Stupid Me! Week post #3: A consideration on local university undergraduates losing the right to be a normal person with the institution of the UUCA/AUKU.
The author would like to acknowledge Andrew Khoo’s assistance in writing this serious piece of CeritaOrangGilak.
University students are people. They have responsibilities, just like everyone else. They have to learn to juggle work (in their case studies), families and friends, balance their bank accounts and try to live within their means. One of their responsibilities is to study and to make the most of their time at university. Just as we learn things both in and outside of work, students can learn things in and outside of the classroom, in university and outside university. You and I might think that this is so obvious as to obviate the need to say it – you and I would be wrong.
University academics (the word “academicians” is incorrect) are people too. They have responsibilities, just like everyone else. They go to work every day hoping to do their best. They hope for a positive working environment that will allow them to give of their best. They look forward to working in an environment where they can share knowledge with their students and colleagues. They hope that as long as they do their work diligently and conscientiously, no one ought to interfere with their work.
You and I might take all these things for granted. But for university students and teaching staff, this has not been the case since 1971, when the University and University Colleges Act was passed. Since 1971 students, for example, have not been allowed to freely join student organisations and participate in student activities. Each and every organisation and each and every activity must have the prior approval of the university authorities.
This regulation covers activities held not just within the campuses of our universities, but also outside, and participation not just in organisations within the university, but also those that have nothing to do with the university. It is as though once one becomes a university undergraduate in Malaysia, one loses their right to be an ordinary person.
If you are a university student over 21, you can still vote – but you cannot join a political party, or attend a political ceramah. You can’t volunteer to help in an election campaign. Not for you, the idealism and enthusiasm that we saw recently on our television screens anon the Internet of hundreds and thousands of students in campuses across the United States of America campaigning or attending rallies for John McCain, or, more likely, Barack Obama.
Academics, as employees of the government, have had to toe the government line. They can only teach what has been prescribed by the Ministry of Education (and now the Ministry of Higher Education). Their activities both within and without the university must have the prior consent of their respective universities. So too their research interests.
In this culture of domination and control and political correctness, our universities are expected to flourish. Our universities are expected to become fonts of knowledge and education, training our best and our brightest to prepare them for the world of innovation and change, of novel ideas and new discoveries. No wonder our universities’ rankings in the world have grown.
Their ranking numbers get larger with each passing year as they tumble down the scale of comparability with institutions of higher education in other parts of the world. Instead of heading towards the top, they scramble not to find themselves at the bottom of the heap. If this were English Football, our universities would be someone amongst the minor leagues barely surviving the relegation zones.
There is the thinking among the powers that be that our lives can be conveniently compartmentalised. That we can separate religion from politics. That we can separate trade from politics. And that we can separate education from politics. You have heard their slogans: “Don’t politicise [insert the area of your choice].” These slogans tellingly misunderstand that “small ‘p’ politics” is not about partisan party politicking but about how we are governed, how policies that affect us as people and which determine our lives are promulgated and implemented. So why should university students and academics be excluded or restricted from participating in these aspects of their lives and ours?
The government will be hard pressed to say it, but by amending the University and University Colleges Act in 2008, there was a tacit admission that they have got it wrong. So did this Bill become the broom that sweeps clean the cobwebs from our colleges? Hardly. After nearly 40 years of the Act, it is difficult to see how the government can selectively dismantle its systematic and comprehensive control of academia.
Yes, cosmetic changes were made. Vice-chancellors will now have much more power with a shift of authority from Minister (in charge of Higher Education) to mini-napoleon (sorry, that should read “vice-chancellor”). Any appeal against the despotic decisions of a vice-chancellor will go to the Minister. Why not to the university’s board of governors? Why retain this political link? Because the Government is not sincere about making real changes to ensure academic freedom and neutrality. Vice-chancellors will now be appointed by selection committees. But who sits on these selection committees?
University students will now be allowed to participate in organisations, so long as they have not been outlawed by law (for example, Hindraf) or by the university itself. But political activity is still proscribed, whether within Malaysia or outside (see the story of the UKM 4). This however still does not disallow or otherwise make illegal the many UMNO clubs in British and American universities, whose representatives will be granted observer status at the next UMNO General Assembly, as they have been in times past.
This is because the Act does not cover Malaysians studying abroad. So the discrimination is clear. No political activity for university students in Malaysia but if you are in a university abroad, there is no such prohibition. In fact, the government positively encourages this, what with government Ministers meeting up with such UMNO club members during overseas visits. Why is there one special rule for student supporters of UMNO, and one different rule for those in our local universities?
The provisions of the University and University Colleges Act 1971 can be likened to a dirty stain on our walls which have grown uglier and uglier with age. No amount of whitewashing, not event with the 2008 amendment or the repeal of section 15 of the UUCA, can hide the rot within our higher education system. It is time for a whole-scale re-organisation of the way we “do” higher education in this country.
A Select Committee on Higher Education should be established to hear as widely as possible from all stakeholders and interested parties as to how to get our institutions of higher education back on track again. We need to have strong and vibrant centres of education to prepare our nation for the challenges that lie ahead.
We need places where the freedom to express ideas, the freedom to challenge the status quo, and the freedom to think the unthinkable are not curtailed or made subservient to political correctness or ministerial masters, or beholden to the government of the day.
Even though financing for higher education is provided by the government, it should not be the case that “he who pays the piper calls the tune.” Our universities should be melting pots of thinking and crucibles of ideas. Our country, nay our children and future generations of Malaysians to come, deserve no less.