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Time for substantive reforms of our universities | Free Malaysia Today – Free Malaysia Today

Now that we finally have a new government in place, the university community in Malaysia is looking forward to substantive reforms. Rather than pretend that we have world-class education, we need to recognise the weaknesses in our educational institutions of higher learning, admit that we suffer from mediocrity, and expose the academic dishonesty that characterises our higher education.
In fact, during the last few years, Malaysian universities have come under public scrutiny with references to their mediocrity, the lack of vibrant academic culture and intellectual ambience on the campuses, and the politicisation and racialisation of tertiary education. These problems not only affect the quality of education but have also resulted in widespread unhappiness at universities.
Academics who work in the universities are conscious of the low morale on the campuses. In fact, it can be stated that there is, among academics and students, particularly those doing their master’s and PhD, a growing disillusionment with university life, and a deepening frustration with the state of higher education.
Part of the reason for the lack of academic culture is the level of bureaucratisation the universities suffer from. It leaves academics unable to deal with the various problems that afflict university education. The academic staff has little direction and control over the policies and practices of the universities. Malaysian universities have become more centralised and hierarchical.
The emphasis on top-down planning has meant reduced autonomy at the department level. Malaysian academics have generally acquiesced to this state of affairs. As a result, they are neither willing nor able to influence university policies and cannot play a crucial role in bringing about positive change that would eventually create a more academic atmosphere on the campuses and boost morale in the process.
Let me provide two examples of problems on our campuses that are the cause of low morale, problems that need rectification but which persist, nevertheless, due to the inability of administrators to identify them as problems and the reluctance of the academic staff to push for change.
One issue is clocking-in. Academic staff members are expected to clock in upon arrival at their offices. A clocking-in system allows the employer to monitor the attendance of employees by providing an indisputable record of when the employee started and ended the workday. It is incredible, however, that university lecturers are required to clock in. Apart from the fact that this practice is practically unheard-of in the hundreds of leading universities in the world, it is tantamount to treating academic staff with a level of mistrust that is unbecoming of university administrators.
It is demeaning and insulting to treat academics in this manner. The requirement to clock in creates in the university a working atmosphere based on objective verification or proof rather than trust in the academic staff. It has been noted that such objective proof may be required in workplaces where there is no personal relationship between the employer and employees. In an organisation such as a university, however, close relations are supposed to be formed, not only between the academic staff and students but also among the various levels and departments of the university.
The requirement of clocking in obstructs the process of creating trust and goodwill, particularly between the academic staff and the university administration. For example, professors who are supposed to be creative and independent thinkers must be thinking that the university administrators lack trust in them and assume that they (the professors) are out to cheat the university in terms of the hours they put in.
In other words, the professors are not being accorded the status that is due to them as the scholars they are. The university is not a factory and should not be treated as such. There is absolutely no good argument to support clocking in and the practice should cease immediately. All it takes is for the minister of higher education to issue a directive. Let us stop treating academics in a distrustful manner.
Forced co-authorship
Another issue that is causing low morale among some academic staff and many graduate students is the practice of forced co-authorship of scientific papers. Here, I am referring to social sciences and humanities where the practice is for these supervisors to put their names on articles for publication that were solely written by their students. This is extremely unethical but widespread in Malaysian universities. It is tantamount to the exploitation of graduate students.
In the leading universities of the world, the supervisor is co-author with the student only if he or she supports the supervisee’s work by being involved in aspects of the research or by writing parts of the paper. Furthermore, this can only happen through mutual consent and is not forced. However, if the supervisor’s role is confined to giving advice and suggestions – then she should be acknowledged in that capacity rather than as co-author.
In some Malaysian universities, graduate students are often required to include the names of their supervisors as co-authors even when the supervisors had not contributed to the writing of the article. In this way, academics who have many graduate supervisees can increase the number of articles attributed to them without actually doing the work.
Malaysian universities should adopt the policies of universities around the world that are founded on academic honesty. Monash University’s authorship policy is an example: “To be named an author, a researcher must have made a substantial scholarly contribution to the work and be able to take responsibility for at least that part of the work they contributed. While attribution of authorship depends to some extent on the discipline, in all cases, authorship must be based on substantial contributions in a combination of conception and design of the project; analysis and interpretation of research data; drafting significant parts of the work or critically revising it so as to contribute to the interpretation.”
The document goes on to refer to unacceptable inclusions of authorship: “The following activities do not by themselves constitute a claim to authorship without substantial intellectual contribution to the work: being head of a department, holding other positions of authority, or personal friendship with the authors; providing a routine technical contribution; providing routine assistance on some aspects of the project; acquisition of funding; general supervision of the research team; providing data that has already been published or materials obtained from third parties (including the routine collation and provision of research source material).”
The practice of naming their supervisors as co-authors when they had not contributed to the writing of the articles has a negative effect on students. It deprives them of producing single-authored papers that would make them more marketable in the eyes of university selection committees.
The practice is also unethical because it credits them with publications that are not of their doing. Ultimately, the practice is alienating for students and those supervisors who take an ethical stance on these matters and abstain from such practices, but who are surrounded by free-riding staff who benefit from students’ work. I personally know of many foreign students in Malaysia who frown upon such practices and regard Malaysian universities as having failed them in terms of nurturing a proper academic climate.
Clocking-in and co-authorship are just two practices that are creating low morale and low standards at our universities. These practices can be easily stopped, which will go a long way towards restoring trust and improving the academic culture of the universities.
The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.
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