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Don't Bureaucratise Our Universities

A cookie-cutter approach to tertiary education cannot work.

Written by johnleemk on 12:18:07 pm Jul 21, 2007.

One horrid thing about Malaysia is the degree of its centralisation. Much of the economy still hinges on our five-year plan (which really, one would have thought was out of vogue with the collapse of the Berlin Wall); our federation actually resembles a unitary state; and our universities are controlled mainly by the federal government, rather than by educators.

I remember being quite perplexed at the huge fuss some time back when some of our universities' Vice-Chancellors had their contracts up for renewal. It seemed as if everyone thought who is the Vice-Chancellor actually matters.

Well, it's not that the VC and that other university officials don't matter. They do. But the only reason they matter is because they determine how badly the university is run.

Our whole education system, from the primary right up to the tertiary level, is controlled by the central government. Everyone else involved, be it a district education officer, a headmistress, a Vice-Chancellor, is merely a functionary of the central government, carrying out orders from above rather than taking any initiative of their own.

The main determinant, then, of whether our public educational institutions succeed is how good the central government's ideas are, rather than how good the ideas of anyone else are.

Of course, a bad idea can always be made worse. Quite often the only time we hear about educators is when they screw up something, because the only autonomy they have is in the field of making a bad government policy worse. The former VC of Universiti Malaya was especially prominent for his gigantic gaffes, a talent his successor fortunately does not have.

I don't know whether Rafiah Salim is a good academic or could lead Universiti Malaya back to the prominent position it once occupied in the region. I do know, however, if that she is, she still can't do anything significant about UM's decline.

As far as our universities are concerned, they are hamstrung by the central government, which controls anything other than the most mundane decisions. Rafiah Salim may aim to restore intellectual rigour by restoring intellectual freedom, but she cannot do that without repealing or amending repressive laws such as the Universities and University Colleges Act.

Even things as simple as university admissions are not decided by individual universities, but by the government. A stupid mistake like grading students for extracurricular performance can be magnified into a monumental error because the government mistakenly decides it's a great idea.

A local academic, Azmi Sharom, once penned an op-ed titled "If You Love Your Universities, You Must Set Them Free". The truth of that statement cannot be understated. Our universities can only thrive if they are set free from the chokehold of government control, and are allowed to sink or swim on their own by setting their own policies.