Several academicians called for greater autonomy for universities at a forum last night, in order to put a halt to the deteriorating quality of education.

This autonomy would need to be extended beyond these tertiary institutes managing their own administrative and financial affairs, said sociologist Abdul Rahman Embong.

He added that a university should not behave like an extension of the civil service, market, factory or even high school.

Sociologist Abdul Rahman Embung"A university should be a university, which is a place for the passing of knowledge where students and lecturers together seek knowledge, produce knowledge, exchange ideas, debate, and so on for the inculcation of the spirit of seeking truth, the spirit of inquiry and the spirit of invention," he said.

Rahman (left), a principal fellow at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia's Institute of Malaysian and International Studies, said local universities in their early days catered only for a small, elite group of youths but held lively public debates.

Now, about 30 percent of youths between 18 to 23 years old are students in higher education, but things seem to have changed.

"The idealism is still there, but the kind of atmosphere that used to prevail in universities in the 1960s and the 1970s as compared to now is not the same," he said.

Vital national role forgotten
He argued that if given autonomy, universities would be able to resume their role of being "citadels of knowledge and the conscience of the nation."

Rahman was speaking at a forum titled ‘GE13 and the Future of Universities', sharing the panel with fellow academicians Terence Gomez, Diana Wong, and Zaharom Naim at Universiti Malaya.

Sociologist Diana WongWong (right), also a sociologist, observed that though the 13th general election was being widely touted as Malaysia's most important polls in decades, there seemed to be little public discourse on the topic among academicians.

"There should be opinion columns, there should be academics writing as public intellectuals, there should be academic analyses (like Terence's earlier presentation on electoral trends and coalition politics) entering the public realm, into the media, into public discussion.

"It is not happening; it is not there. In fact this event (the forum) is probably the first of the sort," she said.

She said the absence of such discourse showed that universities were not fulfilling their role as sources of intellectual culture.

While much attention had been focused on the poor quality of students coming into institutes of higher learning, their own faculties' quality had been on the down slide, too, she pointed out.

For example, she said a recent study at Universiti Sains Malaysia, that she just left, found that only 20 percent of its faculty "perform at all".

"Not just in terms of key performance indexes, but actually doing work. Twenty percent, in the estimation of the university's administration," she said.

Mute mouths expose manacled minds
Even compared with neighbouring countries such as Thailand and Indonesia, she said academics often held conferences and debates on each other's work, but this was lacking in this country.

Media professor Zaharom NaimMeanwhile, Zaharom (left), a media professor at University of Nottingham's Malaysian Campus, said faculty members at private universities spend over 18 hours per week teaching.

This is to teach as many students - or ‘clients', as Rahman said, on how they are viewed - as possible, leaving lecturers with no time for research.

In addition, he said there were many instances where lecturers are forced to lower standards so more students could graduate.

Among other things, such as calling for greater meritocracy and university funding ‘without strings attached', he said academicians should be willing to take a stand even at the cost of their jobs. Without this commitment, he said nothing much would change.
Tools to make a difference

At the end of the panellist's presentations, the moderator invited Australian sociologist Clive Kessler from the audience to speak.

Sociologist Clive KesslerThe long-time observer of Malaysian affairs and emeritus professor of the University of New South Wales, Sydney, urged the audience to find the means to spread their ideas in public to spark discourse.

Kessler (right) said people are not talking much either because they do not have much to say, or if they do, they have forgotten how to say it.

"If 20 or 30 of you find a voice and each of your say to yourself, ‘once a month, I would try to write 600, 800 or 1,000 words - clear, sharp, focused - on matters of public interest and put them in The Malaysian Insider or put them in Malaysiakini, or put them in a number of these.

"Start a debate among yourselves on public issues that the public can engage in. That is the kind of thing that can make a difference, and does make a difference," he said.