Ivory tower 'internment'

Amending the Universities and University Colleges Act will not produce independent-minded graduates. It is better to do away with the leash altogether.

In the last column, we discussed the proposed amendments to the Universities and University Colleges Act (UUCA), in particular amendments regarding the establishment of a committee to select the vice-chancellor (VC). This week, we shall look at the changes the Bill proposes for students.

The first question that comes to mind is: Are these changes an improvement? The answer: Yes, they are. But then it’s not difficult to improve on a law as awful as the UUCA.

The real question should be: Are these changes going to make a significant change? The answer to that is far less emphatic.

Originally, the Act works on a presumption that students are not allowed to join any group outside the university without the VC’s permission.

The amendment will reverse that presumption so that students can join any group except political parties, illegal groups and any group that the VC deems to be unsuitable.

This is an improvement, but it’s not a huge one. There seems to be little logic in banning students from joining political parties, for example. If we allow students to be part of a political party, are they really going to join in droves?

The most annoying person during my years as a university student in England was a Labour party diehard.

My God, he was an irritant; spouting the party line at the drop of a hat. As far as I know, in my year of a hundred students, he was the only political party member.

The student elections were won every year by independent nominees, and not political party nominees.

Granted, England is different from Malaysia, but I doubt the Malaysian political parties will have too many joining up from the campuses. And even if they did, so what?

“The students will not study,” I hear you say. Listen, if students are dumb enough to let their bunting-hanging activities get in the way of their getting a degree, they will be dumb enough to let anything cause them to flunk. Online gaming, for example.

At the end of the day, they are adults, and they make their own choices. That is what produces mature graduates, those who have lived in an environment where they made their own choices and lived with them.

Furthermore, “illegal organisations” can be bona fide NGOs which have difficulty registering with the Registrar of Societies (and it can be tough getting the ROS’ okay).

And the power given to the VC to “ban any unsuitable organisation” is far too broad and open to abuse.

The restriction on students is made worse by the fact that “student” is defined by the amending Bill to include post-graduate, post-doctorate and external students.

Are you telling me that all these working men and women have to subject their normal activities to the restrictions of the UUCA?

According to the Bill, students are now allowed greater freedom of expression. As long as it is in a properly organised forum like a seminar. And, even then a seminar which is not organised by a political party, illegal group or VC-banned group.

Not exactly a ringing endorsement for student autonomy and the freedom of expression.

And, students are not allowed to express support for illegal groups, political parties and VC-banned groups. Why ever not? If a student is just so in love with Umno, why shouldn’t he say so?

He can become really popular. He can be given cute nicknames like Umno Boy or Barisan Kid. “Hey, let’s ask Umno Boy to join us for tea. It will be fun listening to him recite the party manifesto.”

Even illegal groups have their worth. I mean, at one time the African National Congress was illegal. So was Fatah. Imagine if a student was anti-apartheid or anti-Zionist.

If the UUCA had been in existence in those days, he wouldn’t have been able to even verbally support Nelson Mandela or the intifada.

There is also the troubling proposal to allow a student charged with a registrable offence to be suspended from his studies.

Good heavens. Whatever happened to innocent until proven guilty? He was charged, not convicted. There seems to be a serious lack of fairness if he can be punished simply for being accused of an offence, even before he is found to be in the wrong.

At the end of the day, the proposed amendments appear to be a case of wanting your cake and eating it too.

I believe the Government does realise that the UUCA is not a good law, and something has to be done about it. It does not promote academic freedom; it is utterly stifling on the students. However, these amendments show that they are at least theoretically merely lengthening the leash.

If we want independent-minded graduates and universities of excellence, then the leash has to be done away with altogether.

Dr Azmi Sharom is a law teacher. The views expressed here are entirely his own.