JAN 17 — I've heard that section 15 of the Universities and University Colleges Act (UUCA) will be amended soon to allow students to participate in political activities. We do not need to get excited about this development because students have always been allowed to participate in political activities — so long as they are organised or backed by the Barisan Nasional. At any rate, casting a vote during an election is a political act and this can be done if you are a registered voter, regardless of what the UUCA says.
What student groups and social activists should ask from the BN government is the repeal of section 8 of the UUCA, which would take away the ministerial power to appoint key decision-makers at institutions of higher learning, like the vice-chancellor, his deputy and even the branch campus head. Under the present arrangement the minister appoints almost all key officers of a university, and his appointees then appoint other lesser appointees. This means the entire set-up of a university, including its finance and administration, is held under the minister's tight control.
That makes the minister more powerful than a mentri besar. Let's look at it in terms of money alone: if a public university has, for example, an average annual budget of RM600 million (and we have 20 public universities at the moment), then the minister has control of over RM12 billion in funds. Which mentri besar has that much in his state coffers?
But the damage wrought by our present system of political patronage and control goes beyond financial losses. The quality of our higher education suffers. The best educators are unable to achieve top positions in universities unless they are affiliated politically. Good academics are not normally adept at adhering to the whims of politicians or kissing their hands. Unfortunately, a politician's highest priority is to appoint his supporters and those who will follow his instructions.
I recall during my Umno days how these academics would never fail to do whatever the minister wished them to, just so they could be assured of an extension of their contracts or a promotion. It's pathetic to see how mediocre officials can reach high positions while the truly qualified ones stay below the radar. Our young students then suffer irreparable damage because our top university faculty members are academics who serve as part-time party cadres.
What we need is academic freedom. Let the universities be run by professionals and academics. What does a minister know about education anyway, unless he is an academic himself? Let the university senate decide on major academic matters and other important issues that affect the university, including promotions and what educational programmes to offer. Curriculum and research should be dealt with by the senate together with the respective school deans.
We need capable faculty members if we want a university to flourish. Let there be seats for students and administrative staff as well. This is how we can energise and bring our universities to life. We need to nurture our young talents and this can only be done in an environment of academic and social freedom. Today's stifling and obnoxious politics have been allowed to penetrate university campuses, which is why we see low-grade students and teachers and aggressive behaviour amongst students and faculty members, even on simple issues of peaceful assembly and having public forums.
* Datuk Zaid Ibrahim is president of Parti Kita.
* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication. The Malaysian Insider does not endorse the view unless specified.
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