What ails our universities

Recent discourses about revamping our higher education system have included the following: critical thinking, empowerment, humanistic values, future proof graduates and improvising teaching methods.

Many Malaysians understand “critical thinking” as the ability to criticise something, and “future proof” as being immune from the future. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

Politicians, civil servants, parents and civil society activists have uttered these concepts too often. They lament that our education system has failed.

Our leaders say we are a society devoid of critical thinkers. They swear blindly that Malaysians are left behind due to our inability to improvise in this age of rapid technological innovations.

Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad has said that the developed world uses English to their advantage, but we have not.

Critics also claim that developed nations are more scientific and technologically minded, because they have the ability to think critically.

Innovation, improvisation and critical thinking have always been used in discourses of scientific, technological, technical and vocational education.

A “future proof” graduate with “humanistic values” would have acquired adequate and sustainable mental, spiritual and practical skills by now. Yet it seems the narrative we are familiar with does not tally with the reality, due to our misunderstanding of the fundamentals.

Malaysians can be globally competitive and widely respected if we decide to be consistent in the fundamentals. These fundamentals have not been mentioned as openly, but they are crucial to whether we surge ahead or fall further behind.

First, higher education should not be part of a political football game. Render quality education accessible to all. Do not confine it to a race-based quota system, with respect to student intake or hiring of lecturers and top university administrators.

Second, hire and retain academic staff in universities, based on their intellectual merit. Deans and senior university administrators must be constantly aware of any lecturer who publishes inane works, even though such nonsense may be in the form of 30 journal articles per annum.

For instance, how can research about whether the supernatural can be scientifically proven or not, be beneficial to solving our post-GE14 socio-political and religious problems?

The deans and deputy vice-chancellors must be tuned into the quality of their academic staff. They must have a basic knowledge of their contribution in their respective fields.

A dean in a social science faculty, for instance, must make it a point to have a general knowledge of all the social science fields under their charge. If not, he or she should not be a dean.

Third, heads of departments should have a collegial relationship with their fellow lecturers. There is no room for hierarchy, pulling rank or bullying.

Lecturers within a department must work as a team, within an atmosphere of mutual deference and respect. The head must provide motivation and encouragement, rather than react with jealousy and insecurity.

Academics must be encouraged to speak, deliver public lectures, engage in national and international debates, and be commended for it. Unfortunately, there is an unhealthy and counterproductive culture of egoism, selfishness, jealousy and arrogance in the corridors of our public universities.

Most, if not all, academics in a university have a doctorate. So why should there be a sense of insecurity or superiority?

Fourth, university lecturers must take pride in their teaching and writing. Whether they do so in English, Malay, Mandarin or Tamil is irrelevant.

While one must be practical, what is more important is the positive attitude these academics possess when they engage in honest research.

What they choose as a research agenda and how relevant it is in the Malaysian context should be the decisive factors in academic teaching, writing and research.

Fifth, a lot more effort must go into how syllabuses are devised for various courses. Individual lecturers must take pride in the uniqueness and relevance of their syllabus.

It is my experience that such an important exercise of creating one’s syllabus is actually considered the least important of activities leading up to every semester.

Sixth, publications and research projects must be based on quality, not quantity. In the social sciences, for example, it is ineffectual to expect a new research topic to emerge every year or two, for the sake of satisfying annual KPI requirements of the research universities.

Due to our obsession with chasing KPIs and benchmarking global ranking systems, lecturers have resorted to mass production of publications and research projects. The majority are useless, and reports merely collect dust on dingy shelves.

It seems our university leadership is unaware that academic publishing has become a lucrative global business, with annual revenues exceeding billions of dollars.

This business is closely associated with the world university ranking system. Unsuspecting academics in countries like Malaysia race to publish in journals produced by these publishers, without realising that they are held at economic ransom, regardless of quality or research relevance to individual countries or regions.

It is time that Malaysian universities decide for themselves what research and publications are relevant for our own society, based on the current problems and national unity complications we face.

The high rate of unemployed university graduates is proof that there is a disconnect between what they learn in the universities and what employers want. This is due to a skewed view of the objectives of our higher education, and the quality of our educators.

We also have to be more obsessed with merit and substance, rather than what is politically expedient. For example, the appointment of a non-Malay vice chancellor of any public university in Malaysia should no longer be questioned or considered a sensitive issue.

There should be no hesitation, provided one is qualified academically, and has the right attitude towards teaching, research and intellectual development for national progress.

There is one area of higher education that has never been discussed, even though we constantly address the lack of critical thinkers and intellectuals in Malaysia.

The “Socratic Method” is a method of educational instruction that should be employed in university classrooms, in all fields. It is a method of hypothesis elimination, in that better suppositions are found during a debate or discussion.

The process of discussion involves asking a series of questions formulated as tests of logic. Instead of answering questions directly, questions are answered in the form of another question, which prompts the person or group to discover their beliefs about a topic, on their own. In this situation, the active participation of the lecturer is paramount.

Therefore, the Socratic Method encourages constant dialogue in the classroom, and sharpens the mind in logic, reason and arguments. In the process, students develop self confidence and a desire to read widely so they can engage more in classroom discussion. A silent student would feel embarrassed in a class full of chatty, logical peers.

While it is good to incorporate audio-visual techniques and other forms of innovative technology into teaching, university lecturers should not neglect the power of dialogue.

The Socratic Method would generate a cohort of graduates who will perform well in a job interview, show confidence and display a wide range of knowledge in the field. It also keeps lecturers on their toes and forces them to be updated in their respective fields. This is genuine educational empowerment, not mere rhetoric, based on fancy global terminology.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.