Public varsities: politicians’ playthings

Umno dominates at the cost of better higher education reforms.

Politicians on the boards of Malaysia’s public universities are back in vogue.

It’s an old problem made fresh after a list was distributed across social media last week, and duly picked up by news portals such as Malaysiakini, highlighting 13 such appointments as chairmen and board members of various varsities.

That figure is merely the tip of the iceberg.

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And because it is a space without any institutional pressure, today’s topic will be slightly left-field — public universities.

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Political appointees to the boards of state-owned entities went into overdrive due to Muhyiddin Yassin’s policy of gifting loyalists with such posts, ever since he became prime minister last year.

Initially the focus was on more visible entities such as listed government-linked companies (GLCs) and key statutory bodies. But it seems that even public universities are up for grabs.

Checks show that there are 24 politicians sitting on the board of 11 public universities as either chairman or board member. This is excluding any potential political appointees within faculty ranks or other senior posts.

The lion’s share, save for one PAS man, is taken up by Umno, and they comprise the whole spectrum, from former and incumbent MPs to division leaders. Higher Education Minister Noraini Ahmad also hails from the Barisan Nasional lynchpin. (For the complete list, see infographic titled, Umno and PAS appointees, below.)

'Quite unusual'

Unlike board posts on GLCs, remuneration on these senior varsity posts may not be that handsome, but University of Tasmania’s James Chin observes, “this is a form of patronage”.

That Muhyiddin has gone after universities is “quite unusual as these board members do not get paid well, but perhaps it’s the prestige that is associated with universities,” the political analyst said. “The other way of looking at it is that by appointing these people to universities, he is allowing them a chance to run political outreach programmes among students.”

The University and University Colleges Act 1971 (UUCA), which regulates public universities, provides the higher education minister with vast powers, especially in appointing the vice-chancellor.

The act not only defines the minister’s role but that of the board of directors, vice-chancellors and other appointments, including the senate.

It stipulates that it’s the minister’s prerogative to appoint the vice-chancellor in consultation with the university’s board of directors. It also puts the power to appoint a board chairman, its members and deputy vice-chancellors in the hands of the minister.

But the act is silent on how the minister should go about nominating candidates to the university’s senior posts, save for Section 4 (A) that states the minister has the power to appoint a committee to advise on such appointments.

In their 2012 journal entry, researchers Morshidi Sirata, Abdul Razak Ahmad and Norzaini Azman noted that Section 4 is silent on the entire nomination process whereby the law does not describe the process by which the nomination should be carried out nor does it stipulate the mechanism by which the board should be consulted.

Such systemic problems raise governance concerns, including procurement lapses, and history is rife with examples. In its 2016 report, for instance, the Auditor-General flagged Universiti Pendidikan Sultan Idris (UPSI) for accumulating RM75.10 million in unused development funds from 2013 to 2016.

Other weaknesses include spending RM61,051 on language programmes for teachers as well as primary and secondary students prior to approval and possible misuse of RM91.75 million.

Wither higher education council

During PH’s brief 22-month rule, there were attempts to shift away from such practices.

Most appointees were corporate figures, academics, and former leaders, a move that did not augur well with certain segments in PH, a source said, as they were hoping to instal some of their party members to the boards of certain universities.

There was also a major flashpoint when then education minister Maszlee Malik was appointed in September 2018 as International Islamic University Malaysia president.

That triggered pushback from various quarters including students. He would resign a few months later.

But Maszlee would go on to work towards establishing a higher education council to provide a buffer against political intervention in academia. He issued a memo on November 15, 2019, which stipulated, among others, that the council be set up by 2020.

The policy was cut short when he resigned with then prime minister Mahathir Mohamad assuming the role. A few months later, the so-called Sheraton Move happened last year, which saw Muhyiddin and his pact, Perikatan Nasional, take over government.

Systemic overhaul

“Youth are a crucial vote bank,” said Parent Action Group for Education Malaysia chair Noor Azimah Abdul Rahim, therefore it is not unusual for the higher education minister to appoint high ranking officials from his or her political party to sit on the board of public universities.

Compounding matters, she added, is that UUCA is silent on political appointees specifically while the government of the day funds these tertiary institutions.

“Universities are rated by the standard of education and expertise of knowledge they generate and eventually for its graduates to influence public policy and social and economic outcomes. Undergraduates should be allowed to have freedom of speech and space to find and form their own political leanings without any external influence.

“If the political appointee is an obstacle to these objectives then he/she should not be invited to sit on the board. And undergraduates should not be afraid to oppose when their political freedom is stifled. Review the higher education act to allow political dissension.”

But such reforms need to be holistic, said an entrepreneur who has previously tendered for projects under the higher education ministry.

His experience was bitter. “There were times where we were clearly the best company for the job, but we felt that many open tender calls were just a beauty contest. The winner was already picked before we tendered.”

To make matters worse, he added, that some projects had to be “unnecessarily retendered as the chose contractor” could not complete the project on time.

“It's a systemic overhaul. Until every facet of governance is fixed, from procurement to student participation in politics, we will never hear the end of this. Students will be at a loss due to being stifled. Entrepreneurs will be at a loss due to rigged tenders.

“And, we will continuously come back to square one, asking what went wrong with our top institutions when the answers have been staring at us right in the face all this while.”

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