Tricky path to university independence

  • Brave New World
  • Wednesday, 26 Sep 2018

THE government of the day is facing a conundrum. Well, I think there is one. I don’t know if the government feels the same way.

You see, there are certain institutions that ought to be independent, or as independent as possible, from government interference. I’m not talking about institutions like the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commis­sion, the judiciary, the Attorney General’s Chambers and the like.

That has been discussed before in greater detail by cleverer people than me. I am speaking of universities.

Ideally, universities are autonomous from government. It is normal and acceptable if the government was to engage with universities regarding things like the general needs of the nation.

For example, there could be a greater need for IT graduates. And universities, being public bodies, would do well to try to be of use in achieving nation-building goals.

However, what they do on campus and how they do it should be up to them.

For instance, I find it ridiculous that the government can dictate the type of courses that universities should have and that it has so much influence in the selection of university management.

Why do I oppose such influence? Well, a university is a place of learning where we teach and where we hopefully generate new knowledge. In order to do this, we need freedom to think and express ourselves. We also need to be free to set our own academic agenda.

Governments are led by politicians. They therefore will always have their own political agenda. Such an agenda must not be allowed to enter the campus because it may very well be at odds with our aims and objectives of quality education and research.

I understand that public universities get their funding from the taxpayers, so some sort of accountability is called for. But please remember, we get our funds from you the people and not from any political party.

Therefore, our responsibility is to do the best we can for you.

The results can be direct, perhaps your children are able to enter local universities, or indirect, where we produce better graduates and research that may end up serving you better.

However, to do this, we must not be bound by any political agendas or misguided and politically motivated concepts of what makes a university good.

Hence the need for autonomy. Autonomy is not being free from accountability. It means being free from interference and it also ultimately should mean better quality universities.

So where does the accountability come from? Ideally, universities should be accountable to the University Board.

(The board used to be called the University Council, which sounds cooler and more dignified. The name became University Board in the 1990s, when the government, making yet another misguided decision, thought universities should be more like corporations and forced the change.)

This board should consist of eminent people, not just from higher education but also the public at large. The board members are the ones who oversee broad policy issues and they are the ones who take the lead in choosing a vice chancellor (VC), with the help of a properly constituted search committee.

As it stands, the Education Minister can impose all sorts of conditions and obligations on universities and he is the one who selects the VC as well as sets the VC’s KPIs (key performance indicators).

As I said, this should not be the case. But then, at the moment, there is a conundrum. Even if the board is given the powers it should have, will this mean that there will be an improvement? Not necessarily, because the current crop of university management in all public universities are those selected by the old regime.

This means (with apologies for generalising) that many, if not most of them, will be of the same mindset as the old regime – a regime that did not respect academic freedom and did not understand academic autonomy.

So, what does the Education Minister do? Should he stick to principles and give universities autonomy now?

Or should he use the powers that he has inherited and make sweeping changes, ensuring more independent-minded folks are in positions of authority before he steps back and allows universities to be autonomous.

I am leaning towards the latter. Unfortunately, sometimes in order to fix something, drastic measures have to be taken first in order for the foundations to be strong before one starts rebuilding. Having said that, the choices for the new faces of university management must be done in such a way that those chosen are truly qualified and independent-minded individuals.

Those within the same political circles of the current government need not apply.

Azmi Sharom ( is a law teacher. The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.

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