Thursday, September 27, 2007

Failed Malaysian Varsities

The following is the article by columnist Sim Kwang Yang on failed varsities in Malaysia:

In the last years of his tenure as prime minister, Dr Mahathir Mohamad must have realized that there is such a thing as too much nationalism. Without nationwide consultation, without any penetrating studies by experts, and certainly without seeking opinions from parents, teachers, and students, his government decreed overnight that Math and Science must be taught in English.

Not a note of protest was heard from the Malay teachers association, and other usually irascible Malay nationalist bodies.

The move was an open admission that the exclusive emphasis on Bahasa Malaysia in schools and universities has failed to produce globally competitive human resources. Dr M may have been a giant figure in the short history of Malaysia, and has been instrumental in shaping the political landscape of our country. But his brand of Malay nationalism in the matter of the national language has victimised many generations of young Malaysians in developing their potentials in more ways than one.

The first casualty of this language policy has been the academic standard of our local universities. In the 80s, I used to be invited to student forums in local universities, in my capacity as an opposition MP. Representatives from other political parties were also invited, bit it seemed these talks generally degenerated into a BN bashing session by students of all races.

After one such session, the moderator of the talk who happened to be the dean of one faculty told me aside on the quiet that the performance of his students had declined over the years, partly because they were illiterate in English and could not read international journals and reference books.

(He also told me that he and other university lecturers were compelled to mark the students on
a curve, so that those Malay students who failed will be given a pass mark anyway! But that is an open secret.)

Publish or perish

Those who are acquainted with the unwritten rules of the academia know that academic standard is subject to international scrutiny. An academician has to publish or perish. It is very difficult for a professor to obtain the security of tenure if his original composition or research findings are not published in prestigious international journals. Better still, he can publish an authoritative book, which soon becomes a best seller and a university text book everywhere.

The idea is that one of the essential roles of the university is the production of new knowledge through research. The findings of research must then be published to allow the world academic community to test and evaluate the research results. Only when it is so verified can the new theory or findings be accepted as orthodox truth.

Naturally, students - especially those in senior years and in graduate programmes (or "post-graduate" programmes, as they are called in British universities) – must refer to an enormous amount of journals, reference books, and related research materials, in order to master their area of specialisation.

Invariably, their thesis must contain a great number of quotations from authoritative sources, footnotes, and a lengthy bibliography. In conclusion, the thesis writer is supposed to come to his own theory or perspective, by engaging himself in a debate with all the authorities, and synthesising all contentious stands into a harmonious view entirely his own.

Then, the graduate is qualified to pursue an academic career, as a professor, an assistant professor, or a humble lecturer. This is that original signification of the term "professor", as one who professes his own theory through some kind of publication. His academic worth is often determined by how often he is quoted by other books and publication. The standing of a university is also determined partly by how many such professors they have on their faculty.

Though I do not have the figures, I suspect that most academic and professional journals in the
world are published in English. If our universities are such that English literacy is lacking, we will be producing graduates who are intellectually like frogs under the coconut shell, no matter how fluent they are in the national language.

Perhaps the problem lies with the philosophy of education determined by the government in the first place.

Academic freedom

The idea of the Western university evolved very much after the model of Plato's Academy. Plato's model was shaped very much by his philosophy of searching for truth and knowledge as its own end, and not as a means to an end. It was meant to be a community of scholars living in close proximity, a refuge free from the power play of the outside world.

Plato's Academy continued in Europe even after the fall of Athens at the hands of Alexander the
Great from Macedonia and the rise of the Roman Empire later. The last Academy was finally closed down by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian in AD 529 because of religious bigotry on his part.

That is why an institution of higher learning has to enjoy academic freedom, because without the freedom of thought and speech, there can never be truth with a capital "T".

Thirty years ago, I did study philosophy in a small university, the University of Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. Unlike Malaysia, the Winnipeg university came under the purview, and was
funded by the provincial government of Manitoba. The unranked university was administered by a University Senate made up almost entirely of faculty members, and 12 student representatives.

I served as a student senator for a couple of years, sitting on several committees like the one in charge of admission of foreign students.

Many of those liberal arts colleges and universities in the West are run on the assumption that the most important people in a higher institution of learning are the teachers and the students, and they should be given a big say in all things in the administration of the campus.

One year, the provincial government of Manitoba proposed a raise in tuition fees. The student union organised a demonstration, marching down from the campus to the state legislature downtown peacefully in protest, with professors marching with them in support. The proposal was withdrawn. If such a march happens in Malaysia, the police, the FRU, and the water cannons will arrive in full force to quash the "riot"!

The comparison may not be all that fair. As an important institution, like all other political, social and economic institutions, the university takes even centuries to mature. We are but a young nation on the world stage. I can actually understand how, during the early uncertain years of independence, the university was seen as a powerful political tool for nation building. Much stock was placed on the university as a symbol of independence. Since education tends to be the quickest way towards social upward mobility, the eradication of poverty and the lifting of the socio-economic position of the Malays and other native communities must indeed depend on a tilted policy on university education.

Nearly half a century of experiment with our own tertiary education later, in the context of a rapidly changing world, the glaring negative impacts of our university education are legion.

Send them overseas

Naturally, in all universities, you get the small percentage of the cream of the crop who would do well anywhere in the world. The bulk of the university student population though are just glorified super secondary scholars in terms of their intellectual achievement.

(I had the chance to interview some graduates who were certified to teach English as a second language. Upon my request, they could not name even one prominent writer of English literature!)

What ails our universities is more than evident when it comes to the employability of their products. Tens of thousands of fresh graduates cannot find a decent job after graduation. They have to be re-trained at great public expense in order for them to find their place in society. If you ask me, it is this training mentality that forms the bedrock of our philosophy of education which stunt students' growth.

Finally, the government is making some noise about creating "apex universities". There is some welcome talk about academic freedom, financial independence, and campus autonomy. So far, what little public discussion there is on the proposal borders on the superficial. We are indeed a Third-world nation. But the discussion is better late and superficial than never.

Blame me for being pessimistic, negative, and cynical. As long as Umno is in power, and they seem determined to do so for the next half century, no meaningful reform on our tertiary education system will arrive at our shores.There will be too much politics and too much vested interests in the way of moving our nation forward in matters of education. All this talk about making Malaysia the educational hub of the region is only marketing language to be taken with a giant block of salt.

My advice for my friends who have children contemplating university education has always been this: send them overseas!

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