Higher education crisis deepening?

Less than four months ago, Terence Gomez’s forced resignation raised a series of issues about problems in higher education – inadequate salaries, biased appointments and promotions, over-politicitized university management, limits on academic freedom, and, in some cases, gross administrative incompetence.

After robust debate, Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi wisely intervened to correct the petty victimization of Associate Professor Gomez and his wife and showed a commitment to addressing the inherent problems in higher education that the Ministry of Higher Education led by Dr Shafie Salleh had allowed to persist. From abroad and at home, Malaysia’s leadership rightly deserved praise for correcting the problems caused by the action/inactions of his political appointees.

The abrupt and unjustified dismissal of P Ramasamy, however, has managed to reignite concerns about the management of universities and academic freedom under the Abdullah administration.

The dismissal of staff unjustly is no longer a remnant of the Mahathir era, but a practice evolving under the Abdullah administration. Abdullah’s political appointees do not seem to be taking his cue to support meritocracy and create a university system based on excellence and performance.

Even though P Ramasamy has reached the age of 55, his publications and service record at UKM stands well above most of his colleagues. The number of graduate students he has supervised in his twenty-five years of service alone, now standing at well over five hundred students, shows how much he has committed to the university and Malaysia.

Attention to social issues

He is among a handful of staff in his program that have PhDs and can train graduate students. His stature abroad with strong links to the International Labour Organization (ILO), similar to that of Gomez and his position in the UN, has raised Malaysia’s international profile.

Unlike other scholars, his discussion of issues such as labour conditions and constructive criticism of the exclusion of the Indian community and poverty have not only strengthened Malaysia’s image abroad but also drawn attention to social issues that urgently need attention many of the issues that prime minister himself has raised in speeches locally and abroad.

In contrast to Singapore, where local politics has become a taboo issue in academe, Malaysia has always allowed a level of discourse and constructive criticism. While academic freedom has had its limits, it has been allowed and Malaysia was rightly praised for allowing dissent.

To date, Malaysian leaders recognized that (at least a level of) dissent was a source of strength; Malaysia has had confidence in its own leadership to accept criticism.

To his credit Abdullah has openly encouraged discussion of social and political problems, encouraging Terence Gomez to speak out on issues in June when he was given his secondment.

With the removal of P Ramasamy the administration is sending a signal that it is not confident enough to sustain criticism, an image that both undermines the message of tolerance and sends a signal of weakness. The fact that Abdullah’s appointees and bureaucrats did not apparently heed the messages of the intervention in the Gomez case suggests that even those within his own ranks, notably in the Ministry of Higher Education, do not support the values that he espouses.

Victims are Indians

What further distinguishes both of these cases is the worrying racial overtones of the Ministry of Higher Education actions; the victims have been Indian and targeted without adequate justification.

In a context of renewed discussion of the NEP and rising ethnic chauvinism, the victimization to two prominent Indian academics sends a message of intolerance and growing racism within the ranks of the government; a message that Abdullah has worked to counter in his discourse.

Unfortunately, actions speak louder than words and if the dismissal is allowed to continue, the administration will be seen to be implementing racially-based exclusionary measures and systematically targeting independent Indian intellectuals.

Sadly, this case will likely require intervention. The merits of P Ramasamy’s service and record certainly justify intervention. The dismissal is blatantly unfair. Ironically, the people that will suffer the most are the 12 PhD students he has currently been supervising, which somehow have been ignored in the as yet unclarified logic of the dismissal.

The repercussions of the dismissal are damaging beyond the lives of the individuals directly affected; it shows the administration in a poor light and conflicts with the very values that the prime minister is articulating.

The dismissal illustrates, however, how deep the problems are within the system of higher education. Abdullah’s own appointees are apparently part of the problem. The crisis in higher education is indeed deepening and the rot is in the inside the system. The P Ramasamy dismissal illustrates that the need for an independent review of the problems in higher education is more pressing than ever.