The struggle for academic freedom and autonomy | Selangor Times
Issue 118


The struggle for academic freedom and autonomy
Writer: Gan Pei Ling
Published: Fri, 18 Nov 2011

Much attention has been drawn to the state of academic freedom in Malaysia due to the suspension of International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM) law professor Dr Abdul Aziz Bari last month.

Dr Abdul Aziz received a bullet and an anonymous death threat note.

Aziz was investigated by IIUM and the police under the Sedition Act for questioning the Selangor Sultan’s decision on the Selangor Islamic Religious Department’s (Jais) raid on Damansara Utama Methodist Church (DUMC) in August.

Aziz also received a bullet and an anonymous death threat note at his Bandar Baru Selayang home on Oct 29. Around 700 students protested against the suspension on Oct 21 while academic staff unions from IIUM and University of Malaya  backed him.

The controversy over Aziz has once again put universities in the spotlight.

Universities should be a place where diverse ideas are celebrated and intellectual independence and autonomy revered.

However, apart from Aziz, many other academics and varsity students have also been penalised by authorities for challenging the status quo or being critical of the powers that be over the years.

Stifling dissenting ideas

The Universities and University Colleges Act 1971 (UUCA) and respective university regulations have been used to curb academic freedom and silence dissent.

The limelight is now on Section 15 of the Act, which restricts students’ political freedom after the Court of Appeal declared it to be unconstitutional in a landmark decision on Oct 31.

But that’s not the only section in the UUCA that needs to be repealed, says Prof Dr Azmi Sharom, who started teaching in UM in 1990 and is now an associate professor at the Law Faculty.

Dr Azmi Sharom: Academic staff are not allowed to criticise the university.

“I don’t think the entire Act has to be scrapped as many parts are administrative in nature, but there is a need to review the law in its entirety to single out [and abolish] the parts that violate the fundamental liberties and academic freedom of students and lecturers,” says Azmi.

For instance, academic staff  are not allowed to criticise the university without the vice-chancellor’s permission.

“So if I feel the university is being run badly, I cannot criticise [the university management or administration] openly,” says the UM Academic Staff Union president.

Furthermore, the vice-chancellor (chief executive and academic officer in a university) and the university’s highest policymaking body – the Board of Directors – are all appointed by the higher education minister.

In foreign universities that are autonomous and independent, the search for a vice-chancellor is conducted by the university council via its search committee. The government does not interfere.

“There should be a distance between a higher learning institution and the government. Ideally, the minister shouldn’t be involved in the appointment and selection of the vice-chancellor,” says Azmi.
And that was how it used to be before the UUCA was enacted in 1971.

Dr Syed Husin Ali, 75, who served as an anthropology and sociology professor at UM from 1963 to 1990, has sat in the University Council and Senate.

“The University Council was made up of a ruler and state representatives and a good number of alumni who are elected by the alumni themselves,” says Syed Husin, who is now a senator and PKR politician.

Post-UUCA, the University Council was replaced by the Board of Directors, which is made up of a chairperson, the vice-chancellor, two government representatives, and four other directors appointed by the government.

Meanwhile, the academic body senate, comprising deans and heads of departments, are directly appointed by the vice-chancellor instead of being elected by their own faculty or department academic staff.

“Now we’ve the two most important bodies in the university under the control of the government, their members no longer democratically elected,” says Syed Husin.

In addition, the Board of Directors’ salaries and allowances are determined by the Higher Education Ministry.

Consequently, independent and critical academics who do not kowtow to the government are unlikely to be promoted and given due recognition in local academia, says Syed Husin.

He added that university syllabi had to be approved by the Higher Education Ministry and the Cabinet, most of whom, unlike the University Senate, are not academics or public intellectuals.

What makes a good university?

Syed Husin thinks the UUCA and its regulations have stifled the intellectual development of local universities.

Syed Husin: Academics who do not kowtow to the government are unlikely to be promoted.

“That’s why we see the drop in standards in our universities,” he says, adding that the entire Act should be scrapped.

“The universities can govern themselves, based on their own university charter [or constitution],” says Syed Husin.

Besides universities in advanced countries, Syed Husin and Azmi highlight that universities in rising developing countries like India, Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines have far more autonomy and academic freedom than ours.

“Academic freedom and autonomy are central to creating a good university where original thoughts and leadership qualities can be developed organically within an atmosphere of freedom,” says Azmi.

He argues that currently, our universities focus too much on evaluating quality-based on rankings created by private companies such as the Times Higher Education World Universities Rankings.

“There are tricks that universities can use to improve their rankings, such as hiring more foreign lecturers and accepting more foreign students, but these will only boost rankings in the short term.

“In the long run, it is freedom and autonomy that breed creativity and excellence [among the university’s academic staff and students],” says Azmi.

He adds that universities are not training or vocational colleges. Lecturers must encourage their students to question, to think on their feet in order to develop their leadership potential and a critical mind.

“Creativity and innovation – these qualities take years to nurture, and we need vibrant campuses to develop them,” says Azmi.

At the end of the day, a thorough study by law experts and consultations with various stakeholders, including academics and students, will be required before it can be decided whether the UUCA ought to be scrapped or amendments are sufficient.

Nevertheless, it is clear that the UUCA requires an overhaul to restore academic freedom and university autonomy, especially if the country is serious in nurturing independent intellectuals and thinking graduates.


 Selangor Times



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