Universities and rebuilding of M’sia

Real change cannot come only via the ballot box. Our columnist explains how private universities can be instrumental in shaping a better future for the country.

MANY Malaysians, including civil society, talk of change in this nation. People desire change for the better and for their children. However, the “mistake” here is to focus too much on bringing about change through the ballot box.

After so many years of watching politics in this country, I can safely say that elections alone can never lead to any real change.

If Malaysians want real change, they must do it themselves instead of pinning their hopes on the likes of public institutions and political parties.

I am of the opinion that Malaysians are all rich and educated enough and they care enough to initiate changes whose fruits can be enjoyed within a decade.

Today and over the coming weeks, I will outline in this column how many of such changes can be done, not so much with funds and infrastructure, but with the ingenuity, resolve and goodness of spirit of true Malaysians.

In this article, I look at how private universities in Malaysia can be a major player in these good changes that fair-minded Malaysians yearn for.

Private universities have come a long way and many have become reputable entities. It is now time to look beyond the ringgit and sen and consider the kind of graduates who will make Malaysia a great nation to live in and an important part of the global construct.

These universities had set out to produce graduates at par with those of public universities, and they have done so. They then embarked on creating a research culture among their academics, and they have achieved that. They also aimed to overtake public universities in rankings, and that has happened.

Congratulations, private universities are now similar to the big public universities. In my book, however, that does not say very much.

There is little point in producing large batches of graduates and research papers by the bushels if these do not have any impact on the nation and its people. If they follow the strategies I outline below, private universities are poised for the next S-curve and can outdo the big boys in education and research.

First, all major private universities should have a board of advisers for each faculty.

For instance, the Faculty of Social Science or Faculty of Engineering can appoint advisers who include professionals, lawmakers, activists and academics to deliberate on national issues and work with the faculty’s academics to formulate research proposals or action research that can bring about real change in the community and the environment on a micro level.

The Malays have a saying about making big changes through a series of small steps: “Sedikit-sedikit lama-lama jadi bukit.” Bring the community into the university and the university into the community.

Second, the KPIs (key performance indicators) of academics should be changed so that meaningful research, publications and activities are produced. Associate professors and professors from private institutions are different from the ones at public universities. The papers and research by private university academics must have real impact at the micro-level of society.

Third, private universities can introduce courses that teach the concepts of shared history, shared prosperity and shared spirituality that I have written about (A nation at the crossroads, March 3,2020). The idea is to produce hundreds of thousands of graduates without a racist or bigoted make-up. There won’t be any graduate performing the Nazi salute and threatening people with the spectre of the May 13 riots.

Fourth, private universities can set up their own Council of Professors and place them within a shadow cabinet construct to offer advice and feedback to the government and society at large on issues and policies important to nation building.Fifth, with respect to the racial imbalance in private universities, a special scholarship allocation can be made for Malay students, particularly those with the Unified Examination Certificate (UEC). We as Malaysians need to take care of these Malay UEC holders because they are the future elements of change and they need to be carefully and strategically placed in society through education and professional training.

Sixth, university students should be encouraged to be active in student societies to learn the value of social organisation and public participation. I recommend that student societies should be formed along the lines of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. Student groups based on race, religion and national political parties should be disallowed on campus.

Finally, private university academics can be communicators to the nation by becoming respectable columnists for mainstream media and by participating in civil society forums on various issues. These academics do not need to criticise political parties or personalities. They can stay within the issue construct and present their views in an academic and professional manner.

With these strategies in place, private universities can be the most important agents for changing the entrenched issue of race and religious conflicts or the cavalier attitude concerning the environment and sustainable development. Their graduates are then nation-ready and globally prepped to contribute to mankind as a whole.

Perhaps then local and foreign billionaires would be willing to donate money in the form of endowments that allow the universities to operate in perpetuity without always worrying about breaking even to pay salaries and finance development.

If private universities fail to respond to this opportunity, the nation will never change, the world will remain the same and the universities themselves will eventually fade into irrelevance.

Do these changes require billion-ringgit investments? No. Do these changes threaten any political or governing body? I don’t think so. Thus, they are doable and manageable.

If this country fails to have harmonious citizenry, sustainable development and a clean environment, we have no one to blame but ourselves. Our graduates are the future and the academics have full responsibility over how they turn out. In a way, private universities hold in their hands the ballot box as well as a few ministers and perhaps a prime minister of the future.

Prof Dr Mohd Tajuddin Mohd Rasdi is Professor of Architecture at UCSI University. The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.

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