Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Another good Bakri Musa piece

Tony is currently busy running for elections and I'm busy covering it from afar. But we've not forgotten this blog. Just want to point our readers to another good post from Bakri Musa on higher education in Malaysia. I'm not sure if I agree with his point of abolishing the MOHE, at least not at the moment. I think there's a stronger case for this move further down the road. But I agree with the substance of his other points.

Reproduced from Bakri's blog.

Financial Autonomy To Universities A Good Start

The decision by Minister of Higher Education Datuk Mustapa to grant financial autonomy to public universities is a good start. He should not stop there however; he should also push to extend academic, management, and other freedoms. Our universities will forever remain trapped in mediocrity as long as they remain within the clutches of the civil service.

University of Malaya Law Professor Azmi Sharom says it best, “If we love our universities, we must set them free!”

It shows how cumbersome the administrative machinery of the government is that such a simple decision would take months if not years to implement. It would involve among others changing the various laws and regulations, right down to employment and procurement practices.

Further, with the coming elections, there is no assurance that Mustapa will remain in his present post. His successor may make yet another policy U-turn that regularly afflicts our education system. Even if Mustapa were to keep his present position, there is no guarantee that he could overcome powerful forces that would resist ceding control of our universities.

Yet those administrative changes, difficult though they may be to execute, would be the easy part. Much more challenging and trickier would be to adjust existing mindsets. Brought up under the present system, our academics and university administrators have long internalized the ethos and culture of the civil service. I am not at all assured that they are capable of leading or even adapting to the change.

Making Public Universities Accountable

Public universities are tax supported; consequently they must ultimately be accountable to the body politic, meaning the government of the day. However, there are other more effective ways to hold universities accountable without directly micromanaging them.

The matrix of the civil service is the very antithesis of academia. In the civil service, following established orders (“Kami menurut perentah” – We await directives!) is valued; in academia, you question established wisdom and assumptions. That is the only way to progress.

The currency of the civil service is the size of your department as measured by the number of subordinates and budget allocation; among academics, the number of publications and frequency of citations.

Meritocracy as practiced in the civil service is a completely different concept from that acknowledged in academia. Thus to have the Director of Public Service Department decide who should be promoted Dean or Professor would be a recipe for disaster. That is precisely the current problem with Malaysian public universities.

As I wrote in my book, An Education System Worthy of Malaysia, the government could exert effective influence on public universities more through the twin macro levers of the governing boards and budgetary process.

Appoint competent individuals with integrity who share the government’s broad policies and philosophy to the governing council of universities. If it is a choice between someone competent but does not share your political views versus someone who shares your views but otherwise incompetent and corrupt, I would opt for the former. It is far easier to convert someone to your viewpoint; more difficult to change or improve on someone who is incompetent and corrupt.

The other equally powerful lever would be the budgetary process, both operating and capital. With operating budgets, the government could tie them to the universities meeting certain prescribed goals. If they exceed the target; they would get bonuses; if they fail, they would be penalized financially.

These goals could be tied to the government’s polices. For example, the government’s oft-stated goal is to increase the number of Bumiputras enrolled in the sciences. Universities that meet or exceed that target would be rewarded financially. Similarly with the policy of encouraging graduate studies and research; reward those universities who award doctoral degrees (especially in the sciences) and whose faculty members publish scientific papers.

Similarly with capital budgets; the government could promise to underwrite 90 percent of the capital costs of any new programs or buildings; the universities would fund the remaining 10 percent. This would encourage universities to seek their own independent t funding.

However we should be careful that such incentives not be too generous that we reduce the vice-chancellors from being academic heads to champion fundraisers, as is happening on many American campuses.

With greater management autonomy, each university could find its own unique and ingenious ways of meeting its own needs. On many American campuses, private developers lease university land to build student residences and faculty housing. Similarly, companies like Marriott provide food services for many students. Such initiatives would free up scant academic resources. We could then send the Deputy Vice-Chancellor for student housing back to the lecture halls instead of wasting his time in making sure that students are being well fed and housed.

Such innovations are just the beginning; we would see many more if only we dare liberate our campuses.

Dispense with MOHE

By liberating the universities, the government may find that it does not need a huge bureaucracy to run them. It could dispense entirely with the massive Ministry of Higher Education (MOHE) and divert the considerable savings to fund campus libraries and research laboratories. We could hire a Nobel laureate to teach at one of our universities for the money we pay for MOHE’s Secretary-General, or the many Directors-General. Imagine the good such appointments would do to our universities.

Come to think of it, this is one reason why I am skeptical that Mustapa’s grand scheme of liberating our universities would be vigorously pursued. It would mean one fewer Secretary-General, and many more Directors-Generals out of a job! Then there are their deputies and assistants!

California has an extensive system of quality universities and community colleges, yet it has no Ministry of Higher Education. The state government exerts control through the budgetary process and through its nominees on the universities’ governing bodies. Professors and other university employees are not part of the state civil service. Malaysia would do well to learn from the Golden State.

The central question policymakers should answer is this: How can we make our universities serve the needs of our nation? We do this best by liberating them so they could find their own path to excellence. A mediocre institution serves nobody any good.

Monday, February 11, 2008

The Hijacking of Public Education

I've been reading a spew of reports on the building of new Tamil and Chinese schools and the upgrading and repair of existing Tamil and Chinese schools. It does not take a rocket scientist to figure out that these are election 'goodies' which are being announced on the even of a general election. The political scientist in me acknowledges that this is part and parcel of electoral politics in multi-ethnic Malaysia. But the liberal democrat in me thinks that politics should play as small as part as possible when it comes to educational policies and that education is too valuable to be used as an electoral tool.

Here are some recent newspaper reports regarding election 'goodies' in the form of Chinese and Tamil school - RM1.3 million for Kelantan Chinese schools, RM300,000 for Chinese schools in Sabah, the possibility of re-opening the Damansara Chinese school, RM20 million for 23 Tamil schools, the announcement for new and relocated Chinese schools.

While I understand the politics involved in the bargaining for more funding for Chinese and Tamil schools in the Malaysian context, I think that the debate on education should be on policy grounds, not on the allocation of money as a form of 'bribery', if you will. If the current government thinks that Chinese and Tamil schools are a good thing, then they should be willing to fund new Chinese and Tamil schools not just before an election but in between elections as well. It should be willing to increase the number of Chinese and Tamil schools and not just 'transfer' schools from one area to another.

Education is far too important of an issue to play 'politics' with and it is somewhat sad to see that this is being done on the eve of an election.

Friday, February 01, 2008

The passing of Adlan Benan Omar

This is an unusual post in that it is an obituary. I heard from one of our readers that Adlan Benan Omar, someone whom I've blogged about here, recently passed away. I read of his passing with a heavy heart and I want to share a little about my few encounters with him and how his ideas and idealism can inform us in regards to the future of education in Malaysia.

Although the media has not picked up on his sad passing, he has not been ignored on the blogosphere. I google his name and found 87 posts related to his passing. Read this short Rushdie-like allegory on Hang Tuah written by Adlan here. You can read about how my friend Akhram describes Benan as an 'a**hole whom you'd like'. You can read a poem written by Benan to his MCKK friend, Noni Kapet. And the list goes on.

I first met Benan while I was studying at the LSE, way back in 1997. He made an instant impression on me - with his physical stature, his cute smile, his rapier wit, his oratory brilliance and his knowledge of all things great and small. He read History in Cambridge and it was rumored that he had memorized the Malaysian constitution by the time he was 14 (or thereabouts). A product of MCKK, he was an intellectual giant among his peers (figuratively and perhaps literally as well).

I later heard that he had joined Keadilan and was their Youth Treasurer at one point in time. I later met him again in 2001 when I went to Washington DC to attend a conference. It was here that I heard him spar (verbally that is) with the likes of Khairy Jamaluddin and Lim Guan Eng.

The last time I met him was with a friend about a year or so ago. He was already pretty sick by that time and he was losing his sight. We had a good chat about the latest political situation in Malaysia.

I felt really sad when I heard (thanks Weng Keung) about his passing because I would have loved to tap his brain and his thoughts on politics, education and the gamut of social issues. (I would have enjoyed his many sideswipes at the various politicians and their pet schemes too)

How would Benan have wanted to change the education system in Malaysia if given the opportunity? I think he would have wanted to have an education system which encouraged students to think critically and challenge the conventional wisdom. I think he would have wanted an education system where students of all races would have been able to interact and share ideas and differences in an environment of openness and mutual respect. I think he would have wanted to see an education system where the qualities of a student are acknowledged rather than his or her race.

Malaysia has lost a good man. Others have lost a friend and a 'brother'. I count it as my honor to have crossed paths with him even if I didn't get to know him as well as I wanted to. Kudos to you Benan for being you.