Annual rankings ignore many intangibles that should be at the heart of university education.
EVERY time the Times Higher Education Index or any other university ranking system publishes its findings, institutions of higher learning go into spasms of soul-searching about their aims and objectives, curriculum content, student profiles, admission criteria, delivery systems and governance models.
Ranking exercises: As a university employee I support external evaluations but with some reservations. First, ranking exercises measure the measurable. They ignore many intangibles that should be at the heart of university education like the infusion of ideals and values, the building of character, and the involvement of the staff and students in community service.
Second, a university has many roles and there may be clear differences on the priorities of Asian and Western institutions of higher learning. International organisations often lack an understanding of the needs and demands of an indigenous educational system that is immersed in alleviating problems like poverty, food insufficiency and high unemployment. Search for new galaxies is not a priority in most Asian or African citadels of learning.
Globalised ranking exercises are prone to criteria that are steeped in cultural and colonial presumptions and prejudices.
The citation index, for example, clearly gives advantage to scholarship in English and puts literature and research in indigenous languages and local publications at a disadvantage. No rating exercise can be entirely neutral and impartial.
Third, the evaluation process is often led by international buccaneers who reap huge rewards from the exercise. In much the same way that our economies should not accept the hegemonic dictates of the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund, our education system too should chart its own course.
I believe that the Higher Education Ministry along with the Council of Vice-Chancellors should, after consultation with all affected parties, develop our own calculus or multi-dimensional criteria on how Malaysian universities should be evaluated and for what.
It may be better to evaluate individual faculties and programmes rather than the university as a whole. All universities have exceptional staff, all have some strong centres and some vulnerabilities.
Imperative of change: Having expressed some doubts about the reliability and relevance of international rankings, let it also be said that the imperative of change cannot be denied.
Our universities are not the best in the world or in the region. If our aim is to produce thinkers, innovators, top-notch researchers and reformers who can achieve excellence, distinction and world-class standards, then some significant changes are indeed needed.
Aims and objectives: The aims and objectives of education must be conceived more broadly than simply to fill the job market. Education is not only about earning. It is also about learning.
Curriculum: The curriculum must be better balanced than it is today between the competing and conflicting aims of education. These aims are multifarious and require a separate discussion. Priorities are bound to vary from land to land and age to age.
In general, we are too profession-centred. Our education is not sufficiently holistic and liberal. We produce graduates who know more and more about less and less and are overspecialised.
Without doubt, career training is one of the primary aims but so is character building. The university must inculcate a social conscience and a social perspective. Students must be people-centred. They must have an open mind, be less ideological and more intellectual.
Admission criterion: This must be more sophisticated. SPM and STPM results are hardly a proper criterion to evaluate the potential of our young. Forced assignment of a large swathe of applicants to courses they did not prefer is hardly working. Rules that lock successful applicants into wrong choices must be revised. Some flexibility and mobility should be permitted. Perhaps the first year could be devoted to liberal education and students could be allowed to change streams before their second year.
Methodologies: Our authoritarian instructional and testing methodologies are one of our greater weaknesses. With the availability of multi-media facilities, distance learning programmes across the frontiers can be facilitated.
Governance: In Malaysia we put great emphasis on creating proper systems of governance. This “systems approach” has some merits.
However, systems are as good as the people who administer them.
We need to recognise that mission and vision statements, elaborate systems and hierarchies, blueprints, standard operating procedures and multi-tiered procedures are necessary but not sufficient.
Leadership at all levels is what can make a difference. We are not short of leaders; we are lacking in ways of identifying them.
We often confuse between leaders and managers. As Peter Drucker says: “Management is doing things right. Leadership is doing the right things.”
As all public universities in Malaysia receive the bulk of their money from Parliament, this is the oft-given justification for tight political and bureaucratic control over them. But in law, public universities are not government departments but independent statutory bodies.
Their separate legal personality is written into their parent law and must be respected by the federal education bureaucracy.
There is clearly a need for more university autonomy. This suggestion is not novel. In the pre-university and University Colleges Act (AUKU) days the existing law for the University of Malaya allowed the university wide latitude for self-government. We need to return to the pre-AUKU days.
Academic staff: As to the staff, wide disparities in quality exist and too much inbreeding is taking place.
We need a University Services Commission to recruit and promote staff, prevent in-breeding and infuse foreign talent.
To produce good graduates, you need the most competent and committed educators. Good syllabi are not enough.
It is also suggested that universities should be encouraged to share staff and talent in those areas where shortages are acute.
The university scene is indeed ripe for review.
But as is always the case, an idea has to gallop around the legal system for a long time, before the portals are opened to let it in.
Shad Faruqi is Emeritus Professor of Law at UiTM. The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.
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