Niki Cheong is blogging

Freedom for students: Recommended amendments to the University and University Colleges Act 1971

Woke up this morning to a great headline on front page of the New Sunday Times:

Changes to Free Young Minds
Proposed amendments to the University and University Colleges Act 1971

Of course, I have since (a long time ago) learned not to get overly excited at such headlines. Surely there had to be a catch, I thought, and true enough … but that’s for later.

As the name of the act states, the act goes back almost 30 years ago but there has been some amendments since. Maybe I was too young to realise, or to care, but I don’t think it got so much attention until the late 90s, during the days of the Reformasi movement, when many young people took to the streets in support of Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim (who was quite a student activist himself, I hear).

Some people refer to it as a terribly draconian law (I don’t disagree) and that in its current form, the act stifles not only the freedom but also a students ability to develop. After all, a university (and university college, as we have 20 million of them around these days – I exaggerate, of course) shouldn’t be a place where only academic excellence is prioritised – it is conventionally the time of a person’s life where minds are formed and experience gathered.

So, imagine my thrill when some of the highlights were listed on P1 of NST including:

  • Uni students can now join any society or organisations (including NGOs) without permission from the Vice-Chancellor.
  • The offences will not be considered criminal by nature but instead dealt with as disciplinary offences.
  • Students under detention or in prison can continue to study with the Minister’s permission.
  • The Vice-chancellor will no longer be appointed politically.
  • Faculty members will be consulted with regards to the appointment of Deans.

It is important to note, at this juncture, that these are just proposed amendments by the Higher Education Ministry, and it has not yet been debated in Parliament – it was just tabled recently and is due to be debated at the next Parliament session. (I am assuming however that it will go through or else the Minister would not be speaking so candidly about it – after all, you don’t need 2/3 majority in Parliament to pass acts heh heh).

Now, the above things I listed all sounds good and all, but I still have some reservations.

  1. Students are still not allowed to be members of a political party.
    This means that the biggest flak about the current act has still not been addressed. I hope however that the amendments will be vague enough that students are allowed to be politically-aligned, even if they are not allowed to be card-holding members.

    This was like during my days in Australia when I would support Labor and the Democrats (different for state and national levels) although I was not allowed to be a member due to my International Student status. I was also a member of the Union, which was traditionally Labor-aligned.

  2. This proposal will redefine the term “student” to include “any student who is following a course of study, instruction, training or research, at the preparatory, undergraduate, post-graduate or post-doctoral level, including distance learning, off-campus, exchange and non-graduating students.

    Prior to this, students only referred to undergrads. Of course, this would mean that mature-age students will now be allowed to hold positions in university societies and bodies, but I worry about the scope this encompasses.

    What would this mean for someone who is part of a union for work, but decide to study part-time? And with regards to distance learning and off-campus, does this include students living in Malaysia but enrolled in overseas universities? These are just a couple among many scenarios which could be troubling.

  3. If it gets passed, this act will allow students to speak out, but only with relation to academic matters in a subject of which they are engaged in.

    First of all, how will this affect the role of a student leader/representative who should be speaking out on behalf of the student population, not just his/her classmates? Secondly, why the need to put a restriction on the levels of freedom of speech a student possesses?

Don’t get me wrong, I do feel that change is always good, I just wish that the act doesn’t feel like a half-hearted attempt to pacify its original detractors. I will say this though, that amendments to the AUKU 1971 has been a long time coming.

Liability claim: Most of what I have been written is based on the article in today’s NST. I have not yet read the proposal, and as such, am relying on the paper’s interpretation.

12.12pm Malaysian time (+8 GMT)

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