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Education and the virtues of academia

A journal article entitled ‘The idea of a university: Rethinking the Malaysian Context’ was written by Chang Da Wan, Morshidi Sirat and Dzulkifli Abdul Razak in 2015 in which the authors wrote extensively on the role of universities. The authors were holistic in their write-up from the historical perspective right up to the complexity and challenges faced by universities in Malaysia – private and public. In 2022, some of these challenges remain that – complex and unresolved. Academia Day was celebrated recently and while we recognise the 5th of October as National Academia Day across educational institutions, what values should universities hold?

Ideally, universities should be a central point where new ideas and concepts are generated – those that would benefit and enhance the livelihood of others. Universities should become a central point where intellectual discourses are held and policies which shape the nation debated and discussed. Public involvement within intellectual discourses is possibly one small step towards creating critical-thinking societies. In the United Kingdom, for example, research findings are relayed to communities where the public regardless of background is encouraged to be engaged in intellectual dialogues with academics and discuss the outcome of the university research findings. Events are not only held in universities but also in bookshops and cafes monthly to create an informal ambience for public discussion. It’s also a way for the public to be informed that their universities make worth of taxpayers’ money through research presented.

Sadly, there is still a gap between academia and the rest of the community. The perception that
academics belong in their elitist bubble should be replaced with one that helps communities and the nation grow. Thus, universities should open and widen knowledge access and contribute to society. One way is through increased engagement and constructive dialogues with diverse actors and stakeholders at a deeper level where both parties collaborate to offer solutions to complex societal concerns. Implementation of the ‘Service-Learning Malaysia–University for Society’ commonly referenced as SULAM is one positive step towards achieving this objective. However, there is a lot more gap closure needed.

Further, universities should become autonomous without the influence and pressures from other forces. Yet, developments of institutions are at times hampered due to their inability to autonomous decision-making and other posturing measurements of success. Universities should not be subjugated to trivial measurements and cosmetic policies. Rather, it should be counterbalanced with the virtues of academia. Politically-driven agendas and any forms of
politicisation in any sector are never healthy. They produce a toxic environment and hamper the progress of any institution. As we aim to strive for world recognition, the quality of education should not be jeopardized simply to boost university rankings and increase the number of graduates. Policies that curtail academic freedom need to be revised if we want to be on par with other globally renowned institutions. Would we be able to produce critically acclaimed scholars such as the likes of Noam Chomsky or the idiosyncratic philosopher Slavo Žižek if academic freedom is limited?    

While profit-generating concepts introduced in universities are beneficial, it blurs the roles and
functions of public vs private which have been outlined in our education plan. The public and
private institutions have different roles and functions to develop the nation. We should not
discount the fact that such focus will re-direct the primary role of a university – that of an institution where knowledge-seeking becomes the axis and holistic knowledge is imparted upon others to create well-rounded individuals. The practice of entrepreneurialism is not uncommon in universities globally, but a balanced and logical approach is vital.

A nation of lifelong learners is outlined in the Malaysia Education Blueprint for 2015-2025.
According to UNESCO lifelong learning is about ‘acquiring and updating all skills, interests, knowledge and qualifications from preschool years to post-retirement and about providing a ‘second chance’. The outcomes of lifelong learning include upskilling, increased well-being and recognition of self-interests and goals. Currently, many institutions are offering lifelong learning programmes as part of their commitment to the Education Blueprint. However, a UNESCO report revealed there is a lack of awareness and participation in lifelong learning among Malaysians. Therefore, we need to further inculcate the culture of lifelong learners in our society for it brings many advantages. For example, Walt Whitman Rostow, an American economist in his book The Stages of Economic Growth mentioned that an increased number of skilled employees is one step towards achieving economic growth and the aim of a fully developed nation.

The National Education Policy formulated in 1988 is very much as relevant now as it was when initially established. Its emphasis on producing well-rounded individuals as commendable citizens is exemplary. As the Ministry of Education, Malaysia’s website writes “Education in Malaysia is an ongoing effort towards further developing the potential of individuals in a holistic and integrated manner, so as to produce individuals who are intellectually, spiritually, emotionally and physically balanced and harmonious, based on a firm belief in and devotion to God. Such an effort is designed to produce Malaysian citizens who are knowledgeable and competent, who possess high moral standards, and who are responsible and capable of achieving a high level of personal well-being as well as being able to contribute to the harmony and betterment of the family, the society and the nation at large.” Thus, universities should
strive to produce a well-informed society with critical and open-minded minds. Graduates with
a sense of collective responsibility towards their communities. Individuals who are not only skilled and knowledgeable in their disciplines but have good character. Individuals who strive for the betterment of themselves and the nation. As the prominent leader of the American Civil Rights Movement Martin Luther, King Jr once said “The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education.”

There are still many aspects of improvement for those in academia to work on, including policies and practices which either need elimination or improvisation for the betterment of Malaysian academic institutions. Be it the National Education Policy, the National Higher Education Strategic Plan 2020, the Malaysia Education Blueprint for 2015-2025 or any others, overall, Malaysia has well-designed, holistic and balanced plans. What we now need is to materialise them. Perhaps only then can we uphold the real virtues of academia.–THE MALAYA POST

Normahfuzah Ahmad, PhD teaches journalism and media courses at the Universiti Utara Malaysia

Normahfuzah Ahmad, PhD teaches journalism and media courses at the Universiti Utara

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Malaya Post.

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