic agenda in public universities, just say so and don’t waste time preparing policy blueprints which state otherwise. No change here and the rest is a waste of time.
If the first two questions are resolved, then a third question needs consideration. How can Malaysia’s public universities be fixed?
This has to start at the top. Before any reforms can be made, the culture within universities requires change. There are a number of prerequisites to achieving a positive culture change.
- Public universities must be truly independent, autonomous, and transparent. A supreme body governing the university, a university council made up of the vice chancellor, deputies, deans, representatives from academic staff, administration staff, students, industry, community, and education should replace university board of directors. This means getting rid of all the deadweight and political crony appointees and replacing them with a committed governance group representing all stakeholders.
- The university councils should appoint vice chancellors without any interference from the minister. This process should take place without fear or favour, purely on merit. The office holders shouldn’t be restricted to Malaysian citizens. The world should be scoured for the best people with experience in excellent universities to steer Malaysian universities into a new era.
- Academic and administration staff need to reflect the population demographics of the country. Faculties need diversity, knowledge, experience, and know how. The apartheid approach needs to be ended at universities. The private universities are a good example of what happens when diversity exists within academic staff. Rankings are quickly reflecting this.
- The organizational culture of universities and faculties within them needs to be changed to eliminate feudal-like hierarchies, cronyism, and nepotism. These traits have to be replaced with a culture supporting meritocracy. This requires a leadership who shows by example. Deans with experience in reform and building teams will be required to reset these institutions.
- There needs to be a set of standards that are fair for all to meet for university entry. This doesn’t mean there can’t be special entry programs for the disadvantaged. Many students now attending public universities would have been better off in the vocational system. Stricter entry standards will mean less students attending public universities and more in the vocational system that would better suit many students’ needs. This will help ease pressure on undergraduate teaching and raise standards very quickly.
Maszlee Malik doesn’t appear to have the interest or passion to lead the drive for excellence in public universities. He has been counterproductive through his appointments of vice chancellors. Religious credentials shouldn’t be a factor in selection.
If change can be made at the top, then the new broom can focus on granting full autonomy to public universities and change the Universities & Colleges Act so that university councils can be set up. The minister must denounce covert agendas and start a national dialogue about what Malaysian public universities should become. Finally, the apartheid nature of these insular institutions needs to be dismantled.
Ministers, bureaucrats, vice chancellors and deans don’t have to fly off to see Harvard or Oxford on the pretext to learn and emulate what is being done there.
Fortunately, within the public system there are some success stories. There are the examples within public universities that can learnt from where the elements of success can be transposed to other faculties within the public system. If this is not enough, vice chancellors only need to drive across town and look at some of the vibrant private universities as examples.
Murray Hunter is a development expert based in Southeast Asia and a frequent contributor to Asia Sentinel.