Has our higher education system changed?


Building a globally inclusive society requires instilling inclusive qualities in the spirit of Merdeka that will also help to overcome discriminatory attitudes, build welcoming communities and create inclusive leaders.

It is that time of the year where we reflect what this special day means to all of us. Historically speaking, Merdeka comes from the Sanskrit word ‘maharddhika’, which means ‘rich, prosperous and powerful’. Numerous interviews are conducted yearly to understand what Merdeka means to Malaysians. It can generally be summarised as ‘freedom through love and unity of our nation’.

The strength of the nation lies in its diversity. For our country to succeed, we must work together irrespective of our ethnicities and religions. These are the lessons that we are taught at school. But how has it transcended to higher education institutions?

Civic responsibility

It is commonly understood that tertiary education is aimed towards producing technically competent graduates who are able to navigate through the competitive job market. However, equally important is the preparation of students to assume their role as good citizens in society.Civic responsibility is a social value that is vital for the effectiveness of a democratic nation and a healthy diverse society. Each and every graduate should be concerned and feel responsible towards the society in which they live.

Civic responsibility is shaped through students’ diverse engagements and participation in social issues. Malaysian researchers have found that co-curricular activities involving diverse groups significantly contribute towards students’ sense of civic responsibility.

Understanding the importance of this value towards the future of Malaysia, the Ministry of Higher Education (MoHE), champions for collaborations to be established and sustained between universities, industries, the government and the community.

Co-curricular activities involving diverse groups significantly contribute towards students’ sense of civic responsibility.Co-curricular activities involving diverse groups significantly contribute towards students’ sense of civic responsibility.

Also known as the Quadruple Helix concept, this ensures that teaching and learning, research and community service tie in with one another to improve the well-being of society. In turn, this produces well-rounded graduates who are ready to join the workforce and become valuable members of society. There has been evidence of success with the implementation of this concept. A prime example are the efforts expedited by Malaysia’s National Student Representative Council (MPPK). The MPPK meeting is a platform for student leaders to table out ideas that can contribute towards the country’s development agenda.

It allows direct involvement of students in the legislative function of our country while connecting them with student leaders from other universities and the country’s leaders.

Among their efforts that have been implemented include: the improvement in the quality of internet access to facilitate effective implementation of online teaching and learning activities, as well as the housing rental for students programme.

This success shows that when students are instilled with civic responsibility, they are able to generate ideas that can remedy challenges faced by society.

Nation-building

Instilling values, character building and skills is also central to patriotism. The concept of citizenship education has been argued well by Ernest Gellner in the context of nationalism.

As educators, we need to ensure there are checks and balances between liberally educating while simultaneously cultivating the spirit of nationalism among graduates. At the end of the day, we need to develop our nation’s sense of self.

Education is responsible for bringing social reform within a nation. It helps a country to progress socially, economically and politically. Thus, it is equally important for educators to understand these notions too before imparting the knowledge to students. We would like to see how our graduates connect to our diverse community especially with regard to the various nations-of-intent. The university is supposed to be a democratic institution where ideas should be shared openly and respectfully.

Apart from being a multiracial country, international students have added more colours to the already colourful Malaysia. We need to re-emphasise the role of integration, respect and tolerance among each other. This is where the universities create the opportunities for knowledge and cultural exchange among students and also to celebrate the differences. Mutual understanding is crucial in terms of promoting the idea of culture of peace which is one of the most vital aspects in national development.

Inclusive education

With the growing number of international students interested to study in Malaysia, higher education in Malaysia provides more learning opportunities, fosters a culture of respect and belonging and even allows local students to learn about embracing individual differences.

Malaysia is committed to the 2030 Agenda, which is based on the principle that everyone should share in wealth and have a basic level of well-being by working continuously to achieve Goal 4 of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals in ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education and promoting opportunities for lifelong learning for everyone.

To meet the objectives of the strategic plan in line with the 2030 Agenda, MoHE is continuously striving for equitable access to high-quality education for all students including indigenous, minority students or even students requiring special educational needs, such as visual impairment, hearing impairment, speech difficulties, physical disabilities, multiple disabilities and learning disabilities such as autism, Down’s Syndrome, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and dyslexia.

When students are instilled with civic responsibility, they are able to generate ideas that can remedy challenges faced by society.When students are instilled with civic responsibility, they are able to generate ideas that can remedy challenges faced by society.

According to the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, 10% of the population in developing countries has special needs, but just 1% of Malaysia’s population has been identified as having special education requirements, compared to a global average of 10%.

According to these findings, it appears that the number of students with special education needs in Malaysia has been underestimated by a significant margin which is primarily due to a scarcity of specialists for developmental disorders assessment and intervention. In resolving this issue, MoHE seeks to form strong partnerships with the Ministry of Health to expedite early detection and diagnosis, as well as to improve inclusion programmes.

Besides MoHE, other stakeholders also play critical roles in education as supporters, enablers, advocates and delivery partners, ensuring that our educational system evolves in lockstep with the rest of the world to retain our country’s competitiveness in an increasingly competitive global economy.

Only by instilling inclusive qualities and not forcing everyone to think in the same manner, will we be able to overcome discriminatory attitudes, build welcoming communities, inclusive leaders and ultimately, a globally inclusive society.

For Malaysia to be a fully developed nation that is rich, prosperous and powerful (as the literal meaning of maharddhika), we must tap into the glorious diversity that dwells in this land of milk and honey. After all, isn’t this what Merdeka is all about?

Ministry of Higher Education guest writers Dr Diyana Kasimon, Dr Feroz De Costa and Assoc Prof Dr Moniza Waheed are lecturers at the Department of Communication, Faculty of Modern Languages and Communication, Universiti Putra Malaysia.

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