Gap between academics and society hampers potential of Malaysian unis, conference told

Sharifah Munirah Alatas says there is a perception that Malaysian academics are glorified ‘daycare providers’

KUCHING: Malaysia lacks public intellectuals despite the large number of higher institutions of learning that have sprung up across the country in recent years, an academic told an annual conference on the promotion of the English language.

Sharifah Munirah Alatas of Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia attributed this to a lackadaisical attitude among local academics who treat their work as just another salary-earning job.

“Many lecturers in the universities are comfortable in their teaching and research worlds. They do what they have to do to get paid their monthly salaries,” she said in her presentation at the conference convened by the Malaysian English Language Teaching Association, a grouping of some 1,000 activists and academics from across the country seeking to promote the teaching of the English language.

Munirah said while many academics are dedicated to their students’ development, there is a negative perception about them.

“The perception of the public is that Malaysian academics are glorified ‘daycare providers’, in the same vein as ‘pilots are glorified taxi drivers’,” she added.

She was speaking on the role of intellectuals in promoting the importance of the English language in the education system.

She said the government’s efforts to improve society’s command of English could be more successful if policies “transcend the myopic constraints of race and religion”.

Munirah said while universities have been increasingly seen as the place to prepare society for future economies, the arts and social sciences have been sidelined.

“There is a trend towards minimising the importance of disciplines in the arts and social sciences. For example, many of our public universities now do not have philosophy departments.”

She said this could be a reason why the role of universities has not been appreciated.

She said despite the mushrooming of learning institutions, there is “unprecedented scepticism” about higher education in terms of the benefits to students and society.

She said based on the belief that universities are the engines of technological and economic growth, developing nations such as Malaysia have spent huge resources to encourage the growth of the higher education sector.

“The expectation is that universities will produce ‘skilled knowledge workers’ for the ‘knowledge economy’, and generate new knowledge through research endeavours.

“However, many universities and academics continue to be seen as ivory towers and elite dreamers. They are regarded as backward-looking, self-indulgent and irrelevant. In many instances, we are perceived as an ‘egotistical, mutual admiration club’,” she said.

Munirah said such a perception could be due to the high unemployment rate among graduates, adding that the commercialisation of universities and the misunderstanding of the role of academics as intellectuals are to blame.

“Malaysia has 20 public universities, 53 private universities (and growing), and more than 10 foreign university branch campuses. There are also many private colleges, polytechnics and public community colleges. In Malaysia, there are tens of thousands of lecturers in various fields. Five of these 20 public universities have been assigned ‘research university’ status, meaning they have additional R&D funding.

“My assessment is that a country like Malaysia may not be ready for Society 5.0, unless our educators understand how to ‘stand outside and inside society’,” she said.