The newly appointed Minister of Education, Fadhlina Sidek, said yesterday that she will revive the National Education Advisory Council as part of her consultative approach to her role as Minister. She made the announcement in a media statement which also spelt seven areas her ministry will be focusing on to improve the national education system. We will address some of the areas of focus in this Blog, starting with this comment on the NEAC.
The NEAC is established under the Education Act 1996 (the Act) as an advisory body to the Minister. The statutory standing of the NEAC is nebulous. The Act does not compel the establishment of the council. It merely states that the NEAC ‘may’ be established. In statutory language, the word 'may' does not compel the doing of the act specified. The person given the right to do the act has the discretion whether or not to carry out the act. The term ‘shall’ makes it mandatory for the act to be carried out. The NEAC, therefore, does not have the same legal presence as its counterpart in higher education – the National Council on Higher Education (NCHE/Higher Education Council) - with which it is often confused.
The NCHE was established by an act of parliament as a permanent body to advise the Minister. The National Council of Higher Education Act 1996 requires the Minister concerned to implement the policies formulated or determined by the Higher Education Council. The functions of the Higher Education Council are stipulated by statute and include the broad power ‘to plan, formulate and determine national policies and strategies for the development of higher education.’ Such is not the case with the NEAC.
Indeed, the NEAC’s powers are limited. The scope of NEAC’s powers to advise the Minister is limited to such matters as are referred to it by the Minister. The Act requires the NEAC to consider the matter referred to it and submit its advice to the Minister but the Act imposes no obligation on the Minister to act on the advice as is the case with the Higher Education Council.
Another ambiguity in the Act is that whilst it states that the NEAC may be established, it leaves open the question as to who may establish it. However, since the Act empowers the Minister to appoint the Chairman and other members, it may be implied that the power to establish the NEAC is also that of the Minister.
The new Minister’s determination to reactivate the NEAC is all the more heartening because of the ambiguities surrounding the NEAC. It is hoped that the Hon Minister will also use her statutory powers to ensure a broad representation of stakeholders in the NEAC and invite the NEAC to deliberate on the important issues concerning education.
The membership of NEAC is made up of a chairman, a deputy chairman and nine other members. The criteria for the appointment of the nine members, as stipulated in the related regulations, are experience, knowledge and expertise in matters relating to education. None of the criteria stipulated in the Act or the regulations governing the NEAC include stakeholder representation such as teachers, parents or the private sector of education. Several officials have a right of attendance at NEAC meetings such as (a) the Secretary General of education (b) the Director General of education (c) the Director General of Higher education; and (d) the Director General of the Department of Polytechnic and Community College.
The new Minister has declared a holistic approach through a process of consultation with all stakeholders in the ‘entire education ecosystem.’ The NEAC is an excellent forum to achieve those commitments, even if some minor changes to the laws may be required. The effectiveness of a ministerial advisory council is dependent on the representation of all stakeholders in the Council. The Minister must ensure that the NEAC is representative of all stakeholders.
It is also important that the NEAC is placed on a stronger statutory footing. If the establishment of such an advisory council is left to the minister’s discretion, there will always be a risk of the reigning minister exercising power without consultation or advice. Such an eventuality is not far-fetched. Even the NCHE, which is a creature of Parliament has been rendered inactive through administrative action. The new Minister of Education must be vigilant against opposition to her decision to operate transparently and through consultation with the stakeholders.