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As government is as much the problem as the cure for the plunge in university excellence and quality, Shafie should have started the long road back to world-class universities by restoring the true meaning of meritocracy in Malaysian academia
by Lim Kit Siang
This is a proper though baby-step in developing a new culture of accountability and transparency on the part of all Ministries, with Ministers ever attentive and responsive to public concerns pertaining to their portfolios and responsibilities.
However, we must also be frank that the four-page statement issued by Shafie is totally inadequate to address the deep and worsening crisis of higher education in the country.
Although I am glad that my email to Ministers had not been in vain as they were mindful of their collective responsibility for the sad state affairs of higher education in the country with the subject a specific agenda in yesteday’s Cabinet meeting, I am most unhappy that the Cabinet appeared to have discussed it from a very narrow focus – i.e. purely from the standpoint of the THES University Ranking 2005 instead of the entire and comprehensive question of the sharp and relentless decline of Malaysian university standards in the past two three decades – marked by the plunge from excellence of University of Malaya in the sixties to mediocrity in the general run of public universities today.
Why was the Cabinet discussion on higher education, and Shafie’s statement, focused solely on the THES Top 200 Universities 2005 ranking? If there is such fatal obsession with world university rankings, why wasn’t the Shanghai Jiao Tong University Academic Ranking of World Universities 2005 discussed, especially as not a single Malaysian university had been able to get into Shanghai Jiao Tong University’s List of of World 500 Best Universities for the past three consecutive years?
Is there going to be a strategy overseen by the Ministry of Higher Education for Malaysian public universities to get listed on the Shanghai Jiao Tong University 500 Best Universities apart from THES 200 Top Universities?
Shafie said the Cabinet approval yesterday to set up a committee to appoint vice chancellors of local universities is one of the steps taken to meet the THES criteria for the World Top 200 Universities.
The search committee would identify the best in academia to become vice chancellors, vet those it thinks are good and propose two or three names to the Minister, although the candidate need not be from among those in the university itself but perhaps corporate figures or from government departments and agencies.
However, as the minister has the final say and the composition of the committee will remain secret, it lacks credibility or confidence in academia and civil society, especially taking into account the past abysmal Ministerial record in the appointment of Vice Chancellors.
If such a search committee is to be meaningful, the composition of the committee must be made public and the members required to comply with the principles of accountability and transparency, whether in in its operation or the criteria for the short-listing of eligible candidates for Vice Chancellors. In place of the Minister making the final decision on the choice of Vice Chancellors based on the recommendations of the search committee, an autonomous Universities Selection Commission should be established, which should be tasked with the responsibility of monitoring university excellence, standards and quality. Such a Commission should be answerable only to Parliament.
Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) Vice Chancellor Prof Datuk Dr. Mohd Salleh Mohd Yasin’s response was most noteworthy when he commented: “Overseas, the appointment of vice chancellors are largely based on their leadership qualities as well as academic prowess. Now that we are practicing meritocracy, we should select the best candidate for the job.”
The fundamental prerequisite for Malaysian universities to address the problem of mediocrity and decline of academic excellence is that they must get real and end the denial syndrome and pretension that they are now practising meritocracy, when there is only sham meritocracy whether in student enrolment or academic staff appointment and promotions.
As the government is as much the problem as the cure for the plunge in university excellence and quality in the country, Shafie should have started the long road back to world-class universities by restoring the true meaning of meritocracy in Malaysian academia as his topmost agenda. Is Shafie prepared to make such a painful start as Higher Education Minister for the return of world-class university status to Malaysia?
Parliamentary Opposition Leader, MP for Ipoh Timur & DAP
Central Policy and Strategic Planning Commission