NOW that we have a new Education Minister, hopefully some fundamental questions will be asked about the role of our universities, where Malaysian tertiary education stands and where it ought to go.
As a member of a university community for the last 45 years, I myself reflect on a range of issues on which scholars have widely divergent views.
> What should tertiary education’s aims and objectives be? Is higher education about knowledge or utility, learning or earning?
> What are the qualities university education should seek to engender in the institution’s students and staff?
> What should our curriculum contain?
> Who should constitute the clientele of our universities? How should this clientele be chosen?
> What pedagogical methodologies should be adopted?
> How should university leaders and staff be chosen, retained and retrained?
> How far should the government try to control universities?
> Should universities evolve their own rating criteria?
> How can language proficiency of staff and students be improved?
> How should universities improve their financial standing?
Each of the above issues requires separate treatment. Let us concentrate on the first issue – the aims of education.
Education is a multi-dimensional thing. Any university worth its name must have broad and multiple roles. Priorities may vary from age to age and from university to university, but what is certain is the multiplicity of the aims of education.
Temple of learning: A university is a storehouse of the knowledge and wisdom of the past. It is a mirror of humanity’s great heritage in art, culture and science. At the same time, it is a place where new knowledge should be generated. Members of the university community must not only be the mirrors that reflect the light produced by others; they must be the source of new illumination.
Career training: A university is a place to learn skills for the job market and the professions. This role requires greater synergy between the university and the industries.
Some Masters and PhD students should do their hands-on research under supervisors from the industries. Lecturers must attend industrial training courses and professionals from the industries must be recruited by universities to provide the bridge between theory and reality.
Building of character: Besides careers, universities must build character and provide all-round development. University education should produce good democrats, good parents and mature graduates who are capable of contributing to the happiness of others.
Besides being profession-oriented, the university should be people-oriented. The curriculum should be so devised that staff and students are involved in the amelioration of the problems of society.
The programme of studies should impart a social conscience and social perspective. It should involve students in the daily struggles of the ordinary citizens. It should teach them the value of social service and emphasise town-gown relationships and community links.
A university curriculum should not resemble a factory assembly line blueprint. Education, as opposed to mere literacy, must be holistic.
There must be correctives against over-specialisation as well as some immersion in language, literature and the humanities. This problem is acute because most professional courses in this country are post-secondary and do not require a degree at entry point.
In keeping with the imperatives of liberal education, our education ministry must relook the science-art streaming in schools.
Maturity and independence: Our entire education system is formalistic and authoritarian. It is aimed at producing obedient and compliant supporters of the status quo.
However, if our aim is to produce thinkers who can innovate, create and think outside the box, we need to loosen up on the culture of conformity and the requirement to comply with officially correct versions of what is wholesome in life, law and religion. Our instructional methodologies need to get more participative. The laws that govern our universities need a fresher look.
Research: The crucial factor in a university’s eminence is qualified academicians with proven research abilities. A good part of the research should be “applied research” to address and suggest solutions for the burning issues of the times – be it the impending environmental catastrophe, poverty, injustice or marginalisation. Through research and innovation, the university must contribute to the nation’s economic and industrial development.
But the emphasis on research must not be at the expense of teaching. In many citadels of education, post-graduate research is leading to a number of adverse tendencies.
Teaching is being neglected. Some senior educators shun preparatory and beginning courses. Committed teachers are being bypassed in tenure and promotion in comparison with entrepreneuring researchers.
Instead of singling out and supporting good researchers wherever they are found, the government’s approach is to anoint some universities with apex or research university status and shower them with special grants. Innovators in non-research universities are prejudiced.
In our research-centric atmosphere, a danger to guard against is that of receipt of sponsorships and grants from the industries, which often leads to the rigging and supporting of findings favourable to the sponsor.
Another problem is of show over substance. A great deal of research is a facade. It is for show and statistical record, and has no impact on the alleviation of the problems of society.
In such a milieu, university administrators must walk the tightrope between shaping reality and being its servile agents.
Social engineering: Perhaps in all countries but especially in Asian and African societies, universities must be part of the machinery of social engineering and social restructuring. It is a university’s job to reach out to all marginalised, left-out sections of society, irrespective of race or religion, and to give them opportunities for upward mobility.
Nation building: Education should contribute to nation building by fostering respect for each other’s cultures and traditions and by aiding the development of political maturity.
The challenges are many. So are the opportunities.
Emeritus Professor Datuk Dr Shad Saleem Faruqi is holder of the Tunku Abdul Rahman Chair at Universiti Malaya. The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.
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