Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Positive changes to the UUCA

Read this on the Star today. Tok Pa announced that there will be significant changes in the UUCA or the Universities and University Colleges Act soon and these changes will be reflected in the amendments to the UUCA Act 1971 which will be tabled in parliament soon. I think this is positive news, especially for those who have been advocating for significant change in this area. But do these changes go far enough? I think we'll have to wait and see until the actual amendments are tabled.

Some of the changes reported in the Star include:

1) Lecturers do not need to ask for permission to speak on academic matters
(Not really know what this means except perhaps to say that a lecturer can express his or her views about certain academic policies in class?)

2) Removing provisions for the automatic suspension and dismissal of students convicted of criminal offenses and substituting them with the university’s discretion to proceed with disciplinary measures.

3) Decriminalize student disciplinary laws (which means offenses already classified as criminal under other legislation will no longer be classified as such under the Act)

(I think 2 and 3 are similar and I guess that if a student is charged / arrested under the ISA or the Seditions Acts, it means that he or she will not be automatically suspended by the university?)

4) Provide for fairer student disciplinary procedures

5) Provide for staff and student representation on the university’s governing bodies.

6) There are also proposals seeking to enhance the roles of the board of directors, senate and vice-chancellor and to provide for more accountability.

(6 is consistent with the the National Higher Education Action Plan blogger about here)

Other more controversial issues which have not been reported include:

1) The ability of students in universities both public and private to engage in political affairs including joining political parties, a right which should be afforded to all active citizens who are above the age of 21 and are eligible to vote

2) The fairness of campus elections including allegations that 'pro-government' factions or groups have received the support or aid of university administrators

So far, I've been slightly agnostic in regards to the impact of 'student activism' on the quality of a university. I don't think student activism is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition to be a world class university (or even an 'Asian class' university). LSE was a hotbed of social / leftist activism in the 50s and 60s but is now one of the most 'capitalistic' of British universities with lots of business tie-ups, a higher number of foreign students to increase the revenue and so on. It was a well known university when it was a hotbed of activism and it has gone from strength to strength under a more 'capitalistic' model. Berkeley was the center of the 'flower-power' movement in the US in the 60s and is still one of the more 'radical' campuses in the US (thought nothing like what it was in the 60s) along with Columbia but Harvard and MIT were by comparison, much more 'conservative'.

NUS in Singapore is clearly taking the more 'conservative' approach of making NUS a world class university by providing lots of monetary incentives to attract good people and promote good research but keeping a close tab on political activities of both students and lecturers. (For those who want an insight to the workings of the Spore government against lecturers, just google 'Christopher Lingle' and you'll see what I mean)

While I don't think student activism is highly correlated with the quality of a university, I'm convinced that having academic and student freedom to organized and freely express their thoughts is a necessary condition towards establishing a world class university. NUS will encounter resistance when it tries to break into the ranks of recruiting world class academics some of whom might not like working in a country where political freedoms and freedoms of expression are restricted. Different universities in the US and the UK have taken different routes towards making themselves world class but all of them have one thing in common - that there is academic freedom for students and lecturers to express their thoughts and views and to organize if and when necessary. Hence, the UUCA needs to be reformed such that it can be part of an overall package of initiatives to improve the level of academic freedom in our public universities. I can imagine that in a situation of greater academic freedom, UM, given its location in KL / PJ, will have greater student activism compared to let's say UUM in Sintok. But both universities will have the opportunity to create an environment which is conducive to academic freedom for both students and academics.

I think some of the moves made by Tok Pa in terms of reforming the UUCA should be applauded. But given some of the restrictions he faces (both internal, within the university system and external, within the constraints of the BN, especially UMNO), I won't be surprised if the amendments to the UUCA won't go far enough, at least for now, to create an environment where students and lecturers can freely express their views and opinions.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

5 Alternative Career Paths

We've talked about alternative career paths and also thinking outside the box when it comes to choosing which universities to go to (I'm a keen supporter of liberal arts colleges in the US). Definitely not as much as one of our readers, Tiara, who through her blog, has been a consistent advocate of alternative career paths. I thought that I conduct a thought experiment and ask myself what 5 alternative career paths would I choose for myself if I could do it all over again. I thought it would be interesting if some of our readers shared their alternative career paths with us as well. Here are mine:

1) Study botany and work for companies / on projects related to reforestation

I've always liked the idea of working in the jungle (though I'd probably fail at it now) and I've always been horrified when hearing news items that jungles the size of Belgium are cleared from the Amazon every year. And close to home, the impact of illegal logging in Sabah, Sarawak and parts of Peninsular Malaysia. What better way to combine those two interests than to work to cultivate fast growing trees in forest farms so that actual jungles or forests don't have to be cleared? If I end up not liking the jungle that much, I could always work in a lab to create new stocks of faster growing, more durable trees.

2) Study math and computer science and work for a gaming company

Computer games are big business nowadays. Halo 3 grossed something like US170 million worldwide in a little under 24 hours. I'm a big fan of first person shooter games and strategy games like the Civilization series. I know that creating the games themselves might not be half as fun as playing them but I'd still like the intellectual challenge of constructing complex algorithms for the AI in games like Civ or thinking of better 'physics' when you shoot a monster with a sawed off shot gun in games in Serious Sam. It's not as easy as it might sound!

3) Study foreign languages and work as a translator or a journalist or a diplomat

I've always admired those who could speak half a dozen languages at a drop of the hat. You'd probably meet a ton of these people if you're working in an environment like the UN. Malaysians already have a head start compared to Americans or Brits for example, because many of us grow up speaking at least two languages - English & Malay, English and Chinese - and some of us three - English, Malay, Chinese or English, Malay, Tamil. Wouldn't it be great if we could pick up Japanese, Spanish, French and German along the way and perhaps some of the less commonly spoken Asian languages like Thai, Burmese, Cambodian, Vietnamese, Korean and Tagalog? I think I would have enjoyed the challenge of using this linguistic ability to work for the UN or as a roving journalist traveling the world or as a diplomat.

4) Study zoology or marine biology and work with animals

I've always been fascinated by sharks and am an avid watcher of Discovery during Shark Week. My dream is to swim with a great white without the protection of a cage (though I'm sure that will never happen or if it did, it would be the last thing I do). I've even more fascinated with sharks now that I've seen footage of how great whites in South Africa can jump out of the water when they are catching seals (they called it 'breaching') and how some sharks can be 'hypnotize' into a state of 'tonic' . If I don't make it with the sharks, I could always go study my other favorite animals - giant constrictor snakes such as the python and the anaconda or giant crocodiles.

5) Study graphic design and animatronics and work for a CGI / special effects company

I'm a big fan of sci-fi and action movies and what better way to influence the look and feel of these movies than to work for one of the companies such as Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) who help make these types of movies. I know that George Lucas has recently opened an animation studio in Singapore and I know some friends who work in this industry. I think it's really cool but you really have to be into the whole 'nerdy' Star Wars figures and sci-fi scene to have a passion for this.

It's too late for me to choose one of these career paths but perhaps for some of our readers, the world of choices is still open to them. We have enough people wanting to be doctors, lawyers, engineers, consultants, investment bankers and the like. How great would it be if we had more people working in jobs which they feel passionate about and at the same time are not 'run of the mill'. Too often, we choose jobs or career paths which are considered 'safe' but not necessarily what we're passionate about. If we can marry the two (interests and career path), how much more rewarding and fulfilling life would be. Ahhh, to be young again...

Friday, October 05, 2007

Long Way Home Charity Ride

Hey guys, remember my friend Tzuo Hann who's cycling home to Malaysia from the UK? He's in Turkey now and I think his story has been featured in the Star and a few Chinese papers. Anyways, he's trying to raise funds for a few charities and I'd like to draw attention to his fundraising website. It's a really difficult journey for him (sleeping in the open, no hotels mind you, very little support along the way etc...) and I admire his gutsiness. This is no easy journey where you're followed by an entourage of politicians or where you're promised a 'datukship' when you get home after a 20 hour or so swim. It's a real slog. You can read about his journey here.

The New Affirmative Action

Wanted to draw you guys to an excellent but long New York Times write up recent developments on affirmative action policy in the US, specifically in the state of California which has made admissions based on race and race only to be illegal. I think it's a very well researched and nuanced article dealing with the complications of affirmative action policies. Which makes me wonder if there have been such studies done in the Malaysian context. (Probably not!)

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Evaluating the Higher Education Action Plan (Part II)

I blogged about this issue earlier here, highlighting some of the positives on the Higher Education Action Plan. Now, I'd like to go into some of the details in particular 2 of the 5 'institutional pillars' of the action plan namely the pillars of 'governance' and 'leadership'.

On the issue of governance, the action plan discusses how, even though administrative power has been transferred to the respective public universities, this has not led to the desired outcomes in practice:

"With regard to university management reforms, the Government has implemented the legal framework to transfer administrative powers to universities. In the Universities and University Colleges Act (Amended 1996), the University Council was replaced by the respective university’s Board of Directors (BOD). However, the amendments have not as yet fulfilled their intended purposes."

As far as I know, the decentralization of powers was intended to make a more dynamic university administrative structure with the university's BOD playing an active role in guiding and helping to 'direct' the university towards a continued path of excellence and improvement. However,

"The current practice of centralised administration is neither practical nor strategic. The BOD continues to function as a university council and has neither the status nor authority to act as a true corporate board. Further legislative amendments may be necessary to properly redefine the roles of the BOD."

Corporate boards have also run into criticism in recent years because they have been seen as rubber stamps for the CEO of the respective companies since many of them were appointed by the CEO or the chairman.

A corporate board is supposed to play an oversight role and a check on the activities of the CEO of a company. If a university's BOD is supposed to play a similar role, then they should not be appointed by the sitting VC and should ideally consist of prominent and respectable members in the public sphere including ex-academics and alumni. I recall the days when the late Tan Chee Khoon was part of the UM's university council and seemed to have played a positive role in ensuring that the internal practices in the UM was fair and transparent. I can think of someone like Raja Nazrin who can play a similar role within the BOD.

In addition, the BOD should also be able to have some power in determining whether the term of the VC is extended or not. As far as I know, the contract of any VC of any public university is extended by the Minister of Higher Education. If the BOD can have at least as much power as the Minister, this will ensure that the BOD has actual 'teeth' and that the VC will be forced to take into account some of input of the BOD.

While the BOD should not have a say in the day to day running of a university, I think they should act as some sort of arbiter involving serious cases of university management including accusations that the management is involved in corruption, abuse of students, rigging of student elections, controversial promotion exercises and so forth. This way, we can ensure that the VC does not have absolute power to ride roughshod over the students, especially those who happen to disagree with the VC.

The issue of university governance in the Malaysian context is particularly complex. From the perspective of the Minister of Higher Education, he or she would want a high performing VC but also one who would listen and follow the orders of the Minister in question, especially on sensitive issues. A smart VC, would try to act to 'appease' or appeal to the Minister in question to ensure that his or her contract is renewed. A smart VC would also know that it's more important to appease the Minister than to make dramatic changes so that the university can move forward in the right direction. A pragmatic Minister would know that it's more important not to 'rock the boat' (for example, by firing 'deadwood' academics) than to make substantive changes for improvement.

With the current state of our public universities, we need visionary VCs who are willing to shake the boat to implement some substantive changes and equally willing Ministers who are willing to accommodate these changes. Having a BOD who can keep the VC on this path of progress and to shield the VC from the political pressures faced by the Minister can be very useful.

Without some of these changes, I don't see how the BOD is anything more than a rubber stamp body with little power, much as what was mentioned in the Action Plan.

On the issue of leadership, I was particularly impressed by the language used in this Action Plan. Here is what the plan said about the position of the VC, the most important leadership role in a public university:

"The selection process must ensure that Vice-Chancellors are drawn from the highest ranks of professionals. They must be fiercely competitive and must focus principally on achieving strategic objectives. They must possess the credentials and track records of proven leadership, and they must earn and command the respect of their key stakeholders.

The position of Vice-Chancellor will not necessarily be subject to internal promotion. It is an open post, which will ensure that the best candidate is chosen for the job. In consonance with this policy, a panel of independent interviewers will select and recommend candidates for these positions whenever the term of a Vice-
Chancellor approaches completion. It is envisioned that this practice will evolve into a selection process by way of public advertisement."

In addition:

"The BOD, along with the MOHE, will play a more active role in drawing up as well as monitoring appropriate Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) for the Vice-Chancellors and senior management of universities.

If leaders fail to achieve predetermined targets, they need to be prepared to make way for a renewal process to happen. It matters not if they were asked to do more than their peers, their institutions will still need to complete their transformational journey.

The overall leadership process can only be executed smoothly if proper succession planning is conducted. Future leaders must be identified early and introduced to AKePT’s leadership development programme. Proven leaders will enter a leadership channel, and, should the need arise, will undertake greater challenges at other HEIs."

Bold words indeed. We hope that the process of appointing any new VCs in our public universities (and the renewal of existing contracts) in the future will follow these recommendations. Tony has written on this issue here and here and we can only hope that the Ministry will keep to the bold words issued here in the Education Action Plan.

I can already sense that the Ministry is facing some pressure in regards to the appointment of senior positions in the public universities (such as the appointment of two women VCs in UM and UKM and the more recent appointments of a few non-Malays to the positions of deputy VCs). One can only hope that we are heading towards the direction where the best candidate regardless of race, religion and even nationality can be appointed to the position of the VC of our public universities.

In the longer term, I hope that our public universities can move increasingly towards the direction of taking the politics out of our education system. This way, we can ensure that less and less 'compromises' which sacrifice the quality of our public universities are made. One way to do this is to decrease the level of dependence on public finances to run and expand our universities, which is the model that most public universities in the UK and in Australia are taking, and which many public universities in the US have already taken. But this is a subject for another post.

In the meantime, let's hope that the Action Plan items on better governance and leadership can be implemented in the near term.