Friday, 10 January 2020

Disrupting School - Every Man's Foul Sport

The interference with the management of schools continues apace with those transgressing the sacred space showing no respect or understanding of the policies or objectives of the educational system.
The latest incursion objecting to simple decorations in a school in Puchong for the Chinese New Year celebration shows how out of touch these warriors of spurious causes are with the great efforts that have gone into building our educational system.

One of the main thrusts of educational policies has been, from the time of independence, to promote an educational system that that is ‘acceptable to all the people of the Federation as a whole which will satisfy their needs and promote their cultural, social, economic and political development as a nation’. (Report of the Education Committee 1956.)

Large sums of money were expended in developing a national curriculum for schools. Even more money was spent on developing a Blueprint for Education to chart the development of schools for the next, at least 10 years. Nowhere in these documents is there a concern that a celebration of the festivals of the people of this country would pollute the minds of the young or lead them away for the religious path that is ordained by parents of the children who attend the schools.

The Education Blueprint 2013-2025, which is the most significant review of education after the 1956 Report declares unity as one of the five aspirations of reform.

The Blueprint’s vision of unity is expressed in terms that go beyond just bringing people together. Diversity is the education itself. And it is an enriching education that is built on diversity.

“As students spend over a quarter of their time in school from the ages of 7 to 17, schools are in a key position to foster unity. Through interacting with individuals from a range of socioeconomic, religious, and ethnic backgrounds, students learn to understand, accept, and embrace differences. This creates a shared set of experiences and aspirations to build Malaysia’s future on. The Ministry aspires to create a system where students have opportunities to build these shared experiences and aspirations that form the foundation for unity.” (Education Blueprint 2013-2025)

Puerile protests about simple matters as celebratory decorations in schools offend these policies and do great harm to the educational process. They have no knowledge of policies on education or the important role schools play in developing the young.

Our schools are being made the battleground for every rabid idea in society about the purpose of schools. There seems to be no end to the way our schools are abused. It also appears that there are too many people who have no gainful ways to spend their time are camping outside the schools to disturb the purpose of schools with their tedious complaints about how schools threaten everything from God to the way food is eaten in school canteens.

Wednesday, 1 January 2020

More Control Over Public Universities?

The last post, Religion and Education – Policies out of Sync, criticized the Ministry of Education’s intervention into university affairs by ‘approving religious proselytization in schools and educational institutions. The thrust of that post was that such actions by the ministry interfered with the autonomous position of universities. The autonomy of universities is an ancient tradition that been recognized by the Malaysian courts in many of their decisions.

Now, another controversy. One which questions that very aspect of the university.

The university is Universiti Malaysia Perlis (UniMAP).

The controversy springs from a Multiple Choice Question (MCP) paper issued in its Ethnic Relations course. The irony in the controversy will become apparent in due course.

The question in issue read:
"Zakir Naik is one of the icons of the Islamic world, he is very active in spreading true Islam and following the Quran and Sunnah of Rasulullah SAW. He is able to reason and to answer every question that is asked to him. However, in Malaysia, he is no longer allowed to deliver his preaching. In your opinion, as a Malaysian, why does this happen?"

The question provides several answers and more than one combination of answers can be chosen.

The options were: 
(1) Malaysians do not bother; 
(2) Sensitive Malaysians feel threaten for no reason; 
(3) Malaysians who are normally submissive without any reason;
(4) Malaysians are ignorant about their own religion.

There are many things that one can say about the paper.

Firstly, a grammar check on the language used in the question would have removed some very glaring errors.

Next, it is doubtful such a question will help build better ethnic relations in the country, which is the much-publicized objective of ethnic-relations courses.

Thirdly, the question, although only one of many in an MCP paper picks on a subject that has been the cause of religious dissension in the country. And is part of a larger controversy that has caused much religious distress in the country.

But what is really worrying is far removed from religious or ethnic issues.

The question and the suggested answers reveal a serious failure and deficiency in the academic standards and quality of instruction in the university.

The question cannot be answered.

The student has to assume the validity of the assertions in the question - that X is an Islamic icon; that X spreads the word of Islam following the Koran and the Sunna; that X is able to reason and to answer every question that is asked of him. These are contentious issues, some, probably also incapable of proof. The question provides no aid to verify the assertions.

There is also the inherent ambiguity in the assertion in the question - he is 'no longer allowed to deliver his preaching'.

The other problem is that the answers do not logically follow from the question and are themselves loaded with unproven assertions.

Clearly, the university owes the public it serves some very clear answers about its academic processes and how staff are selected to teach. They also owe the students who took the exam an explanation and if needed a cancellation of the exam.

Their failure to do so would move the public debate to how much freedom universities are to be accorded.

Saturday, 28 December 2019

Religion and Education - Policies out of Sync

The education ministry’s recent circular permitting and supporting a religious group to carry out preaching activities in educational institutions once again shows that the ministry is not a reliable agency to deal with national education. Policies are made on the run.

They are not supported with authoritative advice or with findings from research, especially in areas such as religion in education.

There is no consultation with parents.

Or teachers.

Or the public.

They flout the very principles of education they are supposed to defend. Policies have become the whims and fancies of those who have the power to make rules. They appear not to realize the lifelong impact their policies have on children and the harm they will do them and the future of this country if policies are not carefully made.

Education is not the personal fief of the minister or any of its officials, whatever their rank. Their first duty is to observe and comply with the laws that created their office and their functions. The laws have established two national councils to consider and advise on policies on education. The Minister and the ministry have a legal duty to process policies such as this through those councils. Instead, they proceed as authoritarians as if they have a personal right over such issues as the proselytization of religion in educational institutions.

National unity, equality of access to education, the equal treatment of all citizens are some of the objectives of national education. How are these objectives served by the ministry’s circular on religious proselytism in educational institutions? 

If religion is an important part of education (there is a body of research that supports this), then why are the other religions not taught and preached. If the education ministry is only concerned with one section of the students, who are expected to care for the others?

The ministry cannot blow hot and cold on these policies and not expect
to lose their credibility as stewards of national education.

Monday, 18 November 2019

Culture of Silence

What has been amazing and simultaneously troubling is that there is complete silence from academics about what they have gone through in their lives and careers. There is almost no protest by those who have been denied legitimate positions in academics. Even those who have been at the receiving end have not come out in the open.

Silence among those who perpetrated havoc on others is understandable. One does not, of course, expect them to talk. But the others? The apparent oath of silence is akin to what we come across among cricketers who refrain from letting out what happens in the dressing room. The match-fixing and betting that is undoubtedly prevalent in cricketing circles and involves some of the players.
Educational institutions -- those that are administered by the state governments as also the central universities -- are being subjected to political interference that is steadily increasing.

The various kinds of fixing that happen in the Indian academic realm will put a cricketer to shame in terms of the sheer ingenuity and cussedness that is employed in academics. The cricketers may have strong and compelling reasons to guard their turf and maintain a convention by constantly increasing the size of the carpet under which their shenanigans get swept. But does it behove academics, whose coffers are almost always funded by public funds to keep a tight lid on how misuse, manipulation, and corruption prevail in this so-called noble profession. Not to mention sexual exploitation of women colleagues, research scholars and postgraduate students.

From The Closed Nature of Indian Universities by M. A. Kalam published in www. TheIndiaForum Nov 1 2019

Saturday, 10 August 2019

Students' Rights - The Missing Link in Higher Education

There is something that is missing in the educational ecosystem.

Very little attention given to students' interests in the laws or the regulations that describe the rights of the student. This is surprising because education is about students more than any other 'player' in the system, say the academics, the administrators or the regulators of the education system. The laws that we now have are about the setting up of institutions, how many students in the class, the licensing of teachers, the governance of institutions, but nothing about the rights of students. What should they expect when they become a student? how should this expectation be realised? what rights do they have when the expectations are not achieved. There is a general understanding of what these expectations are, but they are not explicit in any of the laws governing education in this country. Outcome-based education, the applied theory in our HE system, requires the outcomes of education to be specified, but whether these outcomes have manifested in the student is not a student decision but part of the assessment system of which he/she is a subject. The examiners measure the outcomes through processes of their creation, but it remains vague if the student has any role in deciding this critical question.

If education is meant to change the student in some way or increase his quantum of knowledge, these are not part of the promises made to the student in the terms of the agreement between the student and the institution. The hype of the sale - 'world-class education', 'cutting edge knowledge' 'high employability program' are all trade puffs that have no litigation value. Courts will reject outright any claim from a student that his education was not world-class. Such phrases are regarded by the law as unactionable inducements, even if they have been relied on by a student when he chose that institution or a particular program. The arid definition of higher education in our legislation is that it is a course of study that on completion entitles the learner who registered for the course to a certificate, diploma or degree. Those are the tangibles he takes away on completion of his 'course of study.' The courts, afraid to intrude into the processes of academia have done little to add flesh to the bare bones of student's rights in education. If processes are followed, the judge will bow deeply to the teacher and depart. No court has ventured to decide what it means to be educated or whether a person going through the process has been educated. Even in jurisdictions where they have ventured into that terrain, they have made no attempt to examine that question but merely deferred to the wisdom of the teacher and his processes to decide it.

If students have little clue about their expectations, they are equally ignorant about the loss of some of their most important rights or in the diminution of their status when they 'become a student'. If the courts have been reluctant to decide on the meaning of education they have with great alacrity decided that the student's role is to study and not disturb the peace or bring disrepute to their institution. If the university decides that participating in a demonstration brings disrepute to the university, it is the university's right to decide the disrepute had occurred. The courts will bow out of that decision too.

Now, if you are a foreign student studying in this country under the relevant visa issued by the gatekeepers to this land, your status is even further diminished. You can be picked up on suspicion and detained without the normal safeguards that are accorded to the student who is a citizen.

We will dedicate a few posts in this Blog to examine the nature of the student's position and rights and whether these need to be reexamined in any reform of higher education. We shall consider in those Blogs;

  • The traditional position of students in the university;
  • The changing profile of students in HE;
  • The contractual rights;
  • The rights as a consumer of regulated service and
  • The Statutory position of students.

Thursday, 8 August 2019

Of Gandhi, Education and the Right to Information

The following is contributed by my friend, Murali Achan.

Photo: Mint

On the 2nd of October 2014, as India welcomed Gandhi Jayanti, hundreds of girls from the village of Bhim, Rajasthan gathered outside their secondary school, in protest. Their demand was simply to be given the schooling that they were promised. For a period of seven years prior to the protest, the girls had to endure a shameful deficit in teachers in their school – 700 pupils were assigned only 3 teachers. Needless to say teaching and consequently learning was impossible. When asked why on Gandhi Jayanti? Their response was that Gandhiji taught them that they should demand their rights. The significance of the day was obviously not lost to them, as it often is in most of India.

As news of the protest spread, lockouts and strikes began to sprout in schools throughout Rajasthan. The pathetic state of education in Rajasthan was laid bare for all to see.  In a panic response, the State of Rajasthan assigned, wait for it, all of 4 more teachers to the school in Bhim.

But that, of course, is not the end of the story.

The courage displayed by the girls from Bhim and other children of Rajasthan became the catalyst for a broader campaign, known as Shiksha Ka Sawaal (SKS), to improve the state of schools and public education in Rajasthan. The SKS campaign strategy was to mobilize students and parents throughout Rajasthan to file applications (commonly known as “RTIs”) under the Right to Information Act 2005, demanding information from their schools. Six simple questions were posed in the RTIs:  “How many pupils are enrolled and how many are actually attending the school? What is the number of teaching positions compared with the number of students, and how many of those positions are vacant? Does the school have facilities for drinking water? Is there a playground with a boundary wall? Are there separate and functional toilets for boys and girls? Do the school management committee and the school development committee actually function?”
Thousands of RTIs were filed under the campaign. The answers to the questions further exposed the malaise in the education system in Rajasthan.

Although I am unable to report with certainty that the campaign had solved all of the problems faced by students in Rajasthan, some encouraging outcomes have however resulted from it. The Rajasthan government has announced that every school is required to have a monthly meeting between parents and teachers to deliberate on school issues. A dialogue between the media, school, teachers, parents and the education minister, along with education secretaries is to be held bimonthly.  A helpline is also set up to take all education-related complaints and a mechanism to address them was put in place. The government has also undertaken to build a boundary wall around the playgrounds in the schools.

The SKS campaign demonstrates how simple requests for information, with the backing of the law, can be an effective tool to agitate for progressive changes both in terms of initiating new policies and properly implementing existing ones. The benefits derived from free access to information cannot be understated. Citizen empowerment: information provides citizens with the means of participating effectively in matters of governance and hold the government accountable for their decisions. Expert scrutiny: information affords the opportunity for specialists from disciplines relevant to the information to scrutinize government policies and propose effective means of realising the objectives of those policies. Cultural change: access to information can, in the long term, foster a change from the “government knows best” culture that pervades many countries, including ours, to one that views its citizens as participants in the formulation and implementation of policies. These are but a few of the many advantages of a system in which the right to information is entrenched in the law.

In Malaysia too, many questions can be asked of the government and public universities. Here are a few of them. What is the basis of discrimination by which university seats are allotted? What are the objectives of these discriminatory policies and have those objectives been achieved? Who decides on the allotment? By what means is the quality of teachers in universities assessed? Are discriminatory policies present in the promotion of teachers? If so, what is the basis of the discrimination?
At present, there is no specific legislation in Malaysia that gives a general right to the public to access information from public authorities. The good news, however, is that the Prime Minister has recently announced the government’s plan to present a Freedom of Information Bill to Parliament in the near future. The question, however, is whether the Bill will contain progressive provisions that will in substance have citizen empowerment as its objective or will it be mere pretense; a toothless piece of legislation of limited scope and application that achieves nothing save for a tick on the PH manifesto checklist.

Whatever the motive of the government, the Prime Minister did say that there will be public engagement on the bill before it is finally presented to Parliament. This is a welcome move because it affords an opportunity for advocates for transparency and good governance to air their views on the kind of provisions they would like to see in the bill.  In this regard, advocates will be well advised to consider the Indian Right to Information Act, 2005 (“RTI Act”) as a possible model for a similar Act in Malaysia.

The preamble of  RTI Act sets out its objective: “An Act to provide for setting out the practical regime of right to information for citizens to secure access to information under the control of public authorities, in order to promote transparency and accountability in the working of every public authority, the constitution of a Central Information Commission and State Information Commissions and for matters connected therewith or incidental thereto”. “Public authorities” are broadly defined to include any body owned, controlled or substantially financed directly or indirectly by funds provided by the appropriate Government. Under this definition public schools are public authorities on whom RTIs may be served. Every public authority is required to designate officer/s as Public Information Officers of the units under its control. It is the duty of the Public Information Officer to receive and attend to RTIs.  I would add here that one of the positive outcomes of the SKS campaign was that the school principals were held to be Public Information Officers. An applicant for information need not give any reason for requesting it. The Act, remarkably, also provides that if an applicant is sensorily disabled, he shall be provided assistance to enable access to the information. It also provides “notwithstanding anything contained in the Official Secrets Act, 1923 nor any of the exemptions permissible in accordance with sub-section (1), a public authority may allow access to information if the public interest in disclosure outweighs the harm to the protected interests”. The Act also establishes information commissions at both the Central and State levels. The commissions among other things receives complaints in cases where the right to information is refused by public information officers. The commissions are also empowered to penalise public information officers who with mala fide denies requests for information or knowingly gives incorrect, incomplete or misleading information or destroys information which was the subject of the request or obstructs in any manner the furnishing of information.

The RTI Act in form and substance is truly a remarkable piece of legislation.  It would be a marvelous step forward for Malaysia to follow in the footsteps of India, at least, in terms of the legislative framework by which information is accessed by the public.

Tuesday, 16 July 2019

The International Student in Malaysia

The recent unfortunate demise of an international student in the custody of the Immigration Department created only the slightest ripple in the higher education domain. The deceased student’s university posted a notice of his death, a few students demonstrated outside the Nigerian Embassy, but that was about all that happened in a sector that has more than 100,000 international students. Unless I missed them, there were no expressions of concern from our universities and colleges or from student or staff bodies or from the many associations of universities and colleges.

Deaths in custody are not frequent occurrences, but even one death, when set against a background of regular student complaints of harassment by the authorities should cause enough concern among institutions to initiate some firmer actions to deal with the matter. If the existing system for the centralized management of international students is not functioning efficiently to prevent the wrongful detention of students, it is time to jettison it for one where there is an obligation on detention centers to contact the institution where the subject student is registered. Information on the centralized system is meant to be available to all enforcement agencies to help them verify the status of international students. That information should be enough to avoid improper detentions of students. If the system is not functioning to its purposes or worse still is not being relied upon by the enforcement agencies, these factors must be addressed by those who created the system and are responsible for its management.

UNESCO statistics show that annually, there are over 5 million students circulating the globe looking for a place to learn outside their own countries. Malaysia which is at number 10 in the UNESCO list of countries drawing incoming students, brought in more than 120,000 foreign students in 2016. Associations representing local educational institutions urge the government to grow the number of inbound students because of their contribution to the economy. Each student, they assert, contributes at least RM50,000 a year to the local economy, more than the average tourist and a great deal more than the foreign worker who sends out a part of his earning. A Government Report published in 2009 entitled, Strengthening Private Education in Malaysia also focuses on the economic value of the student in private institutions.

The value of international students lies not simply in the money they bring into this country or that they support the development of our education sector. International students add value to our social and cultural systems. They link us with distant communities, transform our classrooms and make international citizens of our students. The international student must leave this country not only with his scroll but with the memory of being amongst a friendly and kind people. It will be a terrible loss to this country and its people if they stop coming here because they fear for their safety.