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Failure in Higher Education Reform


Speech (5) in Parliament  on Royal Address Motion
by Lim Kit Siang  

, Wednesday) : 

3. Failure in Higher Education Reform

Last year the government revealed that there were nearly 67,000 unemployed graduates, many of whom had graduated between 2000 and March 2004. Bumiputera graduates made up nearly 49,000 of this total number. About 92.6 per cent of these unemployed graduates were from public universities, as opposed to only 5.3 per cent from private institutions.

One major reason attributed for the emergence of this malaise is the declining quality of teaching in public universities. The decline in the quality of teaching in public universities has, in turn, been linked to the poor quality and volume of research by lecturers in these institutions.

To a large extent, the decline of Malaysian universities, specifically that of UM and USM, was revealed in the Times Higher Education Supplement (THES) ranking exercise. In THES’s 2005 ranking, UM feel dropped from 80 places, 89 to 169, while USM fell off this list of the top 200 universities. UM’s reputation as a major institution of higher learning in Asia, if not the world, has undoubtedly declined appreciably over the past 20 years.  In the early 1980s, UM was internationally recognised as a premier academic institution, and certain faculties like Medicine, Engineering and Law, were acknowledged for the quality of their graduates and research. These faculties have lost their international reputation, while members of industry persistently complain about the quality of students produced by UM as a whole.


If UM is to regain its reputation as a premier, internationally recognised, tertiary institution, as well as achieve the status of a research university as defined above, there are a number of problems that need to be overcome. The major reforms that are required include:


a) New Scheme of Service for Academics

The present scheme of service for academics, which is tied to that of other civil servants, is hindering public universities from attracting and retaining competent and well-qualified staff.  The best lecturers are leaving because promotion to senior academic positions, which pay better, is hard to secure. Meanwhile, new impediments, like the need for lecturers to attend and pass assessment – or Penilaian Tahap Kecekapan (PTK) – courses, further hinder the promotion prospects of staff members. The inability of public universities to attract bright minds and retain the best lecturers only serves to undermine the capacity of these institutions to produce quality research and well-qualified graduates.

A relevant key performance index (KPI) should be considered for promotion purposes. The KPI should focus on teaching load, post-graduate supervision, research activities and publications. These are tangible and transparent means to identify the lecturers who are performing and it can be the basis on which they are assessed for promotion or merit increments.  When lecturers of quality are duly recognised and rewarded, it helps create a dynamic teaching and research environment that should serve to help improve the quality of tertiary institutions.


b) Appointment of VCs based on merit and selected by an independent committee

To inspire confidence among academics and students that competent scholars are leading them, the universities should be managed by Vice-Chancellors and deputies who are internationally recognised for the quality of their scholarship. The government, specifically the Minister of Higher Education, cannot be given sole responsibility for the appointment of the Vice Chancellors of our universities. To instil confidence in the public that the universities are well managed, the government should ensure that it keeps to its pledge of establishing an independent search committee to fill all vacancies for the post of Vice Chancellor. This committee should comprise primarily of retired academics of much repute. This process will help reduce the persistent allegation that the government, in particular UMNO, interferes too much in the running of the universities.

c) Abolish the UUCA

The UUCA should be abolished immediately if the government hopes to convince the people that it supports the principle of academic freedom. One reason for the decline in the quality of scholarship and graduates in our tertiary institutions is that this legislation acts as a major deterrent to the promotion of independent research. This Act is also widely viewed by lecturers and students as a tool that can be used to remove them from the university if they fall out of favour with the government over their research, statements or activities.

In this connection, I wish to refer  to the Open Letter by Dr. Azmi Sharom, Associate professor of Law Faculty, University of Malaya to the new Higher Education Minister, Datuk Mustapha Mohamed, asking him to set the universities free as a prerequisite for Malaysian universities to achieve world-class status. It was published in the Star on Saturday, 11th March 2006.

Azmi pointedly told Mustapha:

“If you love your universities, you must set them free. 

“Academics and students must be free to think and to express themselves.  

“Yes, I understand that this is Malaysia and freedom is seen as a dirty word by some, but without it, there is little hope of achieving ‘world-class’ universities. 

“Intellectualism cannot grow in a repressive atmosphere.”

Malaysian universities have been repressed and stultified for too long since the insidious enactment of the Universities and University Colleges Act 25 years ago, which together with other repressive measures like the Statutory Bodies and Surcharge Act and “Aku Janji” requirements  must bear the brunt of the blame  for mediocrity replacing excellence in the Malaysian universities, resulting in the shameful international ranking of Malaysian universities.

Mustapha should publicly applaud Azmi for his Open Letter to him giving important pointers for the creation of world-class universities.  In fact, I  would go one step further and call on Mustapha to  initiate a “let hundred flowers bloom” campaign among academicians and students by inviting them to publicly give their views on how Malaysia can achieve world-class university status.

Azmi has delineated five meanings of a world-class university, viz:

  • Graduates who are employable, not only here but also abroad; 
  • Academic staff who are respected worldwide; 
  • Research and publications that are recognised by reputable international journals/publishers; 
  • An academic programme that is recognised worldwide;
  • An academic atmosphere that can attract quality national and foreign students and staff

Is Mustapha prepared to publicly endorse  these five criteria for “world-class universities” adopting them as among the benchmarks  he want all Malaysian universities  to achieve?

In  his Open Letter, Azmi made two important points which Mustapha should also endorse publicly:

  • That universities should first and foremost be the birthplace of ideas and original thought, discussion and debate; and
  • The urgent need for good leadership in Malaysian universities, in particular Vice Chancellors with  “the qualities of an outstanding intellectual, manager and diplomat, who can ensure that academic principles are paramount, not political expediency”.

All Members of Parliament, whether Barisan Nasional or Opposition, should  debate   Azmi’s Open Letter   as the restoration of  Malaysia as a centre of world-class university education must be regarded as a top national agenda.

While on this subject, I call on the new Higher Education Minister, Datuk Mustapha Mohamad  to  honour the undertakings given  by his predecessor, Datuk Seri Shafie Salleh  – including the setting up a Parliamentary Select Committee on Higher Education, greater transparency in the   search committee for university Vice Chancellors and Deputy Vice Chancellors  and making public the Zahid Higher Education Report. 

When DAP MP for Batu Gajah Fong Po Kuan and I met Shafie   in Parliament on November 14 last year for a discussion on higher education problems, Shafie agreed to the establishment of a Parliamentary Select Committee so that MPs can be deeply involved in all aspects of higher education development – from policy formulation to monitoring of progress to create world-class universities in the country.


Shafie  agreed to raise in the next  Cabinet meeting the establishment of a Parliamentary Select Committee on Higher Education but he failed to honour this undertaking, probably as a result of objections from Higher Education Ministry officials and university vice-chancellors and administrators.  This raises the important question as to who is setting the policy on  higher education – the Minister, the Cabinet and Parliament or the bureaucrats whether in the Higher Education Ministry or the public universities.


The time has come for MPs to be active stakeholders in the  critical area of higher education which has  far-reaching implications on the country’s international competitiveness, economic development and prosperity.

I urge Mustapha to get the “green light” of  the Cabinet   for the establishment of a Parliamentary Select Committee on Higher Education to demonstrate national and parliamentary commitment to have world-class universities in the country.  Such a motion for the establishment of a Parliamentary Select Committee on Higher Education should be given priority in the current meeting of  Parliament.

One of the first appointments of Mustapha as Higher Education Minister was his meeting with the 18 Vice Chancellors and Rector of public universities on 19th February, where he stressed his commitment to academic excellence in the tertiary institutions to produce world-class graduates.

If Mustapha is fully committed to academic excellence and world-class universities in Malaysia, then he should draw two inspirations from his first meeting with the 18 Vice Chancellors and Rector of public universities – top priority of meritocracy for such appointments and the the Malaysianisation and multi-racialisation in the appointment of VCs and DVCs, as we want the best universities for the nation and not for any one community.

Finally, I all on the Prime Minister to  take the bold step to lay a solid  foundation for Malaysia’s future competitiveness and prosperity in the era of globalization  by setting the top national  goal of creating  a culture of academic quality and excellence  among Malaysian students, whether locally or overseas.

The first step he  should take to  blaze  the path for true academic excellence for Malaysian students, whether in local or foreign educational institutions, is to end the bogus meritocracy in the annual admission  of  students into the public universities, by introducing a common university entrance examination for all public universities in Malaysia. 

The common university entrance examination can be achieved either by having  only STPM or matriculation for all university-bound students, or establishing a common university entrance examination for all pre-university students vying for places in the public universities, whether from the STPM or matriculation systems.


The introduction of a common university entrance examination will not only end the bogus meritocracy for university admissions but put a stop to the decades-long division to national unity and nation-building caused annually  by the burning  issue of inequitable  university admissions.


(to be continued)


*  Lim Kit Siang, Parliamentary Opposition Leader, MP for Ipoh Timur & DAP Central Policy and Strategic Planning Commission Chairman

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