Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Political Universities

As reported by the New Straits Times and the Star on August 7th, the Wawasan Open University (WOU), offering degrees for working adults, will start operating in September 2006.

For those who are not familiar, WOU is another one of Malaysia's political party sponsored university, this time by Parti Gerakan Rakyat Malaysia (PGRM). I am quite happy with the set up of this new university, as I believe that an open university (or institute of higher education) will offer opportunities for mature students in Malaysia.
Funded by philanthropists and corporate bodies, the WOU will offer distance- learning degree courses for about RM17,000. This will give the country’s five million working adults with SPM qualifications the chance to further their studies.

He said the university would have study centres in Penang, Kuala Lumpur, Johor Baru and Ipoh, with the headquarters in George Town. Professor Emeritus G. Dhanarajan, an international expert in open learning and distance learning, has been appointed chief executive officer of WOU. He is now the director of the Open University of Hong Kong. Once the university is running, Dhanarajan will be its vice-chancellor.

WOU will commence operations with three faculties: the School of Business and Administration, School of Science and Technology and School of Foundation Studies. Dr Lim said the university was recruiting staff and expected students to pay RM300 a month for courses.
However, I'm concerned with this apparent trend in Malaysia whereby all the various political parties are interested in setting up their own universities. As it is, Universiti Tunku Abdul Rahman, which commenced operations 3 years ago, as well as Tunku Abdul Rahman College (TARC) is sponsored by Malaysia Chinese Association (MCA). Less well known will be the Advanced Institute of Medicine, Science and Technology (AMIST), sponsored by Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC).

Not wanting to "lose out", an UMNO delegate has during the past UMNO general assembly advocating that Universiti Tun Abdul Razak should be renamed UMNO university. In fact, our Minister of Higher Education himself, has on the 20th May this year stated that he supported the idea of an UMNO university as it would be "a symbol of the party's strength and struggle."

Once again, I find myself in agreement with the Parliamentary Opposition leader, Lim Kit Siang's argument that:

[t]he proposal for an UMNO University is the latest sign of unhealthy higher education development in Malaysia as there is not a single first-world country where political parties compete to establish universities. It is further evidence that Malaysia is not yet ready to fulfill the call of the Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, for a First World Infrastructure, First World Mentality to join the ranks of the fully developed nations in the
world.

An institution of higher learning should never be politically sponsored. This is because the political influence exerted on the university and its academic as well as administrative staff will result in a deviation of what a university's ultimate objectives should be. Some of these political objectives could be:

  1. In the interest of garnering popular support, student enrolment will be increased and entry criteria will be lowered so that the number of students (and hence their families) who could enjoy the "benefits" of a university education will increase. This may be detrimental to the university as it may result not only in the lowering of standards at the university to cater for the higher intake, it'll also place unnecessary stress on the academic and administrative resources of the university. The tutor-student ratio will fall, and if it doesn't fall, the likelihood that due to a limited supply, the quality of tutors recruited will also fall accordingly.

  2. The independence of the academic and administrative staff of the university may be compromised. Instead of being focused on achieving university excellence as well as the student's welfare as the number one priority, the top priority may become "pleasing" the political masters, who are the de facto "owners" of the university. This may affect anything from promotion prospects of academic staff - for e.g., a tutor who has contributed significantly to the political parties' mission, whether in cash or in kind, will he or she be treated equally to someone who is apolitical?

  3. In addition, the inherent nature of certain subjects such as History, Political Science and other related subjects require a certain independence of thought, which should not be impaired by the fact that one, whether the academic or the student needs to put the political sponsors in a better light in their analysis.

  4. Finally, because these institutions are politically sponsored, the "chiefs" of these institutions are likely to be political appointees or politicians themselves. For e.g., the proud chancellor of UTAR is Dr Ling Liong Sik, the former MCA president himself. This will often ensure that the political interest is held with the greatest importance over other more important priorities.

PGRM did the right thing by appointing a Vice-Chancellor who is experienced in the academia, and is not politically affiliated. However, to ensure that there is no undue political influence in the future, it is important that WOU loses the tag of being a PGRM sponsored university and that the Board of the University comprises entirely of academic professionals and no politicians.

It is critical that the Minister of Higher Education, Datuk Shafie Salleh be motivated by the right set of priorities - to ensure that Malaysians receive top quality education, and to ensure that our universities achieve world-recognised and reputable standards - instead of higher education being a vehicle to garner (his) political support.

As it is, the local public universities are already under plenty of political influence. Imagine the amount of "meddling" may be expected in an outright "politically-sponsored" environment. As I've mentioned many times in my earlier posts, Datuk Shafie needs to realise that he is more likely to be able to retain his position as the minister in the upcoming Cabinet reshuffle if he were to make the right decisions, instead of being perennially defensive and political in his actions.

3 comments:

esk50 said...

politicians have too much influence in every aspect of life in this country. you want something done, it's imperative you have connections to the right person. it's all about know-who, not know-how.

Jay said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Ismail42 said...

I don't mind whether TARC is a political college or government-sponsored college as long as it's producing quality graduates.