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Malaysian public universities are still going backwards

By Murray Hunter - posted Tuesday, 18 June 2019

Education was a high priority reform area for Pakatan Harapan before the last election. Yet Malaysia's public universities are still going backwards under Pakatan, as they were with the previous Barisan Nasional government.

Only two Malaysian universities were in the THES Asia Ranking in 2019. Universiti Malaya (UM) founded in 1905 was in the 300s grouping in the THES International Rankings and Universiti Kebangsaan (UKM) Malaysia, formed in the early 1960s to uphold the Malay language, is somewhere in the 600s grouping.

Most other Malaysian public universities are in the hundreds and low thousands in the THES rankings. They are either declining or staying stationary. Any minor improvements have been within these groupings and are not very significant. The excuse traditionally used for poor ranking performance was that Malaysian universities are young, but so are those in Hong Kong, Singapore and China, which have scored very well.


In the election manifesto Pakatan promised to: 1. Develop quality education; 2. Bring a renewed respect towards the teaching profession; 3. Reduce the administrative workload of academic staff; and 4. Put greater focus on technical and vocational education.

Dr. Mazlee Malik, previously an academic himself, was a controversial choice for Minister of Education. Newly elected to parliament, he is inexperienced, has supported the continuation of racial quotas, and appears to be acting with an overarching religious agenda.

The major problems facing Malaysia's universities are a reflection of the way Malaysian society in general is today. Reform is about tackling the 'state of mind' that presently engulfs Malaysian public universities in order to bring about the radical reform needed to make them relevant to contemporary society and also competitive within the region.

The crux of the issue is university culture. Reforming Malaysia's public universities requires a massive exercise in cultural transformation.

Malaysian public universities are introverted. Their primary mission, set by the government, is to produce skilled and obedient workers for Malaysian industry. In response to high graduate unemployment, universities put a secondary focus on entrepreneurship. However, this domain of study is taught by primarily Malay academics with little or no personal entrepreneurial or business experience. The environment for developing critical and creative thinking that is necessary to solve problems and develop commercial innovation is lacking in curriculum. Campus culture within Malaysian public universities is also rigid.

Islam has a long association with scholarship and science. However, institutionalized Islam within university campuses in Malaysia is codified into practices that impose conformity, rather than diversity. In Malaysian universities the examination and discussion of other ideologies and religions is largely supressed. The religious department is really an Islamic department. Regulations, dress and behavioural codes all reflect Islamic conformity.


Another force making public universities insular: carefully selected appointments to top university positions. All appointments at Vice Chancellor level, to this writer's knowledge, bar one, have been local Malays. The last two Vice Chancellor appointments have been people with similar Islamic beliefs to the Minister of Education Dr. Mazlee. This very narrow selection pool of potential vice chancellors is preventing public universities from breaking out of their comfort zones.

Academic appointments don't share the diversity of the nation and have led to a teaching staff heavily weighted in favour of Malays. Public university teaching staffs, and administration staff for that matter, don't reflect national demographics. This is not good for diversity of ideas or for meritocracy.

One of the ironic practices in staff academic selection and employment is that university authorities seem more prepared to employ an Indian, Bangladeshi, or Iraqi rather than a local Chinese or Indian scholar.

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Article edited by Margaret-Ann Williams.
If you'd like to be a volunteer editor too, click here.

Originally published in the Asia Sentinel, June 13, 2019.

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About the Author

Murray Hunter is an associate professor at the University Malaysia Perlis. He blogs at Murray Hunter.

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