Time to abolish Universities Act

Taking part in debates forces young people to reason and argue critically, which will come in very handy in finding jobs and advancing in the workplace.

Karim Raslan, The Star

MALAYSIAN authorities have a bizarre approach to university students – those who study locally are subjected to stringent controls over their political activities via the University and University Colleges Act 1971 (UUCA) and other regulations.

Their foreign counterparts, however, are free to explore the world of politics.

Now, I’m not advocating the imposition of strict limitations on our students abroad.

Rather, I’m calling for the same freedoms to be enjoyed by our local students as those in London, Sydney and Chicago.

I say this because at the end of the month, I’ll be in London to speak at the United Kingdom and Eire Council of Malaysian Students’ (UKEC) Projek Amanat Negara (PAN) conference.

The UKEC is a well-known coalition of Malaysian student associations from British and Irish universities and many of its members have gone on to prominent careers in politics and business.

The UKEC’s Projek Amanat Negara brings together a range of Malaysian speakers who deal with hot topics of the day.

This year’s speakers include civil society doyennes Zainah Anwar and Datin Paduka Marina Mahathir, Pang Khee Teik from Seksualiti Merdeka, as well as PKR’s Rafizi Ramli and Umno Youth chief Khairy Jamaluddin.

I’ve been a big fan of the UKEC for a long while now and, if invited, I always try to attend their events – only because the kids are so energetic, dynamic and hyper-intelligent.

Events like this, however, have an added urgency and poignancy for me due to the recent controversies over the UUCA as well as the suspension of undergraduate Adam Adli following the crackdown on the UPSI demonstration.

These developments are very unfortunate as universities are supposed to be institutions of holistic learning.

They’re not glorified tuition centres but places that are supposed to prepare their graduates for citizenship.

How can they possibly fulfil these duties if students (and indeed, academics) are punished for thinking outside the box?

Practically speaking, it would be impossible for students from our public universities to be able to arrange an event as provocative and thought-provoking as PAN.

There have been too many incidents of what would have otherwise been stimulating forums being disallowed by overzealous and small-minded university administrators.

Even Deputy Higher Education Minister Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah (surely one of Umno’s most promising and sensible young leaders) is hard-pressed to manage the challenges.

Interestingly, the overly tight controls are causing a backlash.

For example, UPSI – a training centre for teachers and a former Umno stronghold – has since become more anti-establishment.

There is also, however, an economic dimension to this issue. Let me explain: taking part in debates forces young people to think. Their assumptions are challenged. They learn how to reason and argue critically.

These are skills that can only come with practice rather than theory.

These skills, incidentally, will also come in very handy not only in mastering academic disciplines but also in finding jobs and advancing in the workplace.

They are best developed by confronting serious, “sensitive” topics like politics, society and culture.

While Malaysian students abroad are free (and in some cases required) to partake of these life-changing activities, the UUCA has denied this to local students.

It is, therefore, another irony that Malaysian employers should gripe about the quality of local graduates.

What do you think is going to happen when students seeking their rights are treated like criminals?

Is it any wonder why our universities are breeding grounds for mediocrity?

Indeed, the World Bank’s 2011 “Putting Higher Education to Work” report noted that Malaysian graduates lack proficiency in thinking and behavioural skills.

At the same time, we shouldn’t bemoan our “brain drain” if we don’t challenge these laws – any sensible young person with a good degree isn’t going to want to come back to a country that gratuitously represses individualism.

As a matter of fact, the UUCA reinforces the inequalities in our society.

The well-off (or well-connected) get to go to better universities and get ahead in life.

The poor and dispossessed are (if lucky) condemned to substandard institutions which provide “education” that give little or no social mobility.

Let me be brutally frank: there is no way we are going to be able to get a high-skilled or highly-productive workforce for the future with archaic, retrograde legislation like the UUCA still in force.

What’s more destructive is that the UUCA breeds apathy and boredom in our young.

As I said earlier, universities should prepare students for citizenship.

However, when debate and activism are deliberately stifled, there’s a risk that young people will become disaffected and opt out of civic society.

This is yet another obstacle to a Malaysian sense of nationhood and also opens the possibility that the young may resort to extremism to address their grievances.

It is high time the UUCA be amended and indeed, abolished.

The sooner we are rid of it, the better it will be for the country.