By: Murray Hunter

Although Malaysia’s reform coalition Pakatan Harapan made improving the quality of public education a priority before the 2016 election, the country’s universities are still going backwards as they were for the previous Barisan Nasional Government.

Only two Malaysian universities were in the Times Higher Education (THE) Asia Ranking of 2.482 universities in 2019. Universiti Malaya (UM), founded in 1905 was in the 300s grouping and Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM), formed in the early 1960s to uphold the Malay language, is somewhere in the 600s grouping.

Most other Malaysian public universities are in the hundreds and low thousands in the rankings. They are either declining or remaining stationary. Any minor improvements have been in these groupings and are not very significant. The excuse traditionally used for poor ranking performance was that Malaysian universities are young, but so are those in Hong Kong, Singapore and China, which have scored very well.

In its 2016 election manifesto, Pakatan promised to 1. Develop quality education, 2. Bring a renewed respect towards the teaching profession, 3. Reduce the administrative workload of academic staff, and 4. Put greater focus on technical and vocational education.

Mazlee Malik, previously an academic, was a controversial choice for Minister of Education. Newly elected to parliament, he is inexperienced, has supported the continuation of racial quotas, and appears to be acting with a religious agenda.

The major problems facing Malaysia’s universities are a reflection upon the way Malaysian general society is today. Reform is about tackling the state of mind engulfing public universities to bring the radical reform needed to make them relevant to contemporary society and competitive within the region.

The crux of the issue is university culture, which requires a massive exercise in cultural transformation.

Malaysian public universities are introverted. Their set mission by the government is to primarily produce skilled and obedient workers for industry. In response to high graduate unemployment, universities made entrepreneurship a secondary focus. However, this is taught primarily by ethnic Malay academics with little or no personal entrepreneurial or business experience. The environment for developing critical and creative thinking that is necessary to solve problems and develop commercial innovation is lacking in the curriculum.

Campus culture within Malaysian public universities is also rigid. Islam has a long association with scholarship and science. However, institutionalized Islam within university campuses is codified into practices that produce conformity rather than diversity. Examination and discussion of other ideologies and religions is largely supressed. The religious department is really an Islamic department. Regulations, dress and behavioral codes all reflect Islamic conformity.

Another force making public universities insular is the carefully selected appointments to top positions. All appointments at the vice chancellor level, bar one, have been local Malays. The last two vice chancellor appointments have been people with similar Islamic beliefs to Mazlee’s. This very narrow selection pool of potential vice chancellors is preventing public universities from breaking out of their comfort zones.

Academic appointments don’t share the diversity of the land and have led to a teaching staff heavily weighted in favor of Malays. Teaching and administration staff don’t reflect national demographics. This is not good for diversity of ideas and meritocracy.

One of the ironic things in staff academic selection and employment is that authorities seem more prepared to employ ethnic Indians, Bangladeshis or Iraqis rather than local Chinese or Indian scholars.

Vice Chancellors, deans and other office bearers tend to turn their turf into little empires. They employ ‘their own teams’ and as a consequence become nepotistic in staff selection. Some universities will only employ staff from within their own state, thus drastically reducing the size of the employment pool to pick the best people for the job.

This power-concentrating sense of management is not healthy in an academic environment and leads to deep campus politics.

This culture is also reflected in the academic grant system for research. Most often, it’s the senior staff who have patronage that get grants rather than the best applications. The system is full of patronage and bureaucracy where those who know the system prevail and prevent the best projects from being funded.

Grant selection seeks safety and tends to select repetitive projects that can be finalized within tight timeframes rather than novel projects that involve apparent risk.

Public universities have long been losing their best academics to overseas universities and even the private universities set up in Malaysia. This drain on the most experienced and senior academics increased exponentially when the Najib government cut funding and salaries for professorial staff a couple of years ago. This decision was not reversed by the Pakatan Government, so many of Malaysia’s most renowned and senior professors have retired at a time they are needed most to help revamp the institutions.

This retired group was mainly educated in the US, UK and Australia and tend to be well connected with international academics all around the world. They have left the ship to a much younger group of academics who lack the depth of experience the old guard had. This is a great loss for Malaysian public universities.

What courses are taught at Malaysian public universities has been primarily determined at ministry rather than university level – with the ministry of Education setting the criteria for skills needed in industry as the major yardsticks for what degrees and courses are taught at faculty level.

The actual curriculum designed for these courses is primarily developed by younger academic staff, who have limited experience, limited resources, time constraints, and no opportunity to visit other universities teaching similar subjects to assess the issues involved with developing a new curriculum.

Deans and their staff usually take all the overseas study trips and the junior staff are left to cut and paste curricula. Designers have to content with Bloom’s Taxonomy, Objective Based Education (OBE), and even irrelevant ISO considerations. At the class level teachers are so busy complying to paperwork demands when teaching that it prevents them from bringing out their best from their class through their own styles of teaching.

Teachers need to be taught how to learn within their subject areas and teaching methods within the classroom rather than how to comply with documentation.

Student Councils were ironically set up by Mahathir when he was education minister to control student voices. The Universities Act made it illegal for students to be involved in politics or protest, even though this is unconstitutional. Student Councils need to be disbanded and replaced with independent student unions. The unions should be recognized by the administration and have representation on University Board of Directors.

Students should be allowed to participate in the political system and hold forums and discussions on topics important to students and society in general.

Universities need to be centers of thought and discussion. Visitors to universities like Zakir Naik give students a narrow view, where other more diverse views should be presented to students so they can make up their own minds on issues.

There needs to be a focus on innovation and excellence (a well overused word on Malaysian campuses) rather than rankings. University populations need to reflect the demography of the nation. Anything else will be dangerous and harm national welfare over the long term.

The bottom line is that the quality of degrees given out need to be questioned. There is something wrong when graduates are earning the low salaries that they are.

Students may be competent in technical knowledge. They must also be competent at critical and creative thinking and be able to competently present what they know at the job level. The Malaysian Qualifications Agency (MQA) needs a major shakeup as it is the keeper of degrees.

What is not adequately measured in university rankings is the environment in which students are immersed. University should be a total life experience. Diversity on campus will go a long way to widening the perspectives of Malaysian students for the rest of their lives.

The fact that Universiti Tunku Abdul Rahman (UTAR) has been named second best Malaysian University in less than 20 years of existence is telling about the plight of public universities. The current Malaysian University Blueprint has failed. The very assumptions that Malaysia’s universities were built upon need to be urgently questioned. Diversity is a national asset and must take precedent over the sublime agenda in place today which has been common to both BN and Pakatan Governments. It’s time for Pakatan to make the hard decisions.