FINE arts education (visual and performing arts) at the tertiary level is currently in dire straits. They are accorded the lowest priority in terms of academic and intellectual recognition.
In the early years, the fine arts thrived in the pioneer universities (Universiti Sains Malaysia, Universiti Malaya and Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia) and was recognised as contributing to the overall process in character development.
There was much artistic creativity back then as the lecturers, who were artists par excellence and thinkers, were not hounded by key performance indicators (mainly publications), allowing creative minds room to pursue their artistic inclinations as well as inspire their students to excel in creative pursuits.
Plays, dance and music performances, and visual arts exhibitions and installations reverberated in the campuses, creating an ambience that combined the artistic talents of the lecturers and students.
However, with the introduction of the ranking system that emphasises article publications in refereed journals as well as the local MyRA (Malaysia Research Assessment) as indicators of excellence, theory and practice of artistic pursuits were left in the lurch.
This became more daunting when the university’s top management were from the sciences who were ignorant of the nature and role of the fine arts in the educative process.
The arts, besides expressing beauty of movements, music (patterned sounds-sonic orders) and the vicarious experience of human emotions (as in plays), also has therapeutic application not only for the common man but also, and more importantly, for special needs people.
USM was the first university to formulate an arts therapy programme for special needs (spastic, autistic and dyslexic) children. But the project met its untimely demise because of lack of interest from the university and lecturers who had to fulfil KPI requirements. The remnant of this project is only a course on the theory of art therapy.
Competition among universities to top the ranking chart resulted in draconian measures. One university even implemented punitive measures by withholding annual salary increments for lecturers if they did not meet the KPI for publications.
This impacted adversely on the fine arts lecturers as they abandoned their creative pursuits to focus on research and textual publications. This shift in focus also affected the quality of teaching and supervision.
The fine arts programmes in public universities have remained calcified in the rudimentary theory and practice that are aligned to the traditional bachelor’s degree structure (a general arts degree in line with humanities and social science), accumulating course credits to fulfill the requirements to graduate.
It has not developed into a discipline that produces virtuosos, art historians or critics. It is a mundane general appreciation of the arts.
If there is no attempt to revamp and revitalise fine arts education in our universities, it will slowly languish into oblivion following the path of the now defunct philosophy programme.
But university administrators, enamoured only with those disciplines that would contribute to enhancing the ranking position, will not bat an eye nor feel the loss of a discipline that contributes to character development as well as in perceiving of phenomena beyond the textual verbal aspects of cognition.
MOHAMED GHOUSE NASURUDDIN , Centre for Policy Research and International Studies Universiti Sains Malaysia