Education the great unifier

MINISTER of Higher Education Datuk Seri Khaled Nordin gave a great speech at the soft launch of the Bangladesh campus of UCSI University, held at the Cheras campus on Feb 3.

Observing that 30% of the student population at UCSI is international, he said “we live in a world where global issues such as pandemics, climate change, refugees, digital currencies and social justice know no more borders ... geographical barriers should never limit the potential of working together to develop new knowledge and fresh ideas.”

He commended the greater internationalisation of higher education, of knowledge diplomacy, of increased access and equity for human capital development, and the example being set for other higher education institutions across Malaysia.

Encouragingly for advocates of further reform, he acknowledged the need for more contemporary accreditation standards, to explore new models and pedagogies without being too restricted by regulations.

A month later, amidst a similar grand fanfare, I as Pro-Chancellor joined the actual launch event in Dhaka, significant as the first time a foreign university has opened a campus in Bangladesh.

Both their Minister and Deputy Minister of Education spoke favourably of their reforms in their own education sector to enable such partnerships, raise competitiveness and innovation, and widen access for their growing market of students, noting the existence of hundreds of Bangladeshi alumni of UCSI already.

Indeed, one excited alumnus beamed with pride, saying that UCSI’s entry into Dhaka meant that his existing qualification is even more valuable!

By that stage I had already become accustomed to particular features of Bangladeshi hospitality – such as the offering of flowers, fruits and plaques for each individual guest – but I was fascinated by the religious element initiating the ceremony.

With 90% of the population being Muslim, I assumed there might be a doa as is familiar in Malaysia. But after a surah recitation by an imam, there were contributions from Hindu, Buddhist and Christian religious leaders too, despite their tiny numbers in the country.

In my speech congratulating both countries’ teams, I noted that such warm tolerance bode well for international educational partnerships. My optimism was echoed by other speakers excited by the breath of fresh air (juxtaposed against the congestion of Dhaka where the Air Pollution Index routinely exceeds 200!).

At the campus itself, the amount of preparation was clear to see, with new computer rooms, fashion design workshops, architecture studios and electrical engineering labs being fully kitted out.

My only request was that a corner about Malaysia’s foundation be added next to the display dedicated to the founding of Bangladesh, complete with a bust of their much-revered Founding Father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.

The house in which he lived, and where he was brutally assassinated in 1975 alongside much of his family (except two daughters, one of whom is the current Prime Minister), is now a museum.

Apart from bottles of coke and pickles left unscathed since that fateful day, I spotted a silver platter bearing all the Malaysian state crests, a gift from the Yang di-Pertuan Agong who made a state visit in 1974.

Among the many books the curator gave me was one that Sheikh Mujibur wrote about his travels to “New China” in 1952, where he was inspired by how the new regime was pursuing policies on language, education and industry.

Aptly, my next destination was (newer) China, whose post-Covid borders only opened up in January.

In Shanghai, I witnessed how further education partnerships are being developed between Malaysia and China. Already, around 1,500 Chinese students attend UCSI University, and while the demographics and needs are quite different to Bangladesh, the opportunities for collaboration are huge indeed.

As the world continues to open up after Covid-19, old prejudices and new suspicions continue to persist. Geopolitics and domestic politics can breed misunderstandings and of course deliberate provocations against those are deemed as “different”.

It is ultimately education that can and must bridge these divides. When people learn together, trust and friendship is fostered, leading to resilient partnerships and new communities.

At the same time, I also observed that whether in Malaysia, Bangladesh or China, the opinions of young people matter very much to the government of the day, and different laws and regulations are in place to monitor or guide what can be said.

In our case, the University and University Colleges Act 1971, originally to provide a framework for higher education, has become the default tool to restrict student freedoms, control political access and activities and stifle decision-making autonomy.

I would say to the minister: just as fostering international partnerships to elevate Malaysian universities is vital, so too is improving the domestic culture of our universities. Maybe total abolition isn’t necessary, but amend the Act accordingly at least!

Tunku Zain Al-‘Abidin is Pro-Chancellor of UCSI University. The views expressed here are the writer’s own.

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