Put the soul back in academia

TO quote William Butler Yeats, “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”

This implies that the purpose of education has less to do with material pursuits than igniting the spirit of humanity in students so that they can be held accountable as responsible citizens of the world.

This quote resonates with how contemporary Malaysian higher learning institutions are run, particularly the tendency to just “fill the pails” that has made our academia sterile and soulless.

In many ways, the current mode of thought and orientation in Malaysian higher learning institutions is very science-centric, whereby science is valorised and seen as the only way to determine the truth about nature and life in general.

This singular view marginalises other fields of knowledge, thus relegating them to second class status.

Scientism places great emphasis on observation and experiment as the means of obtaining information about reality.

Therefore, many tasks and work in academia, from preparing documents for new academic programmes to grading students’ papers, require us to provide empirical evidence.

This creates unnecessary work, including increased administrative duties, dealing with tedious protocol and procedures, and additional paperwork.

In today’s world where success is measured by wealth and material possessions, our higher learning institutions have also been influenced by the ethos of neoliberal capitalism.

Therefore, it is not surprising that they are functioning as corporate entities, thus rendering their worth to be inextricably linked to “numbers”, “ranking” and “the market”.

Today’s academics are expected to be managers and entrepreneurs, and vice-chancellors have become chief executive officers while students and graduates are reduced to the status of mere products.

Neoliberal capitalist influences are also evident in the emphasis on speed and measurement routines by which academic staff are governed, particularly when it comes to publishing journal articles, chasing citations, securing research grants, and ensuring that postgraduate students “graduate on time” (GOT) even though their work may not be up to the mark.

In fact, in this “publish or perish” culture, one encounters academics who resort to publishing their work in predatory journals or become involved in academic dishonesty such as plagiarism.

The universities ranking system further compounds the prevailing situation requiring non-scientific work/publication research to be submitted to a science-based assessment method to determine performance indicator.

When compared with the sciences, other academic domains or clusters often fail to generate high citation rates or attract funding due to a large degree on the systematic metrics application that appears ill-suited in considering the impact of scholarship in non-scientific fields.

Academic performance assessment, such as the Annual Work Target (SKT) and acquiring an academic promotion (for example from lecturer to senior lecture), is primarily concerned with ticking off all the right boxes containing the required criteria, a practice that often takes precedence over the quality and substance of one’s work.

Somewhat more preposterously, the abstract and subjective notion of workplace happiness among university staff now tends to be measured and mapped through the “happiness index”.

I would strongly urge the Higher Education Ministry, top management of universities and all fellow academics to opt for a more humane, non-calculating mode in dealing with academia.

We need to dislodge some of the robust influences of scientism and neoliberal capitalism and replace them with a more vibrant, balanced, and dynamic academic environment that would allow us more time and space for thinking, reflection, and scholarship.

Only then can we expect to be able to work in an academic environment that neither suffocates our soul nor dehumanises us.


Faculty of Film, Theatre and Animation

Universiti Teknologi MARA Cawangan Selangor

Shah Alam

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