In a recent engagement with students at Kolej Dar Al-Hikmah, Wan Saiful Wan Jan, head of IDEAS, proposed the privatisation of Malaysia’s universities as a solution to the problem of government intervention into academic affairs. This, ostensibly, would free academia altogether as it would restrict the government’s role as mere limited funders of student’s fees. Wan Saiful lists the examples of the endowment system at Al-Azhar and Harvard, and the voucher system of Scandinavian universities, as alternative models that the Malaysian academic system can consider.
The problem begins with the contradictory message. Al-Azhar is funded through an endowment but the university has been under supervision by the Egyptian Prime Minister’s Office since 1961. In other words the institution as a whole is subject to Cabinet oversight. In fact, it was the Mubarak regime that directly chose the past two grand imams of Al-Azhar Muhammad, Sayyid Tantawi in 1996 and then Ahmad al-Tayyib in 2010. In further fact, religious endowments have also been consistently monitored by the Ministry of Religious Affairs.
Since the revolution, demands for autonomy have increased although there appears to be very little consensus on what that autonomy would look like. The debates indicate that disagreements are marked ideological anyway, that is to say, centred on the question of which brand of Islam (the Wasatiyah, traditionalists or reformists) should have the most say in the reconstitution of the university.
Liberalisation of the profit motive kind does not appear to be on the agenda. The point, however, is that it would be completely inaccurate to mention Al-Azhar in the same breath as Harvard as even near comparable examples of varsity autonomy.
Additionally, one would also be hard pressed to understand what voucher system Wan Saiful is speaking of in reference to Scandinavian universities. In Finland, Denmark, Sweden and Norway most universities are public and free for their citizens.
The American case
Wan Saiful however is correct that Harvard is privatised and self-funded through an endowment system. The annual cost of tuition at Harvard is expensive. To take just one example, full-time students at the Graduate School of Education are expected to pay US$36,992 (RM114,675) every academic year. This excludes cost for travelling and commuting, books, stationary and daily expenses such as food and leisure.
There is nothing unusual about this in the American context. Tuition at Ivy League universities averages up to US$30,000 year but most private universities, even many of those of lower rank, cost about the same. Even public universities are no longer public in the proper sense as various have participated in partial privatisation of their many segments, leading to rapid inflation. As an example, tuition in the California state university system alone had gone up 400 per cent since 2002.
A direct effect of this state of affairs is the proliferation of student debt. Given that scholarships are limited and basic bachelor’s degrees are needed for employment, Americans as young as 18 are forced to take on massive loans to pay for their education. One student of mine graduated US$90,000 in debt after completing his B.A. He had to turn to anti-depressants as a result.
According to the Wall Street Journal, approximately two-thirds of American college students graduated with student debt. Further statistics from the past decade alone paint a bleak picture of the state of affairs. From 2007 to 2010 the US national levels of student debt rose up to 50 per cent. It is no surprise that by 2010, America’s total outstanding student debt exceeded the total outstanding credit card debt. That number has reached US$900 billion.
These numbers barely begin to tell the story of what a debt-ridden life in such youth, with no real work given their student status, looks like. Add to that the stress of a major economic depression with increasing unemployment rates. The libertarian would still nonetheless insist that all this is freedom manifest. Testimonies to the contrary, however, are abundant, either in the many textual and video reportage that can be found a Google search away, especially in the many campaigns for student debt forgiveness that are being mobilised to end the alarming state of affairs.
At any rate, the strangeness in pointing to university funding models in Sweden, Egypt and America as examples is that ultimately it has nothing to do with the real problem with Universities and University Colleges Act (UUCA).
UUCA is clearly an evidence of politically motivated government encroachment into academia but this is not a problem of the existence of a government per se, but the irresponsibility and ignorance of it. The example of Scandinavia that was suggested by Wan Saiful himself is evidence that public universities can produce quality education.
It is no breakthrough in political thought to point out that governments are prone to corruption and abuse of power. But it is a mark of intellectual dishonesty to think that private entities cannot be corrupted or abused either. The financial crisis that is engulfing the world is evidence that privatisation and neo-liberal economic policies have failed and shouldn’t be taken to inspire anything as delicate and important to nation building as our education system.
What Malaysia needs are responsible leaders that are held answerable to a transparent and dignified justice system. To attain that we in turn need a liberated democratic culture that is committed to the equal dignity of human beings and the end of oppression.
An education system then must be dedicated to cultivating responsible citizens to contribute towards fulfilling that objective, whereby university students can flourish in the fields of their choice, while also developing a critical appreciation and understanding of their rights, responsibilities and duties as educated members of a free society.
In “The Quest for Meaning”, Tariq Ramadan states that “there can be no freedom and no power unless the human need for basic necessities has been satisfied.” One would assume that by “human need for basic necessities”, he is referring to physiological necessities such as food and shelter, but when we read further we find that Professor Ramadan is also referring to education, for freedom without knowledge is meaningless: “If we state that we are giving an individual the freedom to choose when we have deprived that individual of knowledge, we are dishonest: freedom in a state of ignorance is an illusion.”
Human beings, by their very nature, desire and deserve freedom. Education is the necessary ingredient to actualise that potential by giving our freedom content and shape. Education is the domain in which that desire for freedom is explored, understood and fostered. Education then is a fundamental human right, such as the right to life, health, water and land. It is a basic need without which we cannot be fully human. To sell this need for the profiteering inclinations of the highest bidder is not only a mark of sheer lack in originality but more worryingly, a lack in compassion.
(This article was also published by the Malaysian Insider.)