Higher education in flux


The aim of education should be to teach us how to think than what to think.

A CREATIVE ferment characterises the global higher education scene. The question is being asked: is higher education about knowledge or utility?

Dichotomy: Actually, this dichotomy is quite naïve. The great aim of education is not knowledge but action. Sublime thoughts must be accompanied by practical solutions to the felt necessities of the times. The essence of knowledge is to apply it. At the same time the “idealistic aims” of education must be kept in mind.

Idealistic aims: Any university worth its name must be a storehouse of the knowledge and wisdom of the past; a receptacle of art, culture and science and a mirror of humanity’s great heritage. It should, in the words of Whitehead, be a place for activity of thought and receptivity to beauty and humane feeling.

A lively educational system must be geared towards creative exploration, independence of thought, willingness to cross intellectual borders and to challenge ingrained beliefs. The aim of education should be to teach us how to think than what to think.

A university should be an incubator for a culture of research; for generation of new knowledge; for testing out a new vision of the future. Regrettably most syllabi, pedagogical and evaluation methods strangle curiosity and inquiry and seek to indoctrinate and capture the mind into conformity. Universities have become places “where pebbles are polished and diamonds dimmed”.

Besides imparting professional skills, universities must build character and provide all-round development of the individual. They should impart a social conscience and a social perspective.

The curriculum should be so devised that staff and students are involved in the amelioration of the problems of society and in social service. University faculties must straddle the divide between being profession oriented and being people oriented. The curricula should highlight the need for reform and change and for social engineering.

The university should assist in nation-building and in fostering the understanding of and respect for each other’s cultures and traditions. In an age of internationalisation, university education should impart global perspectives.

At the same time, in an Asian context, third world perspectives must not be ignored. Asian universities must build their citadels of knowledge with flowers from many gardens. That would be true globalisation.

The university must democratise education because education is the great equalizer of the human condition. A broad range of students should be sought. Some allocation must be made for the poor, the marginalised and the minorities. The “quest quotient” should excite educational administrators as much as the “intelligence quotient”.

Cusp of change: Though many of us cradle an idealistic and holistic vision for our tertiary institutions, we cannot be blind to the changes swirling around us. Idealism is giving way to pragmatism and functionalism.

The primary aim of universities today is to build careers and not characters. Education today is for earning, not learning. We have become mistresses to the Qualifying Boards of our professions. They dictate the character and content of our curriculum.

Liberal education in languages, literature and humanities is being ignored. Over-specialisation has replaced broad-based education. Students know more and more about less and less.

In Asia and Africa there is a problem of high graduate unemployment. The millions being churned out have no jobs waiting for them. Skepticism is growing about how much tertiary education can do to liberate lives.

Should emphasis be shifted towards vocational training? Should tertiary education be reformulated to facilitate self-employment and entrepreneurship so that graduates of vocational institutes and universities create jobs for others and not flood the job-market themselves?

Industry-varsity synergy is the new buzz word. Universities have become obsessed with markets, businesses and student employability. Students have become reduced to consumers concerned only with getting jobs.

The Wilson Report in the UK shamelessly speaks of universities as part of a complex “skills and innovation supply chain business”! The modern trend is for universities to force academics to promote enterprise and entrepreneurship as part of their work. The dilemma is that some of us chose to be teachers because we abhor trade and commerce and wish for an idealistic, non-commercial profession.

Vice-Chancellors, deans and lecturers are being evaluated for their entrepreneurial skills and the number of grants they bring in. Universities are developing business models and are being forced to run like commercial organisations even though they are not primarily a business entity.

Research has become the new raison d’etre of a university’s existence. Emphasis on research, while desirable, is leading to a number of adverse tendencies. Teaching is being neglected. Administrative posts are being turned down. Committed teachers are bypassed in tenure and promotions in comparison with entrepreneurial researchers.

Universities have become obsessed with rankings and the buccaneers in the rankings industry are reaping huge rewards.

The Internet is transforming education like the way it has the media, entertainment and retail markets. New methods of teaching and learning have evolved. Some of the search in research has become unnecessary. Distance learning and web-based courses have become common. With these courses, self-learning has been extended to adult “encore learners”.

A negative development is the ease with which Internet facilitates plagiarism. There are ethical issues galore in the use of common information in the public domain.

In sum, higher education is in flux. New developments are bringing about radical changes in the way we conceive the role of a university in society. Not everyone will rejoice about the changes. But it is our job to face the realities; to moderate them where we can and to reconcile with them where change is inevitable.

> Shad Saleem Faruqi is Emeritus Professor of Law at UiTM. The views expressed are entirely the writer’s own.

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