Din Merican comments:
The University of Malaya (UM) is more than 100 years old (established in 1905) with the same starting point as The National University of Singapore (NUS). But today, it pales in comparison to NUS in terms of curriculum quality, academic standards and reputation. The former is a laggard and the latter is among the best in the world.
In this article (below), Dr. Syed Husin Ali who taught at UM explains why this university which was a household name when I was a student in early 1960s (when both UM and NUS were known as The University of Malaya, stress is on the word “THE”) has declined in academic standards despite massive investment of tax ringgits. It saddens me to see that Universiti Malaya is now ranked poorly by the Times Higher Education Supplement (THES).
I wrote about the pathetic state of Universiti Malaya a few years ago and so has my frequent collaborator, Dr. M. Bakri Musa. All our comments and suggestions have fallen on deaf ears. The government is too arrogant to listen us and other Malaysians these days.
There is too much political and ministerial interference in the way all our universities are being run. Some of our best minds like Yale and Harvard educated economist, Dr. Jomo Kwame Sundaram (now with the United Nations), Dr Chandra Muzaffar (now with JUST), Dr. Farish A. Noor (now at NUS), and Dr Azly Abdul Rahman (at Columbia University, New York), to name a few, have left. The remaining few good academics have either been marginalized, or have chosen to be apologists and kaki ampus for the government.
A University is not just bricks and mortar. It is home for the flowering of the human mind and the development of human character, for research and teaching excellence. It is also an abode for poets, authors and intellectuals. Malaysia is empty when intellectualism is dead. A country without a thriving community of intellectuals is, in my humble opinion, one without a soul. That is why we have become mediocre and corrupt as a nation.
February 4, 2008
By Dr Syed Husin Ali*
On 2nd February 2008, the University of Malaya (UM) Alumni held quite an elaborate bash to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the university (in Pantai Valley). That could have been a most appropriate time to evaluate the performance and achievement of the university and to chart an excellent future for itself. But as is usual in this country, such an occasion was used more for ceremonial purpose to provide political mileage to government ministers rather than to discuss serious matters relating to the university and its future.
It is public knowledge that UM has declined as an academic institution. Locally, UM is no longer considered the premier university. It has been overtaken by others like the Science University (USM) and the National University (UKM). Internationally, according to the Times Higher Education Supplement (THES) scale of achievement, UM’s position for the years from 2004 to 2007 declined from 89 to 169 to 192 and finally out of the first 200 category. Perhaps, the only “consolation” for UM was that none of the other Malaysian universities had made it into the same category.
There are many factors that have caused the decline of UM and the other local universities. In my considered opinion, the following three factors are the most serious.
The apex of academic and administrative leadership of the university stands the Vice-Chancellor (VC). Since the Search Committee system was abandoned, the Prime Minister now advises the King on the government’s choice of a VC. Quite often political and ethnic backgrounds become prime considerations.Recently there was an attempt to revive the Search Committee at UM, but it did not gain much credibility and respect because many of the members were not considered independent of government influence.
As we can see, most VCs in the existing 20 public universities are unknown personalities, lacking in academic merit, administrative ability and long term vision on how to build the university into a centre of excellence for teaching and research. Actually, a good VC need not possess an outstanding academic qualification (although it is a bonus), but he or she must have a clear vision on how to establish an excellent academic institution and the guts to make things happen. Only a handful of the VCs have this vision and the administrative ability. The rest are very mediocre, to say the least.
Among the first actions they take on being appointed are to embellish their offices and then bestow upon themselves the title of professor. Except for very few, most of them are more concerned with pleasing their political masters and to ensure that the university staff and students will be subservient to the government. This is the way to get their services renewed before their tenure ends.
After the implementation of the University and University Colleges Act (UCCA)—a legacy of the Mahathir era—the VC is empowered to appoint Deans of Faculty (who were elected by faculty members before) and Heads of Department (who in the past were very often Professors or the most senior member of the department enjoying respect of the majority). Nowadays and very often the VC appoints Deans and Heads from among those whom she considers will readily do her biddings without question. Many of them are not professors and sometimes not even a senior member of the faculty or department. As a result, lots of dissatisfaction arose which affected good academic environment.
Actually, the true academic leaders in any university are the Professors. In any good university worth its name, they are appointed or promoted purely on the basis of merit – their research, publication, teaching and peer assessment. At one time, before someone was appointed professor, he was assessed by three assessors, usually from three continents. Their academic assessments were the most important basis for the Appointment Board to make its decision.
Now, some universities have done away with the assessors. Even if they are still maintained, their assessments are not given primary consideration. Many have been made professors on the basis of the administrative positions assigned to them, strengthened by their pro-government political orientation and good relationship with the VC, preferably buttressed by closeness with some influential government figures. We have many professors now who have little or nothing to show for their academic merit. So, they just cannot inspire their junior colleagues and even students. But I do not deny there are a few outstanding ones.
As a result of all these, a good number of academically outstanding staff members are sidelined. Many of them get demoralized and lose the motivation to undertake research and publish. No doubt this should not happen if they are true scholars, but many are affected because they know good academic work will not help in the promotion exercises. Besides, a number of outstanding and internationally recognized academics have not been viewed with favour simply because they have the courage and integrity to voice independent views and criticize openly unethical practices perpetrated by the university authorities and the government. Many of them have been forced to leave the university. Consequently, the environment for good scholarship is undermined.
QUALITY AND ATTITUDE OF LECTURERS
Generally, the quality of lecturers in various universities including UM has improved, viewed in terms of the paper qualifications they possess. The number of lecturers with Ph.D. in different fields continues to increase. But paper qualification is not the sole measure of quality. It is noticeable that many in the university almost stop to improve themselves after they succeed with their doctorate. They do not keep abreast with developments in their own fields. They cease to read journals and new books.They do not even develop interest in general reading. As a result there is a tendency for many lecturers to recycle old lecture notes. Of course, this affects their quality of teaching and graduates the university
When academic staff fails to keep abreast with new Knowledge in their own field, research and publication activities will also be affected adversely. To make it worse good academic leadership cannot be expected from those professors who gain
their positions not on the basis of merit or competence. Sometimes there is deficiency in planning and executing research and also in the purchase of ertain related equipment which are sophisticated and expensive. A good number of research projects have topped half way, expensive equipment left to “rot” and big financial allocations gone to waste. There is no result to show that can help boost the ranking of the university according to excellence.
Whilst there are those in some universities showered with huge grants, on the other hand there are some lecturers from other universities who are very keen and able to undertake research but cannot find any or enough research grants to help them. Ironically, sometimes these are the same universities which can afford to spend huge amount of money on quite unnecessary physical development and wasteful functions and celebrations. There is need for the universities to rearrange their priorities.
Again, just having good paper qualification is not enough. Good research, publications and scholarship emerge from creative and critical minds. Unfortunately, it is very apparent that local universities, including UM, do not encourage or promote these qualities. What needs to be said for the time being is that this is very much the consequence of the type and quality of education prevailing at the school level. It is generally agreed that our school system is deteriorating and standards are falling.
It is true that more students now score maximum number of A1 in different subjects than before, for instance in the SPM examinations. A student’s success is often measured according to the number of A1 he obtains. To achieve this he is made to slog by both the school and the family. Competition among schools and students becomes very keen. Admittedly, competition is often good, but it should be of the right type with the right purpose.
In schools, lessons are often crammed almost all through memory work. At home parents who can afford send their children for tuition. There is little time or children to enjoy real education in the true sense of the word. Not much attention is paid to help or train students to be critical and creative. Thus, when they go to the university and graduate to become lecturers, for instance, they lack the critical and creative mind that can help them in good research and publication. Only a small number become true scholars.
To make matters worse, a few universities employ graduates with second lower honours degree as lecturers, whereas some of them do not deserve to be considered even as tutors or research assistants. Although their number is small, yet there is a problem with this even although they may be dedicated teachers. The sad thing is that there are also many highly qualified academic staff who fail to show full dedication to their work.
They undertake minimum research, rarely publish and go to lectures unprepared and late. They treat their academic profession merely as a career. They have little sense of commitment and even responsibility.Certainly such negative attitudes amongst them must be overcome by providing good academic environment and traditions which almost all our universities lack. Of course all these need good academic leadership right from the top which is generally found wanting now.
INCREASING POLITICAL INTERFERENCE
I have argued earlier that as a result of direct political interference in appointment of VCs, Universities are not able to get the best candidate and indirectly this has resulte in the appointment of Deans and Department Heads of questionable calibre.Government political interference is also seen in the appointment of members of the University Senate, the highest body responsible for the academic and administrative functions of the university.
Since the inception of UM until the implementation of the amended UCCA in 1975, this body known as the University Council, had a membership of 20-30 representatives from different groups, such as the academic staff, the alumni, professional bodies, Rulers’ Council, state governments and so on. The Council was often diverse and balanced in composition. The primary concern of the members was mainly to promote excellence and welfare of the university and
Nowadays the Council has been replaced by what is called the Board of Directors, with membership that is less than a third of the Council and not so diverse. Many of the members are closely linked to government politics (or administration) and big business. Some of them have never been known to be interested in either the university or education in general. Many are often obsessed by ways and means of making money for the University. Their mental attitude seems to be no different from board members of business companies. The difference is that they are more subservient to government.
The universities at present are treated like any government department with the university staff regarded as government servant. Many rules and regulations constrain and constrict the autonomy of the university and the freedom of the academic staff. As if the numerous draconian laws for the whole country, such as the International Security Act(ISA), Official Secrets Act (OSA) and the UCCA are not sufficient, the “Akujanji” (I promise) agreement is introduced specially for university staff members. By it, they are required to swear allegiance practically to the government in power, not to the State or King.
These acts and regulation exacerbate the worsening authoritarian atmosphere in the country and within the university. They cripple the mind of the academic staff. Most of them become almost uncritical and uncreative, always fearful of or subservient to the authorities. Good academic environment cannot prevail and excellent academic work cannot be produced where the mind is not free. Under such conditions, how can our universities compete with the best in the world?
True there are some authoritarian sates whose universities have achieved excellence. But more often than not they give special treatment and provide the best for their universities. They ensure their universities have the best brains who are recruited locally and from overseas, and are provided with adequate research facilities and enough research funds.
It is most ironic and despairing that the decline of the local universities, particularly UM, has worsened after the establishment of the Ministry for Higher Education. The ministry and especially the minister himself, has increasingly interfered with not only the administration of the university, but also insist on having final say over the introduction of academic courses and even in the drawing up of their curricula. They allow government politicians to use the university as platform to gain and extend their support, but deny equal opportunity to dissenting persons or views.
A truly autonomous and free university should in fact be open to all leading and authoritative figures so that the university can develop as a true centre for dialogue, debate, discourse, and presentation of various ideas and views on political, cultural, religious and other matters.
Such intellectual activity, besides the ability to carry out good research, produce excellent publications, give good supervision to post-graduate students, maintain first class research library and facilities, certainly is one of the ways to make the university a true centre to seek truth, knowledge and excellence. Otherwise the university will further decline and finally fall.
* Dr Syed Husin Ali was Professor, Head of Anthropology and Sociology Department, member of the Senate and Council at the University of Malaya. He obtained his Ph.D. in 1972 from the LSE (London School of Economics and Political Science) and for a short spell in 2005 was British Academy Visiting Professor at the University of Cambridge. He is author of several books and now Deputy President of KeADILan or PKR (People’s Justice Party).