Time to rethink the Malaysian Qualifications Agency and its panels

The Malaysian Qualifications Agency (MQA) is a most important body set up by the Malaysian government to accredit and examine the curriculum of both public and private universities to ensure that the programmes offered are of a certain quality to protect the interest of parents investing in their children, as well as ensuring the production of a good graduate for the work force.

I would like to go on record to praise the MQA in their diligence and seriousness of executing their responsibilities because we have not heard of many bogus programmes due to their effort. However, after thousands of accreditation exercises conducted by the MQA, I wish to take the institution to task and provide my own assessment, examination and “accreditation” of this institution within the perspective of the future of learning and education in this country.

I was in a public university for 27 years and am in a private institution of learning for almost four years now, and my experience in attending some of these accreditation exercises leaves me with a few important questions for the ministry of education under the dynamic leadership of Dr Maszlee Malik.

It is my intention to provide constructive suggestions on how future accreditation exercises can be conducted so that we would go through a higher level of professionalism and creative effort rather than the dry and “policing” method that it has now. I feel that if we are to be a hub of education and answer the fast changing world of industry and the volatile political relationships, the education industry must respond to these changes, and I do not wish for the MQA be a dinosaur that pulls us back.

My first observation is the choice of accreditation panels that the MQA chooses to appoint. Many of these panels are not experienced and wide thinking in their ideas of education and the field of their so-called “expertise”. In my experience of one accreditation exercise, the MQA had appointed some academics from public universities. I assume that the MQA feels choosing from public universities is a good choice since public universities are the ones that have more experience running many of the programmes proposed at the private universities. I will explain three reservations to this line of thinking by the MQA.

My first reservation concerns how much these panels have dealt with the question of “education” itself. I would like members of such a panel to have written papers or books on their subjects such as architecture, engineering, business management and the like. I would prefer those who had given talks or keynote speeches on the direction of education in general or in their field of expertise. It will be a bonus if the members of these panels regularly appear in forums and TV and radio interviews to discuss education.

The reason why I am insistent is that most academics who have never dedicated themselves to the question of education will look at a new programme with the thought of “they should teach like I teach or like I went through at my university”. When we allow this to happen, creativity and rapid response to changing needs of society and industry become stagnant as the educational institution has to kowtow to the MQA’s single-minded perspective.

As a case in point, in one accreditation exercise for a postgraduate diploma for lecturers to teach at universities, I was given one module to develop under a class called Communication. My two colleagues took care of Academic Communication, another took care of Corporate Communication and I was put in Community Engagement. I feel that academics in Malaysia are media shy and public shy because most of them go through their careers without giving any public talk, media interviews or engaging in forum panel discussions.

I, therefore, put my 20 years of experience and created mock media interviews, mock public forums and mock public talks. The students, who were senior academics, were both surprised and excited to be exposed to a world they knew nothing about. However, after the accreditation exercise, my module was scrapped because the panel found it useless, probably because the panel members themselves had never been interviewed by the media or given public talks or even been invited to be a forum panellist. Now, we have Maszlee as the minister of education and he has appeared more on media interviews, given public talks and participated in forum panel discussions than any of the MQA panellists throughout their whole career.

Secondly, my reservation about public university academic panel appointees is that they have absolutely no idea how private universities operate. The private universities used to be just a business construct but many such as Taylor’s University, Sunway University and UCSI University have evolved to be major players in forming the thoughts and minds of future leaders in Malaysia. However, these private universities still have to pay corporate taxes and do not have any perks for providing quality education to Malaysians, as well as bringing foreign money into Malaysia via foreign students. These universities have to stretch their finances and operate again in a business capacity.

The panels of MQA do not understand these constraints and keep evaluating programmes in the way they would expect from their own comfy taxpayer-paid public institutions.

I would prefer that the panel members be selected from among those in private universities as well as academics who have had both public and private university experience. My suggestion to Maszlee is to expedite the Academic Exchange Programme between public universities and private ones in Malaysia. Those academics who qualify to be assessors of programmes must spend at least six months in a private university to qualify fully to be a panel member. I would not accept any less a requirement than that because I have heard enough inexperienced comments from the panels appointed by the MQA.

My third reservation regarding these MQA panels made up of people from public universities is their poor “adab” (behaviour) and professionalism. I have been at MQA meetings at institutions where I had to bite my tongue just to prevent myself from speaking up and reprimanding the poor quality of “adab” shown by the panel members. The public university panels simply say and call out orders anyway they please.

I will not shame the MQA by repeating the poor “adab” and professionalism of some of these panels in this article but I was most distressed and shocked at the words and expressions used.

I am, therefore, making a strong recommendation to the MQA to appoint a senior professor or manager to chair all MQA sessions to avoid such poor professional conduct. The chairperson of the MQA can come from the institution itself, better yet he or she should be from another private institution. The MQA accreditation exercises that I have witnessed seem to me like a Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission or a police raid with the panels barking orders left and right and using language unbecoming of well-groomed professionals. Their comments to young academics are in the manner of “talking down” rather than sharing.

I will tell Malaysians a little secret. In university education, no one is an expert at teaching. Just think, lecturers become academics either by their PhD research in a specific field or they come from the industry. Both know nothing of teaching. I developed my teaching method through trial and error for 10 years until I got the hang of it. But then, I change many of my methods and assignments to experiment and test out many new ideas on teaching and also on the subject. To say the least, teaching is a creative art. Thus, for someone to come off spouting the A, B, C of teaching at the university as if it is carved in stone, I am sorry, that academic knows nothing of education… but is simply spouting the imitative and repetitive practice of imparting information. No teaching.

Finally, I also wish that the MQA proposes the names of panels with their curriculum vitae to the institutions concerned to get their agreement and feedback. The MQA must also prepare an evaluation form of the professional content, conduct and attitude of the panels to be filled by the institution concerned. This form must go to the MQA and another one straight to the ministry of education. Panel members showing unprofessional conduct must be removed from future accreditation exercises.

A New Malaysia calls for a new way of looking at education. The MQA must rethink its position to function as a facilitator and no longer as a police force in ensuring a more conducive environment for the creation of useful and dynamic education programmes. In a rapidly changing world, the MQA must not be the weight that sets us back, but it must be a visionary guide to help look to the future.

The views expressed by the writer do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.