Dr Maszlee Malik talks about reforms in the higher education sector.

  • Education
  • Sunday, 22 Sep 2019

Maszlee speaks with students during a recent town hall session held at the UiTM Puncak Alam campus.

“IF your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.”

Simon Sinek, Leaders Eat LastIn leadership, there are three critical aspects:

a) Firstly, the importance of doing because people learn best from the example that leaders set;

b) Secondly, the importance of learning because great leaders are always learning from others and trying to take things to greater heights; and

c) Thirdly, the importance of dreaming because all great leaders need to have a dream - a vision and mission that allows them to go beyond the self. Our dreams must give our lives and the work that we do true meaning.

At the ministry, we have embarked on three core areas of much-needed reform in Higher Learning Education. Number one, we are reinvigorating the spirit of the university through empowerment, autonomy and integrity. Number two, we are bringing Malaysia’s Higher Education system into Global Prominence. Number three, we are developing future-proof graduates that carry with them crucial humanistic values.

Autonomy and integrity

What does it mean to empower universities? It means that we want universities to be a place of learning, a place where knowledge is explored, uplifted and imparted. Universities are, and should be, places that uplift society, be it through values, ideas, or solutions for real world problems.

This is why we are committed to bringing back university autonomy as well as to ensure the integrity of academia. I personally believe in the power of individuals - in their creative genius and ability to thrive and be responsible.

New students moving into campus with the help of family members.New students moving into campus with the help of family members.

One of the first things that the Education Ministry has done in crystalising this idea is to repeal a section of the Universities and University Colleges Act 1971 (UUCA). Students’ Committees are allowed to conduct their own campus elections, assisting them to form students’ unions so that they can grow into leaders in the truest sense - by bringing in new ideas, ideals and a reimagination of how society can progress.

The government is also working to ensure the highest level of integrity in our academia, including improvising corporate governance, appointing eminent figures as members of our Vice-Chancellor Selection Committee to select only the best to become Vice-Chancellors of the public universities and have formed the Committee on Integrity in Higher Education.

For members of our academia, we are working to amend Act 605 governing statutory bodies to give lecturers their much-needed academic freedom. These amendments will give lecturers the freedom to publish articles and make public statements including on previously perceived “sensitive” topics. We are even looking into critical matters that come with freedom - that is, academic integrity and ethical conduct.

In that respect, academics are free to enjoy the fruits of their labour and also be accountable for their behaviour. I have personally met our Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad about this and we are in discussions with the Public Service Commission to exempt members of the academia from restrictions placed upon the civil service, and to add unto them certain guidance to ensure their level of academia and scholarship.

We are also working hard to grant our universities autonomy and empowerment systematically from both a legal and policy standpoint. Last year we formed a team of education, legal and financial experts to look into the harmonisation of the UUCA and Act 555 (Private Higher Education Act).

This means that we will repeal both acts, especially the UUCA and replace it with a new one. By the end of the year, we hope to propose a white paper in parliament that would look into university empowerment at all levels. The changes will cover every aspect, from funding to the appointment of board members, to the freedom for institutions to decide on their own personnel.

Our goal here is to make a fundamental shift in our role at the ministry. From a tight controller to a regulator, policymaker and funder. Most importantly, we will act as facilitators to assist in the betterment of universities - we must not control our universities from doing what they do best and we must trust that our universities have the means to progress when given the mandate to do so.

Aligned with this spirit, unlike the previous practice, now the government is working closely with private universities and colleges. Instead of being treated as customers, the private sector is now collectively working together on regulatory and governance to ensure the quality of private higher education.

Global prominence

When given the freedom to strive, universities must also work towards thriving globally. Local universities, both public and private, can no longer be insular about our place in the world. We need to compete and share our knowledge with the world while learning from the world itself. The time is over for Malaysian academics to be known as “jaguh kampung”. The government is now working on formulating ways with academics to be the subject matter experts and references of their respective fields.

Here I refer to a few exemplary figures like Prof Dr Ng Kwan Hoong from Universiti Malaya, the first scientist from Malaysia to receive the Marie Curie Award. More recently, we have Dr Abdul Rahman Mohmad from Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) who published in the academically renowned Nature Materials journal. This proves to me that we have the talent and ability to succeed at an international level. The ministry together with the universities are also developing means to push more potential researchers and professors to the global world via big data and artificial intelligence.

Pro-student movement group Suara Siswa’s newly elected representatives celebrating after the results were announced in UM.Pro-student movement group Suara Siswa’s newly elected representatives celebrating after the results were announced in UM.

We must therefore create an environment for our institutions and talents to stand among giants. The ministry is reforming our regulations, and some examples of what we have done include increasing the collaboration between Malaysian and foreign universities. One of the highlights of my recent visits to the United Kingdom, France, China and Japan is this. For our universities to thrive, we must work with the best partners in their respective fields. The government will always welcome collaborations with any institution abroad, whether via branch campus, micro campus or research collaboration. We encourage more initiatives such as the collaboration between the University of Sheffield’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) and Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM), Universiti Teknologi Mara (UiTM) and Dyson, UKM with Peking University and Tsinghua University, Universiti Sultan Zainal Abidin (UniSZA) and International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM) with Durham University and many more.

We are also encouraging greater movement and mobility of students and academics between institutions and countries. It will start with the public universities among themselves, then between the public and private at the national level, and then towards a more regional level. As the Chair of the Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Organisation (Seameo), I am personally looking into building a stronger mechanism for credit transfer as well as academic and student mobility for the entire Asean region. We are also looking into partnerships between Asean and countries like Japan, Korea and the European Union to enhance the extent of our mobility.

For universities and research institutes, this also means increased availability of capital, talent and research opportunities to boost the quality of our research. Industries and private sectors are being engaged in this manner to create more impactful researchers and to further strengthen the mutual beneficiary relation between the universities and the private sectors.

Besides mobility, it is critical that we see to the preservation, generation and export of our knowledge. In humanities, particularly on Southeast Asian Studies, UniSZA recently obtained the Malcolm MacDonald digitised manuscript from the University of Durham. At Durham, we signed an MoU that will lead to the largest digital repository of manuscripts in Southeast Asia (especially manuscripts from the Malay corpus of knowledge). This is to complement that of the British Library and Royal Asiatic Society.

I am pleased to say that UniSZA is also working with the Moroccan government to digitise Islamic manuscripts preserved by several custodians.

My recent visit to Beijing International Publishing Forum 2019 also paved the way for our best literature to be offered to China and the world.

Amid all of these efforts we must never forget our roots and language. Appreciation of literature is importantly needed because of its value in helping us to know ourselves better. This is where we have introduced the Sasterawan@Fakulti to inculcate a love of our literature and national heritage; and further develop our publishing industry, reading habit and learning culture. We are also working with publishers and universities abroad to make sure our own literature and academic publications will be seen on the shelves and in directories of prominent libraries from all around the world. It is my hope that these efforts will make our academics the reference for global scholarship in this field.

Finally, we are doing more to push our global brand in education. We are already an attractive destination to learn English, being the third most proficient country in Asia; and have strong niches in hospitality, Southeast Asian Studies, engineering and Islamic Studies including Islamic banking, finance as well as halal certification. We have the globally respected institutions such as the International Centre for Education in Islamic Finance as well as the Malaysian Accounting Standards Board.

But to further our global aspirations, we need to have a more robust environment and as such we are easing our rules and regulations to make it more attractive for international bodies and institutions to enter and for our local institutions to reach out. We want to offer our best to the world and benefit from them in return.

Future-proof graduates

Our last and major goal at the ministry is to develop graduates who can prosper in the 21st century. We hear catch phrases like the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), but the most fundamental aspect of these changes in technology is to impart to students the right skills, abilities and values.

This is not the era of traditional degrees and qualifications. This is the era of flexible education and agile governance. It is the era of research and innovation and talent planning.

To realise this, we have leveraged upon and are expanding and creating critical innovations in the field of education. They include:

a) Big data and machine learning - to improve and predict graduate employability and skills matching; and for lecturers and researchers to improve on their publications;

b) Micro-credentials - where the Malaysian Qualifications Agency has expanded their accreditation system to allow for credentials and professional certifications;

c) Our Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) online learning system is also being expanded to allow for a seamless platform between Malaysian students and academia with the larger global academic circles;

d) We are also innovating in trans-disciplinary work akin to a liberal arts system like UiTM’s bachelors in eco-technology;

e) Universities have also formed clusters and niche areas towards strengthening their brands and expertise; and

f) Most importantly, we are working with industry to form co-ownership models that would allow them to co-develop curricula, invest in facilities and training to ensure students are industry ready.

To integrate values into education, we have created new programmes for the introduction of philosophy and ethics into universities. Philosophy is very important to open our students’ minds to every realm of knowledge whereas ethics will broaden the students’ horizon.

We have also expanded the Service Learning Malaysia - University for Society (Sulam) programme to infuse community service as a part of the learning experience. Furthermore, we are looking into enhancing our Public-Private Research Network grant scheme to give more opportunities for universities to contribute to small and medium enterprises.

Higher Learning Institutions are melting pots of diversity, with students and lecturers from a variety of financial and educational backgrounds. Be it the B40 student looking to education for social mobility, or the working professional studying part-time, or the retiree with a love of learning. We must also make a space for the differently abled.

We have launched the Disability Inclusion Guidelines. This is the first time in Malaysia that we have such a policy. My hope is that this will be a corner stone in our history of inclusive education.

Way forward

I have spoken at length on the various initiatives we have embarked upon. But I will be the first to admit that we need to do more to realise this large ambition of an education system that can be the pride of our nation.

Eleanor Roosevelt once said: “The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.” So please allow me to end this speech with my dream.

My dream is to see our Malaysian universities become global references of knowledge and for Malaysia to become the destination of choice for quality, values-driven, inclusive and international education. I truly and honestly believe that we have what it takes to make this happen.

So to all of the leaders present here today, I say DREAM BIG. BELIEVE in the beauty of your dreams and aspirations, LEARN from others on how to make it happen and KEEP DOING whatever it takes to make them come true.

The writer is the Education Minister.

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