THE Malaysian higher education landscape has been moulded and governed by an economic and scientific logic which dictates the ways in which our universities are managed and developed. It should come as no surprise today when one observes that Malaysian academics are becoming somewhat fixated upon ideas and vocabulary that connote “measurement” and “impact”.
This obsession has permeated all levels of academic practice. From evaluating research productivity, approaching and designing research, delineating learning outcomes, and assessing and accrediting new programmes’ curricula to grading and allocation of marks.
This preoccupation has been at the expense of academia’s core business of promoting the pursuit of knowledge through teaching and research. I fear that not only do we risk dehumanising and relegating ourselves to the status of robots, but that such practice may see us shackled by rigidity and sterility, the very antithesis of the spirit of academia.
The core reason underpinning the aforementioned preoccupation is the encroachment of neoliberalism – a notion very much bound up with laissez-faire economic liberalism and free market capitalism – upon higher education. This neoliberal ethos, as well as treating our higher education as a commodity, espouses a range of notions, eg, “marketability”, “commercialisation” and “measurement” within academia – all manoeuvred in the interests of global competitiveness.
This being the case, Malaysian academics and researchers in particular fields, for example the arts, humanities and – to a certain extent – the social sciences, have to grapple with a uniform assessing method or “performance indicator” that is predicated on the practices of science scholars. When compared with the sciences, the arts and humanities not only appear to lack representation in high impact academic journals but they also fail to generate high citation rates and to attract much research funding.
The application of the systematic metrics in arts, humanities and social sciences have neither appropriately assessed the impact of arts and humanities scholarship nor served the best interest of our researchers. This framework promotes a taut, top-down approach that depends primarily on the systematic use of citation indices. While this works perfectly for the natural and applied sciences, it appears ill-suited to assessing research undertaken in the arts, humanities and social sciences.
Several studies conducted in some European and Anglo-American countries have indicated that coverage of the arts and humanities in databases of peer-reviewed work such as Web of Science or Scopus has proven inadequate for evaluation and hardly representative of arts and humanities research.
Within the purview of arts and humanities, even the definition of what constitutes a “scholarly publication” remains a matter of debate. Therefore, I consider it utterly unfair to assess arts and humanities research and scholarly performance using the aforementioned framework.
It is imperative for us to understand the nature and approach of arts and humanities research, which often values qualitative over quantitative reasoning. In addition, this approach eschews a dominant, clear-cut methodology as many of their truth claims are not as verifiable as those of the natural and applied sciences.
Academics and scholars in the arts and humanities require word length to articulate their points and prove their respective arguments; hence, articles in this domain are relatively longer, more elaborate, and often essayistic, argumentative and interpretive.
They require a much broader time frame, as their writings entail rigorous questioning, cogent argument, and profound reflection. This approach contributes to the dissemination of knowledge that extends beyond facts and figures, its ultimate aims being to yield wisdom and insight.
As Malaysian academics and researchers are rarely exposed to the humanities research approach, most of them (even from the arts and humanities) may resort to the adoption of a scientific approach, which may negate the essence of the humanities.
The scientific approach, which is mainly concerned with reporting data and particularities, frequently omits engagement with complex arguments and discussions.
It should be noted that the value ascribed to arts and humanities is less transparent and tangible than that ascribed to other types of research, eg, medical and technological innovations. It seems impossible, for example, to demonstrate the socioeconomic impact of some arts and humanities scholarship because it is indispensable in other ways.
This explains why arts and humanities research continues to be marginalised in an environment where hard science is the paradigm and thus more likely to attract funding. Funding issues are further compounded by the fact that even applications for research funding require the proposal to follow the conventional outline and structure germane to the sciences.
As practised globally, the writings or publications of arts and humanities scholars or academics frequently transcend academic journals. Many write for myriad media and platforms; for example, specialist magazines, newspapers, audio-visual essays, and online and “open-access” publications (eg, specific websites dedicated to their respective fields). Their works and writings may reach a wider segment of audiences, further extending beyond the hermetic sphere of academia.
We could introduce alternative methods or standards of assessing research and scholarship that
are more “humanist” (ie, based on the humanities) in terms of approach and orientation. Welcoming and accommodating a smorgasbord of scholarly practices and expression along with diverse ideological dispositions may imbue a university with a collective sense of inclusivity, eclecticism and dynamism.
Of course, we should not discount the significant contribution of the sciences to humankind. That notwithstanding, we should also both recognise and accept the reality that not all of the problems and issues on this planet can be approached or resolved scientifically.
Faculty of Film, Theatre and Animation
Universiti Teknologi Mara, Cawangan Selangor
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