The freedom to speak on campus

Let us speak: Students at Universiti Malaya in Kuala Lumpur. — AZHAR MAHFOF/The Star

PETALING JAYA: The Universities and University Colleges Act 1971 (UUCA) should be repealed instead of being merely amended to remove sections that limit freedom, say academics and students.

National Professors Council senior fellow Datuk Dr Jeniri Amir said the UUCA was no longer relevant in this digital age as it curtailed freedom of expression in higher education institutions.

“We are in the era of social media and we should uphold the freedoms provided for in the Federal Constitution.

“Gone are the days that we can control students. We should give them space to express their opinions and carry out whatever activities that are good for their future and the country, and which can enhance their thinking and analytical skills,” he said.

He added that Prime Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, who has been a long-time proponent of academic freedom and institutional reform, must show his political commitment and conviction to implement such changes.

Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia Institute of Ethnic Studies founding director Prof Datuk Dr Shamsul Amri Baharuddin agreed that the UUCA should be abolished.

“The UUCA was always about students, and academics are forgotten. Now both are given attention. Well done, Anwar, if the UUCA is abolished,” he said.

Prof Datuk Dr Ahmad Murad Merican of the International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilisation said the abolition of restrictions should include those concerned with the appointment of vice-chancellors.

Universities must have self-governance while appointments of university councils must be representative of the alumni and senate.

“The electoral process must be in place at all levels from the governing councils to the deanship,” said Prof Ahmad Murad.

Universiti Malaya Students’ Union president Ooi Guo Shen said the current amendments being discussed were not enough.

“You can amend laws all as you please, but ultimately it is the implementation that matters.

“You can guarantee freedoms for students and academics, but little Napoleons who have been used to having their way in many public higher education institutions for many years now may continue to do as they please.

“In an ideal world, students and student organisations would be allowed to have greater freedom and autonomy when it comes to expressing opinions, participating in any activity – political or not – and would be able to raise funding independently as well as have their own assets.

“However, in reality, implementation may be slow or even fail to occur due to a number of reasons such as little Napoleons in many administrations, lack of capacity of some student organisations, intervention by external parties, and an ongoing placebo effect among students with the continued existence of the UUCA,” said Ooi.

The UUCA provides for the nomination of the vice-chancellor and members of the board of directors by the Higher Education Minister, with the vice-chancellor later electing the deans of various faculties, he added.

“This goes on with various key staff positions at the university, faculty and residential college levels, forming a network of interested persons who may not necessarily be competent in running the day-to-day operations of universities,” he said.

Ooi added that there was a need to “rebalance” the roles of academic staff and administrative staff via amendments to the various sections providing for the powers of all these offices.

“But if all the above needs amending, you will be amending a very large portion of the UUCA.

“So, it is easier to just repeal it and replace it with a new law,” he said.

He added that there was already the Higher Education Bill 2020 that could act as a starting point.

International Islamic University Malaysia Student Union president Aliff Naif was optimistic about a new era of student activism.

“However, given the current circumstances that no new higher education act is currently being drafted, to amend (the UUCA) would be the step forward.

“Yet, in the long run of Anwar’s administration, the responsible authorities should still consider the option to repeal the UUCA and replace it,” said Aliff.

The Universiti Utara Malaysia Student Progressive Front (SPFUUM) said the UUCA must be abolished in its entirety.

The student activism group said that since the UUCA came into existence in 1971, it had become a tool of repression by the authorities to restrict the rights and freedoms of students and academics.

“Among the disadvantages of the UUCA is that it empowers the Higher Education Ministry to appoint university management, such as the vice-chancellor, in a non-transparent manner.

“As a result, the university administration lacks checks and balances, while student welfare is not maintained.

“In addition, the UUCA also opens the opportunity for the Higher Education Ministry to intervene in university affairs and make universities a political tool of the authorities, further threatening academic freedom,” SPFUUM said in a statement. It added that amending the UUCA was not an efficient solution.

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