What educational reform?
Writer: Lee Hwok Aun
Published: Fri, 17 Feb 2012
You might think, as we get closer to the promised reforms to the University and University Colleges Act (UUCA), that public authorities and education institutions would want to show some change of heart and mind. Think again.
On New Year’s Day, instead of peacefully overseeing a student sit-in at Universiti Pendidikan Sultan Idris (UPSI) until the crack of dawn, the police chose to crack it down. The students gathered at the university gates to cry academic freedom. The gatekeepers are mad.
We are now caught up in the mayhem of that moment and mutual accusation between students and police. Who provoked? Who pushed first? Was there excessive force? These questions, we can only hope, will be settled without fear or favour.
What we cannot let pass is the dismal failure in the first place to reform authorities’ mindsets. If we are interested in true, 21st century reform, the foremost role of the police and education institutions in these situations is to preserve the students’ rights to freedom of assembly and freedom of expression.
The police have no business dictating how long students should gather at their own campus, or what time young people should go to bed on New Year’s eve. If students want to camp out till the break of day, deploy fewer personnel in shifts. Apply wisdom before using discretionary power. You can get through the night. It’s not that hard.
But the police flashed the same old thunder: “You got fifteen minutes. Make your point and disperse. Or we will charge.”
So what is this talk of tertiary education reform? We can alter the law, but as long as mentalities do not change, desires to control will continue to find ways to suppress yearnings for freedom.
UPSI has just suspended student leader Adam Adli for three semesters.
Adam was at the New Year’s Day convocation. On Dec 17, he and a group of students lowered a flag with Prime Minister’s face outside UMNO headquarters in PWTC and replaced it with a banner calling for academic freedom. After a minute or so, they returned the premier’s flag to its original place.
For that, this young man is prohibited for 18 months from pursuing a degree in Teaching of English as a Second Language.
We should be proud of passionate, articulate, intrepid, and yes, even brazen young people like Adam. Their activism bodes well for well-rounded education of future generations.
So what is this talk of tertiary education reform?
Deputy Minister of Higher Education Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah has consistently and sincerely advocated greater academic freedom. Kudos to him; he clearly wants to get on with the 21st century.
Sadly, I cannot see any broad change of mindset leading up to the UUCA amendments.
The Ministry set up a committee to seek public opinions and make recommendations. They conducted a survey, filled with loaded, aggressive, and jaw-droppingly stupid questions.
Consider this multiple choice question: students that are too active in external politics must be subject to disciplinary action including ‘expulsion’ if they do not comply with UUCA amendments. (a) Agree, (b) Disagree or (c) Not sure?
First, calm down, isn’t this supposed to be an objective survey? Second, how can one answer without knowing what are these amendments?
Or this: students found to be active in politics but not so brilliant in their studies can be punished by the university authorities. (a) Agree, (b) Disagree or (c) Not sure?
Why this presumption that political activism must be at odds with academic performance? Some students are active politically and do well academically (in terms of grades), some are active and do not score highly, and some are not active and do not necessarily shine, and so on. Students get top grades for a variety of reasons.
We ought to regard them as mature young adults who are free to make their own decisions (and mistakes) take responsibility over the consequences.
If a student is active in politics and does not ace the exam, that’s his choice. Maybe he will not get a job he applies for, maybe she will be appreciated for having ideals and enthusiasm. Who knows? The only certainty should be that authorities have no basis or right to meddle in how students choose to invest their energy.
I must emphasize that it’s not just about student membership and involvement with political parties, which affects a minority. The obsession over controlling students is more regressive to education because it is more pervasive.
The 2009 UUCA amendments did specify some spaces in which students can be free to think and express their views without getting the Vice Chancellor’s permission. But again, some idiotic clauses were added.
For example, students cannot be prohibited from making a statement on an academic issue as long as it is within their field of study or research. Thus, a sociology student cannot comment on climate change, an engineering student cannot express an opinion on democracy.
Please la, stop being control freaks. And grow up.