AS an academic who wears many hats, Professor Datuk Dr Zaini Ujang is thrilled with what the AUKU amendment promises.
The guarantee of academic freedom to students and staff to pursue academic activities without the need to seek permission or approval from the Higher Education Ministry will give a boost to the knowledge culture, he says.
As the deputy vice-chancellor (research and innovation) of Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM), commissioner of the National Water and Services Commission (Span), and deputy president of the International Relation, Research and Further Education Committee of the Malaysian Water Association — to name just a few responsibilities he bears — Zaini currently has to get permission from Higher Education Minister Datuk Seri Khaled Nordin for the simplest things: attend a conference, become a member of an international organisation, or give a speech as member of a non-governmental organisation.
“With this amendment, I will no longer need his permission.”
In his portfolio on research and innovation, he finds it difficult to drive innovation in the university without a free hand.
“Even when you want to sign a memorandum of understanding, you have to first get permission from the minister.
“If my counterparts overseas want to work with me and they give me a contract to sign before return to Malaysia… I can’t do that. I have to get the minister’s permission. And, if it is related to international affairs, it sometimes goes to the Foreign Ministry first! It can take longer than six months.
“Let’s say I have a patent and I want to sell it, I have to get so many approvals and this can take longer than six months. The moment I get the permission, the agreement has already expired. The company has lost interest. They engage you because they have problems at that point in time; they don’t want your answer in six months — they want it tomorrow, or today.”
Zaini says the amendment, which allows the minister to approve the transfer of academic staff between universities or organisations, gives mobility to staff and universities to pool academic resource.
Currently, an academic has to resign his position and lose his seniority before joining another university.
“If, say, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia is trying to develop a water-research centre, where there is going to be a state-of-the-art centre for excellence in Malaysia, we can pool all the staff in Malaysian universities in UKM. This will create a critical mass of people working on the same thing from various angles.”
But it is not only staff who have to gain from these freedoms, Zaini stresses.
Freedom of speech will allow students to make statements related to their studies.
“These changes are being made because we found that students could not speak in front of others. Why? Because they are afraid of making mistakes in front of others. Students can tell you who is the minister, but if you ask them whether a specific policy is the appropriate solution to the problem, they don’t know.
“The important thing about knowledge culture is we speak what we think. And be ready to face the consequences. People will argue with you, so you will have to respond. But if you dare not to argue, your commitment to the knowledge that you have is not to the level where people can challenge you.
This freedom, Zaini says, will train students to be accurate when making statements.
In the past, students weren’t trained to handle mistakes because they were never allowed to make mistakes.
“If you feel that something around you in not right, you have to raise the issue. If, at the time we were colonised by the British, no one said anything, we would never have achieved independence.”