Changes to free young minds

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The University and University Colleges Act 1971 (AUKU) may finally be free of its draconian image with a possible amendment soon that may change its flavour for good. There is hope yet for greater freedom of association and expression for university students, writes ANIZA DAMIS.

MENTION the University and University Colleges Act 1971 and most public university students will tell you it’s draconian in nature.

While most would be hard-pressed to detail the contents of the AUKU, it is clear that the act curtails a student’s freedom of association and expression.

Basically, a student cannot have any dealings with any society, political party, trade union or organisation, without advanced written approval from the vice-chancellor.

If the student contravenes these restrictions, it is considered an offence that is punishable, on conviction, by a fine or prison term.
The student is automatically suspended or dismissed from the university without any recourse for continuing his studies.

Although the act is to provide for the establishment, maintenance and administration of universities and university colleges, and has 27 sections to it, it is Section 15 — related to freedom of association and discipline of students — that has been the most contentious.

It has kept calls to abolish or repeal the act alive through the years.

But a recently-tabled amendment by the Higher Education Ministry to the University and University Colleges Act 1971, up for debate at the next parliamentary session, seems fairer, more mature and humane.

Although students will still not be allowed to associate with any political party or unlawful organisation, they will be given the freedom to join any society, organisation (including governmental organisations) or group.

This is regardless of whether or not it is established under any written law, in or outside the university, and in or outside Malaysia.

And, they can do so without permission from the vice-chancellor.

Currently, the vice-chancellor expressly identifies which organisation is allowed. With this amendment, the vice-chancellor has to expressly identify which organisation is not allowed.

Further, a student shall not be prevented from making a statement on an academic matter relating to a subject on which he is engaged in study or research.

Interestingly, the amendment decriminalises offences in the act and removes the criminal penalties provided under Section 15. Therefore, all offences committed by a student under AUKU will be disciplinary offences.

And, in keeping with the principle of “education is the right of all”, the amendment will ensure that there is no reason why a student should be deprived of the opportunity to study, even if he is detained or in prison.

For instance, a student who is charged with a registerable offence (as defined under the Registration of Criminals and Undesirable Persons Act 1969) would no longer face automatic suspension.

The vice-chancellor has the discretion to suspend or dismiss the student. He can also only be suspended or dismissed if a serious offence has been committed.

A student who has been dismissed from the university may also apply to enter the same university or another university, with permission from the minister.

A student in detention or imprisonment may sit for university examinations with the permission of the senate and home minister. A student who is suspended may enter another university with the written permission of the minister.

And, if a student is discharged or acquitted of a registerable offence, the period in which he was suspended or imprisoned (if detained while awaiting trial or appeal) will not be counted towards the overall maximum period of study.

If a student faces disciplinary charges, he has the right to be heard and represented at the disciplinary hearing. And for a student to be stripped of his degree, only the chancellor can do it with the support of not less than two-thirds of the university board.

Unlike previously, where the definition of “student” referred only to undergraduates, this amendment seeks to extend it to 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.

This means while only undergraduates are currently allowed to hold positions in university societies or be a member of the student representative council, with this amendment, a mature post-graduate student can also avail himself of the full extent of university life.

And, keeping in mind the right of everyone to education, the amendment has also taken into consideration the rights of politicians who may want to further their studies in public universities.

Although a student is not allowed to be a member of a political party, the vice-chancellor may give exemption to any politician who wishes to become a student in the university, thus enabling any serving politician to enroll for a course at a university without giving up his political career.

Even more liberating, under this proposed amendment, Section 15C, presumptions will be deleted. Currently, under this section, if a person is found in possession, custody or control of any books, accounts, writings, lists of members, seals or banners relating to any organisation, it is presumed, until the contrary is proven, that such a person is a member of such an organisation.

With this amendment, this automatic presumption of guilt is removed.

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