Sunday, August 10, 2008

NST piece on the UUCA amendments

Good NST piece on the UUCA amendments. One of the posts from this blog was quoted.

OPINION: 'Superficial' changes to UUCA Bill criticised

The highly anticipated Universities and University Colleges Act (Amendment) Bill has generated much interest among academics and varsity students alike since it was tabled in Parliament on July 16. YONG HUEY JIUN examines the core issues
STUDENT bodies eagerly await a key parliamentary debate this month on their rights, hoping for greater freedom of expression and association.

At the heart of the controversy is Section 15 of the Universities and University Colleges Act, which deems that any student joining any off-campus societies -- including political parties -- commits a criminal offence that carries a jail term. Although the new bill would decriminalise this, the student could still face disciplinary action from the university.

The Universities and University Colleges Act (Amendment) Bill, set for second reading in the next session of Parliament, would allow students to join any lawful society, organisation or group, except for "any organisation the minister has specified in writing to vice-chancellors as unsuitable to the interests and well-being of the students or university".

At issue is the latter phrase, which confers the minister full powers in decision-making.
"The ultimate power still lies with the minister," says Shazni Munir Mohd Ithnin, a member of the University Students' Movement to Abolish UUCA (GMMA). "Nothing much has changed."

Critics condemn the bill as "superficial". Some call for the act not just to be amended but repealed entirely.

"The act, if at all relevant, needs to be completely overhauled," argues Tony Pua, DAP's Petaling Jaya Utara MP.

The amendments do not go far enough, says Human Rights Commission of Malaysia's Datuk N. Siva Subramaniam, who stresses students' right to political participation.

Shazni agrees: "If other 21-year-olds can join political parties, why is it that we can't just because we are in university?"

The act in its present form emerged from anti-government student protests in 1974, when the UUCA was amended to include more restrictive clauses to curb student activism. But student activism can be a powerful force for positive change, contends commentator and educationist Ong Kian Ming.

"While I don't think student activism is highly correlated with the quality of a university," he says, "I'm convinced that having academic and student freedom to organise and freely express their thoughts is a necessary condition towards establishing a world-class university.

"Different universities in the United States and Britain have taken different routes towards making themselves world-class, but all of them have one thing in common -- academic freedom for students and lecturers to express their thoughts and views and to organise if and when necessary."

Although almost half of the 10.9 million registered voters are under 40, past studies show a low level of political awareness and involvement among youth.

The Malaysian Youth Index surveyed 4,000 Malaysians between the ages of 14 and 40 in 2006, and found that only 45 per cent of them voted in the 2004 general election and only 19 per cent were involved in a political party.

Academics, politicians and student leaders attribute the lack of interest to the UUCA. If students are not allowed to join organisations while they are in college, they say, they are unlikely to be active after graduation.

That's why National Student Consultative Council president Afandy Sutrisno Tanjung supports the amendment, calling it "a great first step". However, he worries that universities, with their own sets of campus regulations, may contain conflicting rules that could undermine reform.

"We certainly hope the deletion of the presumptive Section 15C will apply to university regulations as well," says the varsity student.

One thing's for sure: loosening control is going to take time. Some tread the line more cautiously than others, recognising that with greater freedom comes greater responsibility.

Professor Datuk Dr Sharifah Hapsah Syed Hasan Shahabudin, vice-chancellor of Universiti Kebangsaan Malay-sia, supports academic freedom and autonomy with "reasonable measures of accountability and responsibility".

Her carefully measured words reflect the views of those who are chary of granting untrammelled political freedom to students and want to see a gradual liberalisation instead.

Academics, however, laud the initiative to grant greater autonomy to university boards. The new amendment will see the appointment of vice-chancellors through a select committee on the recommendations of the boards.

Proponents and critics alike agree, of course, that the act's overarching goal is to enhance competitiveness among universities and turn them into centres of human capital development.

1 comment:

Shawn Tan said...

I'm sorry if I don't appreciate this issue very much, but I am rather confused over a small matter. Since I'm not a lawyer, I'm most likely wrong. But, according to Section 5A(1) of the Act:

5A. (1) The provisions of this Act shall not apply to any higher educational institution with the status of a University which is authorized to be established by an order made by the Yang di-Pertuan Agong under subsection (2) and any private higher educational institution conferred with the status of a University or University College under any written law.

This bit thoroughly confuses me as it seems that the UUCA may not apply to all university students in the country.

If it applies to all the students, it stifles freedom of expression in universities when it comes to politically sensitive issues (notice how specific the problem area is), but it does not stop anyone from expressing themselves in other areas. So, I am not too sure how repealing the UUCA will help the universities grow across the board, when you are free to debunk Newton or Einstein if you so wish to already.

Giving students the freedom to formally discuss politically sensitive issues within an academic environment is good (for a small subset whose work or education will benefit from such a discourse), but you don't need to be a card carrying member to discuss these issues.

I guess that the article reveals the main sticking point of the UUCA, which is stopping students from getting organised as a political force. But this raises the question of whom actually benefits from such an organised force. The only potential beneficiaries are the political parties that benefit from all the free grunts.

I must apologise if I seem a bit cynical about this but I don't quite see what the big deal is with the UUCA. There are far bigger problems in the universities than getting the students organised. I see the UUCA as a superficial act while the problems in our universities run much deeper.