Malaysian universities in dire need of reform, say scholars

Researchers blast higher education system for valuing metrics and loyalty to higher-ups over intellectual rigour

November 2, 2021
The Sri Subramaniar Swamy temple is being renovated n Batu Caves, Malaysia as a metaphor for Malaysian universities in dire need of reform, say scholar
Source: Getty

Malaysian academics said the country’s higher education system was ripe for an overhaul amid a pervasive “culture of mediocrity” and heavy pressure on universities to satisfy market demands.

Despite a dire need for graduates with critical thinking skills, institutions continued to focus on superficial indicators driven by political and economic motives, said scholars speaking at a panel discussion hosted by the thinktank Islamic Renaissance Front. They painted a bleak picture of the state of Malaysian higher education.

“Universities are supposed to be spaces of balance, objectivity and epistemic justice”, giving equal treatment to many forms of knowledge, said Munirah Alatas, a professor in strategic studies and international relations at the National University of Malaysia.

Instead, they were “no longer places of learning that are intellectually inspiring”, she said, noting that while systemic problems were not unique to Malaysian academia, they were especially pervasive in the country.

Professor Alatas said the country’s institutions had become a “rat race”, propping up a system of “academic capitalism” that kowtows to political aims and prizes turning out students ready for the job market above quality teaching and critical thinking.

The criticism comes as the Malaysian government announces its 2022 budget, under which university funding has remained flat despite increases to other areas – and to the chagrin of academics criticising over-reliance on the business sector to fund institutions.

Zaharom Nain, a professor of media and communication studies at the University of Nottingham’s Malaysia campus, also voiced a need for a reappraisal of priorities in higher education, saying that participating in academia “has become [an exercise] in gaming the system that emphasises rankings”.

He noted that political interference in Malaysia had led to “ill-conceived quotas” that resulted in the hiring and promoting of “those who are unqualified to teach and research in our universities”.

For faculty members, loyalty to their superiors was valued over intellectual rigour, something that “perpetuates a culture of mediocrity and injustice”, said Nageeb Gounjaria, a senior research fellow at the Islamic Renaissance Front, who argued that universities could be characterised as “reduced to a production line that continuously churns out uncritical…workers to meet the needs of our ever-growing economy”.

Paradoxically, this emphasis on the volume of degrees has led to a system that often produces “unemployable graduates who lack basic critical thinking and communication skills” but who are saddled with a “mountain of student debt”, he said.

Now, argued Professor Alatas, academics had to “make an effort to move beyond this one-track obsession of serving the economy”. She urged researchers to “stick to their principles” and lobby their government for change.

The discussion came just weeks after Maszlee Malik, a former education minister, accused academics of “kowtow[ing] to the regime at the expense of academic freedom”, saying that many were “non-productive intellects” who were more interested in feathering their nests than in solving society’s problems.

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