By Ahmad Iskandar
Lately, there has been much concern about the state of our local universities. It has been forever a Malaysian dream to have our universities ranked among the top in the world. How possible is this? We shall examine this from the economic perspective. Like all things, they are also governed by the laws of demand and supply.
In economics, at the basic level, everything is an interaction between sellers and buyers. The most common sellers are firms. Buyers will pay firms for their products or services. This is a part of the market process.
In the case of higher education, we treat graduates as ‘products’ and universities as firms. These products are then bought by the employers. Aside from selling products, these firms also supply services in the form of academic opinions regarding certain issues.
Generally, buyers will compare products with a given standard to determine its quality. For instance, all electrical products must be certified by SIRIM before they can be sold to the public. This is to make sure that they are in workable condition and are safe for everyday usage.
Similarly, in the market for graduates, there are benchmarks too. They will determine whether a graduate is employable or not. Employers as the buyers would demand graduates who can speak confidently, are critical-minded, and all-rounded.
Often, the employers are offered a choice between local and international graduates. This can be compared to customers deciding on either buying locally or overseas made products.
While most graduates from international universities are seen to be meeting the benchmark, the same could not be said about most of those from local universities. Those without the realisation that university life is more than just studying will find themselves losing out and lacking in the qualities sought for by employers. It is unfortunate that they make up a majority of local graduates.
With this in mind, it is only rational that employers prefer international graduates. Even though it may seem ‘patriotic’ to employ local graduates, common sense says otherwise.
The value of a firm is usually connected with its products. The same goes for universities and their graduates. If more freedom are given to the local graduates to be involved in activities that build their character, their value to the employers will be higher. In turn, so will the value of our local universities.
It is this value that we want to regain so that our local universities will be more respected.
Borrowing an economic example, sellers and buyers can gain the most if they are free to sell and buy without any interference. Imagine if a noodle seller is prevented from selling noodles and is told to sell other things. Both the customers and the seller are losing out. The customers lose out from not enjoying a good meal and the seller cannot make good food since he is only good in making noodles.
In the higher education sector, the University and University Colleges Act (UUCA) as well as the regulations placed on the staff can be compared to such restrictions. They prevent the local universities from performing at their best. From what used to be a place where experience is gained and ideas are discussed freely, it has now become just a place to obtain a slip of paper to present to future employers.
When universities cannot function fully, they lose value. Like how the noodle seller is best left to sell noodles; in order to improve, local universities should be given the chance to provide a complete education experience without any intervention.
Recognising this, the government intends to take a few steps to improve matters. The recently announced amendment of section 15 of the Universities and University Colleges Act (UUCA) is one of them. With this amendment students are allowed to join political organisations. But is that enough? Such reforms are useless if freedom of speech and academic discussion is not upheld in campuses.
Lately, five local universities were given autonomy to handle their own administration. However, the question remains whether this will be meaningful or just another branding exercise. It is known that most university administrators are usually politically connected, so no matter how much autonomy is given, they are hardly free in making their decisions and regularly practise self-censorship thus limiting academic freedom.
It is sad that we always contradict ourselves. Our universities call themselves world class but refuse to act like it. We should take a lesson from the world’s top universities and practice more academic freedom. Before we know it, we will be on our way to joining their ranks as well. -The Rocket