NOT too long ago, I had the privilege of interviewing a number of academics in Malaysian universities. One of the questions I asked was, in what capacity do you think Malaysian academics have autonomy? Typically, most academics would say that they had autonomy in the teaching methods that they used or in the research topics they chose to pursue, as long as they were not deemed ‘too sensitive’. However, one young academic’s reply struck me. He said “I have full autonomy because I can decide what time I come into office and what time I want to leave.”
Although not quite the answer I expected, I realised that he was not wrong. He was merely stating what he considered was “autonomous” about his job as an academic in a Malaysian public university. The flexible working hours he enjoyed was possibly the only form of freedom he enjoyed.
I left the interview wondering whether my fellow academics in our universities, especially the young ones, understand academic freedom and university autonomy, and how these two concepts relate to our job in the university?
The universal definition of academic freedom is the freedom to conduct research, teach, speak, and publish; subject to the norms and standards of scholarly inquiry without interference or penalty, wherever the search for truth and understanding may lead.
University autonomy, on the other hand, is the degree of self-governance necessary for effective decision-making by universities regarding their academic work, standards, management and related activities. The emphasis for university autonomy should be centred on self-governance with public accountability.
More importantly, these two concepts are interrelated, where university autonomy serves as the ‘guarantor’ for academic freedom. In other words, they are inseparable twins.
In Malaysia, the then Minister of Higher Education in his 2012 New Year address announced that five of the oldest universities in Malaysia (Universiti Malaya, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, Universiti Sains Malaysia, Universiti Islam Antarabangsa and Universiti Teknologi Malaysia) have been granted autonomous status. He later elaborated that these universities would not be tied down by Government rules and processes once they received the autonomous status.
To date, through a staggered approach, 17 of 20 public universities have received this autonomous status. Yet, if one is to compare the autonomous status granted to Malaysian public universities by the Government and the universal definition of autonomy provided earlier, it is evident that the autonomy enjoyed by Malaysian public universities is merely superficial.
For instance, the power to appoint leaders in public universities remains in the hands of the Minister instead of the governing body of universities. Public universities including those with autonomous status are subjected strictly to the framework that is used to govern civil servants by the Public Service Department. Although in theory, public universities are Federal Statutory Bodies and the staff are not civil servants, lecturers still have to follow the same pay scale as civil servants and universities do not have the autonomy to hire and fire staff. Likewise, public universities have to adhere to the procurement and financial procedures of the Ministry of Finance and Treasury.
More troubling, in recent months, staff of public universities have to seek permission from not only the Vice Chancellor, but also the Chairman of the Board of Directors of the university as well as the principal secretary of the Ministry of Higher Education (MoHE), before they can travel abroad to attend conferences or present a paper.
Even though private universities do not receive financial support from the state, they also do not enjoy a high degree of autonomy. Private universities are subject to extensive administrative circulars, directives and instructions from MoHE and have to rely on licence approvals by external bodies such as the Malaysian Qualifications Agency.
Private universities also need ministry approval to set tuition fees.
A common argument is that as long as public universities receive funding from the Government, they cannot be fully autonomous. However, the lack of university autonomy even among private universities has by and large rebutted this argument. Despite not receiving financial support from the Government, private universities are not fully autonomous.
And more interestingly, historical facts have also debunked this misconception between funding and autonomy. Prior to 1975, Universiti Malaya was self-governed and the University Council, which was the main governing body, comprised many opposition figures such as “Mr Opposition” Tan Chee Khoon and M.K. Rajakumar. Yet, between 1962 and 1975, the university was almost fully funded by the Government. For instance in 1969, 82.3% of the annual recurrent expenditure of the university was borne by the Government, amounting to RM17.5mil.
It is important to recognise that the ability for universities in Malaysia to self-govern has been eroded over the years through various legislation.
Until and unless Malaysian universities have regained a true sense of autonomy where institutions can exercise self-governance with public accountability, individual academics in these institutions cannot be assured of real freedom to search for truth and understanding.
The lack of either one or both can be a real stumbling block for our universities to realise their full potential in conserving, understanding and passing on our intellectual, scientific and cultural heritage to the future generation. Dr Wan Chang Da The STAR Opinion Letters Monday, 22 May 2017