No need to revamp our higher education system

Many may be horrified by the title of this piece. But think about it; there is no need to revamp our higher education system, because there is a system already in place.

On paper, at least, the system is spectacular. Just look at the facts that we are regularly bombarded with.

Five of our 20 public universities have attained research university status. Five have also been given autonomy in administration, human resources, financial and academic management and student intake.

This move, supposedly is to encourage excellence among our institutions of higher learning. Several initiatives have also been undertaken by the federal government in the past, including the establishment of Malaysian university branch campuses in other countries.

There are lofty plans to create more Malaysian Chairs at universities abroad and to improve the world ranking of Malaysian universities.

Currently there are seven foreign universities with branch campuses in Malaysia. Part of the system too is that a target has been set of 100 researchers, scientists and engineers (RSE) per 100,000 workforce by 2020.

Also, the previous Malaysia Plan (10MP) had set a goal to improve the quality of academic staff in public universities, by increasing the number of academics with PhD’s. The ambition is to have 75% of academics with PhD’s in public universities.

Last but not least, we are proud of Setara, MyQUEST, MQA and numerous acts and accreditation agencies that allegedly regulate the provision of high quality public and private higher education in Malaysia.

What is all the fuss about our education system then?

Why was there an uproar, and subsequently an increasing disappointment among parents and other citizens’ groups with the appointment of Maszlee Malik as our minister of education?

I think many older Malaysians have an intuition about the reasons for the apparent underperformance of our education system. However, to date, there has not been a critical and decisive articulation of what has really failed.

It is not the system as much as the mind, the thinking and the lack of an awakening which have failed in nurturing this system.

Australia’s former prime minister Kevin Rudd hosted a dialogue with Dr Mahathir Mohamad last month at the Asia Society in New York. Mahathir responded to a question about what needs to be done to improve Malaysia’s education standard and how to inculcate noble values among children in Malaysia. His key answer was to increase the use of English as it is a universal language.

Although I am in full support of this, our education ministry must dig deeper. There has been so much (too much) talk about adopting the Finnish system of education.

Minister Maszlee said Malaysia should focus on a learning system that is technology-centric, with an emphasis on the English language. Agreed.

What I disagree with, though, is his far-reaching ambition for Malaysian youth to embrace multiple languages.

We cannot be fluent in our mother tongue, let alone English, what more a third or fourth language?

Maszlee did make an intelligent point, however, when he said that we needed to further the “formative years” in a student’s learning cycle by focusing on gathering information, critical thinking and “bringing out the humanity in them”.

These are indeed very noble values that all education policies should embrace. However, in what direction is the Education Ministry steering these goals? Was Maszlee actually conceptualising the need for future intellectuals? After all, Finland is known for it’s lively, rich and independent intellectual tradition.

The Finnish model
Five months since Maszlee’s statement about adopting the Finnish system of education, Malaysians are still in the dark about what that means and where we are heading. So, let me try to fill in the gaps.

Finland welcomes foreign students to study in Finland, in various fields, predominantly in forestry, information technology, green technology and medicine.

Part of the reason Finland is an attractive education hub is because of her low cost of living and the superior quality of Finnish universities in the global academic ranking system.

Also, in November 2017, Finnish Ambassador to Malaysia Petri Puhakka declared that his country was in talks with a few local public universities on possible collaboration “to enhance the education sector”.

Almost a year has passed since those talks, but Malaysian parents and educators have seen no such development in our public schools and institutions of higher education.

What was the particular arrangement of this collaboration that the ambassador alluded to? Has it been taken seriously by our new government? Will Maszlee ever articulate the essence of the Finnish system, which I believe to be it’s high regard for the intellectual.

Amidst these unanswered questions is a nagging, festering epidemic. Malaysia lacks a dignified pool of intellectuals in all fields of academia. We may have the PhD’s, the engineers, lawyers, doctors, MBAs and computer scientists, but knowledge of a certain subject or the possession of a degree does not make a person an intellectual.

The English philosopher Herbert Spencer had no academic qualifications but he was one of the leading intellectuals of his time.

What Malaysia needs are people who are not just servants of their own special interests (geopolitics, computer design, engine systems or sustainable development), but are dedicated to a larger responsibility.

In many of Edward Said’s Reith Lectures, he eloquently defined the intellectual as “an exile and amateur whose role is to speak the truth to power, even at the risk of ostracism or imprisonment”. In Malaysia, it is more the norm to see academics and educators succumb to the lures of money, power or specialisation.

The intellectual
An intellectual is a person who engages in critical, honest thinking, research and reflection about society, and proposes solutions for its normative problems. When you gain authority, you become a “public” intellectual.

The object of intellectual activity is always related to the wider context of life and thought, penetrating into fundamental values and commitments. This is when an intellectual can become a game changer in our degenerative education quality.

Public university academics and Malaysian educators, on the whole, consistently encourage their students to study well so they can get better jobs and earnings.

Of course they are also told to “contribute to society”, “be a model citizen”, “help towards economic growth”, “be innovators in science and technology”, etc.

Platitudes, in my opinion. Many graduates will get good jobs eventually and they will earn comfortably. Even if lecturers do not tell them this, the majority of students are in institutions of higher learning because their goal is to enter the work force and contribute to the Malaysian economy.

If an intellectual was lecturing he or she would not be caught up with such platitudes. Here is an example of how an academic with intellectual attributes might conduct a class.

First, their mode of in-class instruction would not be a rehashing of facts and figures from the reading list assigned to students.

Second, only 40-50% of their lectures would involve audio-visual aides, especially for social science subjects. In a two-hour lecture, for instance, it is ludicrous to display 30-60 powerpoint slides (assuming a 2-4 minute display per slide) to lecture about the sociology of corruption.

I have witnessed such practices in an undergraduate lecture on media and mass communication in a Malaysian public university.

Third, audio-visual aides are exactly that-aides to assist in delivering the most important points and the fundamental theme of the lecture.

In a Political Philosophy class, one could have a few slides introducing the fundamental thoughts of Adolf Hitler, for instance, and key dates depicting his youth and early political career.

The lecturer would then proceed to relate the information on those slides with past, current and future trends in global geopolitics.

An intellectual would prefer this method because it highlights a certain level of consciousness and insight into vital problems. Universities in Malaysia must focus on the value of discourse in classrooms.

Lecturer-student interaction in a class of 30 students is still viable and more valuable for the development of the mind. After almost two decades as an academic,
I have noticed that the trend of lecturers shying away from debate and discussions in a classroom is increasing.

Fourth, universities should be a breeding ground for the intellectual pursuit, the spirit of inquiry and the reverence of scientific and rational knowledge. If academics do not value this, how can we expect the students to develop such a tradition?

A step towards correcting Malaysia’s education woes would be to nurture the intellectual so we can have insight into the wider context of life.

Academics should instinctively direct their research to be relevant to society within the wider context of Malaysian life.

Academics should raise the standard and image of scholarship by abandoning the idea of publishing in order to get promoted.

An intellectual considers promotion a bonus, the key objective being a solution to the festering problems burdening society, be it racial, religious, political, social or economic problems.

Source: Free Malaysia Today

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