[Letter to the Editor] Transforming S’wak’s tertiary education: Call for independent auditing, reform, investment in latest facilities

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Letter to the Editor

By Dr Muhammad Khusairy Bakri & Ahmad Faisal Mahdi

In the lush landscapes of Sarawak, the call for free tertiary education echoes through the corridors of academia, either within Sarawak or internationally.

However, to ensure the success of such an ambitious endeavour, it is imperative to address the leading root causes that have plagued the State’s education system. This article delves into the challenges facing Sarawak’s universities, focusing on the need for comprehensive independent auditing, reforms in hiring and promoting practices, and significant investments in state-of-the-art facilities.

The recent PTPTN student loan payback by the Sarawak government with an accumulated RM90.42 million raises another question: One of the foremost issues hindering the progress of Sarawak’s tertiary education is the lack of accountability within the university system.
A comprehensive internal, independent, and external audit conducted by auditors with no vested interest in the institutions is necessary to unearth the inefficiencies and mismanagement that may impede the quality of education.

The auditing process should cover and extend from the upper echelons of university management to every staff member, including the vice-chancellor or deputy vice-chancellor, ensuring a thorough examination of ethical and financial practices, resource allocation, balance between each department’s staff, and academic standards. Transparency in ethical, financial, and educational matters is crucial for the public’s trust in the education system and to guarantee that funds allocated for improving education are utilised effectively, especially when involved with industrial needs.

A positive work environment fosters innovation and a commitment to education. Sarawak’s universities must prioritise creating a culture that values diversity and strong ethics, encourages collaboration, and rewards dedication to the institution’s goals.

The main problem in those universities is a lack of diversity, and cooperation is only based on paperwork and is not part of their practice entity. It includes the clashes between the national tertiary vision and the university’s vision, showing that the goals of realisation of free tertiary are questionable, as the universities should also play a role and provide examples of diversity to create an environment for future endeavours.

Employee, student, and people satisfaction surveys and anonymous feedback mechanisms can provide insights into the prevalent work environment issues and should be addressed seriously. Addressing concerns related to workplace morale, communication, and opportunities for professional growth will contribute to a more motivated and engaged academic community.

However, none of this feedback is heeded, even by the State government, where the influx of people leaving the university is increasing yearly regarding going outside Sarawak to find better opportunities.

This culture has created a bad perspective of Sarawak universities, especially when word of mouth is stronger than the media. Again, this highlights the policies on Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG), Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), Industrial Revolution 4.0 and 5.0 (IR 4.0 and IR 5.0), and the future of the Post-Covid Development Strategy (PCDS 2030), which falls under international and State government initiative, which will be a big bound and unable to be achieved with the recognition of the universities to scrape some obsolete programmes.

The absence of modern facilities in Sarawak’s universities is a significant hurdle in attracting top-tier talent and providing students with a world-class education, alongside low salaries issues, which have been a decade-long problem in Sarawak.

Investment in state-of-the-art laboratories, libraries, and technology infrastructure is paramount to ensuring that students and researchers are adequately equipped for the challenges of the modern world.

We do not want to produce talent based only on theory and neglect the practical part of the courses, especially those involved in engineering and medical courses. Focusing on digitalisation is essential. However, food, job security, and technological facilities are necessary for a basic practical understanding to create balance in other parts of Sarawak’s development, which is lagging far behind.

It is worrying for universities that have been established for more than a couple of years without decent equipment, especially since they are not serious about their education quality and research work. Even though some may have the facilities, maintenance is always a problem, as the workplace has been stalled for years and cannot be used. We do not want universities that look beautiful from the outside but look bad on the inside because of a lack of state-of-the-art facilities.

By earmarking funds for infrastructure development, the government can signal its commitment to creating an educational environment that rivals global standards. Up-to-date facilities not only enhance the learning experience but also attract leading researchers and educators who can contribute to the academic and research vibrancy of the institutions.

The prevalence of favouritism, politicism, and promotion based solely on seniority undermines Sarawak’s universities’ principles of fairness and meritocracy.
In addition, imbalanced hiring, promotion, and salaries can also be seen in those universities. It is estimated that a few hundred or thousands of Sarawakians could not return to contribute to Sarawak as the universities denied them due to these problems, limited funds, no jobs (claim by them), and lowered salaries.

A comprehensive strategy involving transparent evaluation criteria, independent oversight bodies, and anti-corruption measures is necessary to combat these issues. Establishing a separate independent committee for promotion evaluations, composed of individuals with a proven track record in academia and without political affiliations, can help ensure fairness.
Additionally, implementing clear promotion guidelines based on merit, research output, and teaching excellence will contribute to a more equitable and progressive academic culture. However, most of these universities used micro-managing to ensure they target only certain people for promotion without being transparent.

To foster a culture of meritocracy, universities in Sarawak must actively promote and reward excellence in teaching, research, and community engagement, not based on race and favouritism.

Recognition programmes, awards, and incentives for outstanding contributions should be established to motivate faculty and staff to strive for continuous improvement.
Moreover, creating mentorship programs and professional development opportunities can empower educators to enhance their skills and stay abreast of the latest field advancements.

By nurturing a culture that values expertise and dedication, Sarawak’s universities can position themselves as beacons of academic excellence. The vision for free tertiary education in Sarawak is an admirable goal that can only be realised through a holistic approach to address the root causes affecting the State’s education system.

Comprehensive auditing, reforms in hiring practices and substantial investments in state-of-the-art facilities are pivotal steps toward creating an environment that nurtures intellectual growth and academic excellence.

The time is ripe for Sarawak to embark on a transformative journey in its education sector, laying the foundation for a future where every individual has access to quality tertiary education, irrespective of socio-economic background. Through concerted efforts, Sarawak can build a reputation for its universities as centres of innovation, knowledge, and inclusivity, ensuring a brighter future for future generations. — DayakDaily

Dr Muhammad Khusairy Bakri is a postdoctoral research associate at the Composite Materials and Engineering Centre, Washington State University (WSU), a faculty-staff member for the Centre of Bioplastics and Biocomposites (CB2) for North Dakota State University, United States of America, and a lead research and development sector of the Association of Professional Technicians and Technologists (APTT) Sarawak.

Ahmad Faisal Mahdi is a senior lecturer at the Faculty of Business and Management, Universiti Teknologi MARA (UiTM), a Chartered Institute of Marketing member.

This is the personal opinion of the authors and does not necessarily represent the views of DayakDaily. Letters to the Editor may be lightly edited for clarity.