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Education and the agenda of political parties

(Blackboard by ilco /

(Blackboard by ilco /

THE year 2010 is the year of creativity and innovation for Malaysia. And yet, a common lament when discussing the country’s state of affairs or the quality of education is that we lack in precisely these areas. What, then, of the government’s plans to make Malaysia a high-income nation? Where do we even begin in order to revive our education system and help the nation climb out of the middle-income rut?

In an interview with The Nut Graph on 13 July 2010, educationist Prof Datuk Dr Ibrahim Ahmad Bajunid echoes the need for politics to be taken out of education if meaningful changes are to occur.

Ibrahim was recently awarded the Tokoh Kepimpinan Pendidikan 2010 for his contributions to education. One of the founders and a former director of the Institut Aminuddin Baki, Ibrahim’s work in education has been in both the international and local arenas. He is currently deputy president/deputy vice-chancellor of the INTI-UC Laureate International Universities, and a professor of management, education and social sciences.

TNG: How do you feel about political decision-making in higher education? For example, appointments of university vice-chancellors are made by politicians.

Ibrahim Ahmad Bajunid: So far, political decision-making has been prudent, wise and consultative. Decisions may be made by the prime minister and the higher education minister, but there has been consultation with and input from academia in the selection process.

If you leave it just to the respective universities, everyone will have their own candidates and the nation will not have the opportunity for a broader, wider national search for the right person, with the right mindset for change leadership.

Following that, do you think there is enough autonomy for public universities?

There are different areas [where we need] autonomy, starting first with autonomy in the classroom – in the method of teaching, in developing research interests, and in the overall pursuit of knowledge and truth.

There should also be autonomy with regards to publication, consultancy, and creating new programmes for the university. There is also autonomy with regards to the relationships the university has with its immediate community, or the public service element.

Those who focus on research in the sciences do not usually have autonomy problems, except when there are areas such as stem-cell research. However, when a university reaches out to society, it extends out of its borders, and in come other actors or stakeholders – for example, when an academician goes on a TV forum to discuss politics, and takes a stand against the ruling government. Is that person taking a stand as an academician, or as a member of a political party?

It is usually in the overlapping areas when a university reaches out to society, especially in the political and ideological realms – the humanities and social science – where autonomy becomes an issue. Academicians have the right and responsibility to take [a position of advocacy] based on values and knowledge in the [people’s interest].



Is the lack of autonomy for academics to speak out, especially those in the humanities and social sciences, one reason why our university culture is said to lack critical thought?

To some extent that’s true. But there is no lack of autonomy if you are professional and nonpartisan. Then you can boldly say the same thing consistently in different contexts.

We need to develop a critical mass of first-class academicians who write, research and share their knowledge objectively. In academia, there are partisan spokes[persons] of political parties who present only one-sided views on any issue, and this is one of the problems.

Typically, academicians present all, or parts of, the arguments and positions of various schools of thought for other scholars to evaluate and understand. Advocates take a particular stance, aggressively or subtly, and promote a particular political party, and so things get confused and the matter of autonomy gets detracted.

What can we – both the people and the government – do about the lack of quality human resource and lack of quality mindsets and culture that are necessary to building world-class learning institutions?

For one, we must break the myth that all things related to education are the sole responsibilities of the education and higher education ministries. There are other governmental, private and non-governmental organisations and stakeholders involved. Others that have strategic roles to play include the human resources, and women, family and community development [ministries].

We need planning and synergy across ministries. There is, but the problem is that we only have “ministerial champions”— people who champion their issues under their own ministry only.

We need cross-ministry champions if we are to have integrated, long-term planning for education. We often lament the lack of numbers or quality of competencies, but Malaysia actually has a large number of talented people in all domains. What is not happening may be the mobilisation [of this talent].

There is no one spearheading any dialogue about an education revolution. We’re only hearing reactionary statements.

No, there is no one leading this dialogue. It’s political. The same people who supported (Tun) Dr Mahathir (Mohamad) on his policy to teach mathematics and science in English are the same ones who opposed the policy after he stepped down. At the same time, we have [politically and racially oriented leaders] taking stances on educational matters, while informed educational decisions are marginalised and trivialised.

In some other countries, education is a non-issue because political parties decide as policy to have a united stand regarding education. Also, education is a state and local matter to some extent in other countries.

But education in Malaysia is related to the agenda of political parties.

Do you see any first steps that could be taken to de-politicise education?

Get all parties to agree on ways to move education forward and not use education as a means to score political points. Underlying this is the need to grow a new breed of leaders – 1Malaysia leaders, so to speak – who care about the larger picture and the country as a whole.

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