THE Covid-19 pandemic has stirred up new debates at universities everywhere. Apart from deliberating on how tertiary institutions should adapt to the new normal – which involves more online teaching and assessment – discussions about the true role of universities are taking on a new tone.
The performance of universities in Malaysia is measured by how effective they are in supplying graduates for industry. In recent years, there has been feedback from various industries suggesting that universities have not been producing graduates that meet industry requirements.
Lack of interpersonal and communication skills is often cited as a reason for the unsuitability. Malaysian industry has largely blamed universities for not keeping up with its demands for quality graduates.
Even the ranking of universities is closely linked with how industries perceive them. Universities that do not enjoy a favourable industry assessment usually perform poorly in ranking exercises. Since ranking, whether one likes it or not, has evolved into a visible yardstick for stakeholders, universities strive very hard to fulfil ranking demands.
Furthermore, it has become an accepted norm that highly-ranked universities not only attract more students but also receive more research funding from the government. Private universities have no choice but to religiously embrace ranking as a magnet to attract students, especially foreign students. Foreign students do not have much guidance when it comes to choosing a university, so ranking helps a lot in making a choice.
Lately, however, there has also been a noticeable change in how university dons view the relationship between universities and industry. Some have questioned whether universities are here to serve the needs of industry or to provide leadership in industry.
Everyone agrees that universities have always been considered a reservoir of knowledge. This simply means that universities have to constantly create and assimilate knowledge related to the various fields of human endeavour.
This can be knowledge in the sciences, arts, humanities and more. For society to benefit from the knowledge, universities conduct teaching and other knowledge-disseminating activities, such as outreach seminars.
The R&D that universities carry out is meant to add to the knowledge pool. And industry is supposed to benefit from the knowledge produced at universities, in terms of new business and technology opportunities.
As recently echoed by a few university vice-chancellors – including UCSI University’s Senior Prof Datuk Dr Khalid Yusoff – it is now time for universities to produce and disseminate knowledge that has meaning and value to the community, which includes industry. The argument is that, if knowledge from universities has the right meaning and value, then it would not be far fetched to see industry flocking to the universities for new business and technology ideas.
In fact, if we study closely the development of universities in the past, that has always been their role. Some of the top universities in the world still play that role.
It is unfortunate that in recent times, mainly because of the growing number of knowledge-intensive jobs, universities have been called upon by industry to produce talent that exactly meets its specifications. As a result, the meaning and value of knowledge produced at universities have been visibly regressing.
Some have even likened universities today to technical and vocational colleges, which have traditionally played the role of “job factories”. Some academicians have suggested that the thought leadership expected from universities has been sorely lacking of late.
The first president of Malaysia’s Academy of the Sciences, Academi-cian Emeritus Prof Tan Sri Datuk Dr Omar Abdul Rahman, has lamented that it is now difficult to find a truly “complete academic”, as he puts it, in our universities. Prof Omar has also developed criteria to measure that “complete academic”.
Many academics have suggested more discourse on this subject of bringing more meaning and value to university education. There is a growing belief that universities will gain more respect from society if, instead of just catering to the demand of businesses, they provide meaningful leadership to industry.
PROF DATUK DR AHMAD IBRAHIM , Fellow, Academy of Sciences Malaysia
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