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Thursday, 29 November 2012

How can universities powering Malaysias' ivory towers?

It is time we look at how our universities can be true to their noble calling as a mirror of humanity’s great heritage rather than be in danger of choosing show over substance.

A UNIVERSITY is a temple of learning and a storehouse of the knowledge and wisdom of the past. It is a receptacle of art, culture and science and a mir=ror of humanity’s great heritage. At the same time it is a laboratory for testing out a new vision of the future.

In more than four decades as a teacher, I have witnessed the ebb and flow of many educational movements. Some of them give me the feeling that we are choosing show over substance.

> Industrial links: In order to refute the charge that universities are ivory towers with no appreciation of societal needs, all universities have forged close relationships with the professions, industries and commerce. Curricula are devised to satisfy Qualifying Boards and potential employers. Students are required to do periods of apprenticeship. Captains of industry are often recruited as adjunct professors.

All this is laudable. At the same time it must be realised that our orientation towards industries and the professions distorts university education in some ways. A balance is needed.

> Lack of liberal education: The role of universities is to advance knowledge and build characters and not just careers. In their obsession with narrow professional goals and employability of graduates, many universities adopt curricula that are bereft of the arts and humanities. This paucity and poverty is accentuated because, unlike many countries, professional courses in Malaysia do not require a degree at entry point.

If a university is true to its worth, it must provide holistic education and produce well-balanced graduates who have professionalism as well as idealism, an understanding of the realities as well as a vision of what ought to be. Merely supplying technically-sound but morally-neutral human cogs in an industrial wheel to contribute to high production figures, will not in the long range lead to enlightened development of human capital or of society.

> Research: The crucial, core factor in a university’s eminence is qualified academicians with proven research abilities and a solid commitment to lead and inspire their wards to travel up the mountain path of knowledge.

A university cannot become an acclaimed university unless it possesses a large number of scholars who are the voice of the professions and who not only reflect the light produced by others (knowledge application) but are in their own right a source of new illumination (knowledge generation).

However, emphasis on research is leading to a number of adverse tendencies. Teaching is being neglected. Committed teachers are being bypassed in tenure and promotions in favour of entrepreneuring researchers.

Instead of singling out and supporting good researchers wherever they are found, the Malaysian approach is to anoint some universities with RU status and shower them with special grants. Innovators in non-research universities are thereby prejudiced.

> Research has various components: Capacity, productivity and utility.

The first (capacity) can be developed. Sadly, often it becomes an end in itself. The second (productivity) does not necessarily follow from the first. The third (utility) is often lacking. A great deal of research has no impact on the alleviation of the problems of society. Prestige and profit override public purpose. We need better criteria for research grant eligibility.

> Seeking best students: At the risk of sounding heretic, I wish to say that this modern obsession with seeking “the best students” is not conducive to social justice. Highly motivated, intelligent and articulate students make teaching a pleasure.

But what is even more satisfying is to take ordinary students and convert them into extraordinary persons; to mould ordinary clay into works of art.

It is submitted that entry points should be flexible. They should be based on holistic criteria. They should take note of initial environmental handicaps. They should be cognizant that equitable access to knowledge is a factor in sustainable development. They should further the university’s role to assist in social and economic progress; to cut poverty; to help the disadvantaged.

Entry points are less important than exit points. How a student ends the race is more important than how he/she began it.

All universities should be required to run some remedial programmes for under-achievers and to practise affirmative action for all marginalised sections of the population.

> Over-specialisation: Our system is committed to teaching more and more on less and less. Production of enough professionals and technocrats for the industries and the job market is an overriding role. However there is clear evidence that half or more than half of the graduates end up in roles outside of their university training.

In an age of globalisation, economic booms and busts, and high unemployment rates, there is a growing disconnect between what students study and what their subsequent careers are.

It is therefore, necessary to train students for multi-tasking, multi-disciplinary approaches; to have split-degree courses; and to produce graduates who have career flexibility and who are able to adapt to different challenges at work.

> Community service: Universities must serve society and not just by producing graduates for the job-market. All university courses must have an idealistic component and must straddle the divide between being people-oriented and being profession-oriented.

The curriculum must be so devised that staff and students are involved in the amelioration of the problems of society, in schemes for eradicating poverty, protecting the en-vironment, providing fresh water, storm control, protection from disease, adult education and free legal, medical, commercial and technical advice.

Tailor-made, short term courses for targeted groups should be devised to enrich lives. These courses should have no formal entry requirement. Town-gown relationships should extend to links with NGOs, GLCs and international groups that are involved in wholesome quests like environmental sustainability.

> Globalisation: Internatio­nalisation of knowledge is crucial for humanity’s advancement. However, to be truly global, we must not ignore citadels of excellence in Japan, Korea, China, India and Iran. It retards our progress and prevents us from addressing problems peculiar to our clime that our tertiary education suffers from a debilitating Western bias. Our course structures, curricula, textbooks, and icons are all European and American. It is as if the whole of Asia and Africa is and always was an intellectual desert. The opposite is true.

Asian universities must build their garlands of knowledge with flowers from many gardens. That would be true globalisation.

By Prof Shad Saleem Faruqi
> Shad Saleem Faruqi is Emeritus Professor of Law at UiTM 

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