I REFER to the article by Prof Shad Saleem Faruqi titled “Idealistic aims of education” (The Star, Oct 2) in which the writer asks a question: “Are universities about education or utility?”
To me, as somebody who spent a quarter century studying and teaching in Malaysian universities, the answer is clear: as the way Malaysian universities handle education, it is merely utility. But I am not implying that this is a bad thing.
That we think of university education as a noble endeavour of imparting wisdom is purely an academic point of view. True teachers feel that this is the way it should be.
But this is not the way that parents and students see it. They see it as, first and foremost, a way to get a job and income. Shouldn’t the universities fulfil that notion?
Why else would parents fork out enormous sum of money for a university education for their daughters and sons, and why would students wear the yoke of PTPTN loans, if they do not see monetary return through good jobs at the end.
So there is nothing wrong in universities aiming to fulfil those notions and competing with each other in increasing student employability over everything else.
There was a time when universities taught only philosophy, theology and the like, leaving the job training to lesser institutions like colleges and training institutions. That distinction began to blur long ago.
Today, universities seem to compete with technical colleges in training students for jobs. Most universities retain a few faculties for that odd students and parents who seek non-career-oriented subjects like philosophy, literature and art.
For any forward-looking university, these are minor areas that bring neither fame nor money to the university. Fame and money are immensely important because most universities have to be, not only self-sustaining, but money-making.
Private universities are, for all purposes, businesses and what business is worth its name without competition, profit and bottom line?
We have increasingly come to place our universities as institutions in the free marketplace, treating them as businesses where student and parents are consumers, administrators as managers and teachers as employees.
In this model, if a customer is always right, then the customer’s demand of giving him job training has to be met.
This focus on job and career by the universities have led to high school-leavers be enrolled in many professional courses such as law, medicine, engineering and accountancy, straight after school. There they delve into courses that teach them the trade.
And there is so much of the trade to be learned within the three years that there is virtually no time to teach them the noble things in life: literature, philosophy, history and ethics.
There was a time when the Bachelor of Arts degree was a prerequisite for all professional degrees. You can’t get your Bachelor of Law before you complete your Bachelor of Arts. This was true even of an education degree. But no more.
Twenty-one-year-old kids plunge into professional education and the institutions provide them, what my former vice-chancellor described as “bare-bone education”. Sad but true.
But again, I say, this is not necessarily a tragedy. Good, intelligent human beings will seek out the beauty of literature, philosophy and ethics they missed out in their university education, on their own in their later life, and make their personality more wholesome.
It is this belief and hope that gives the universities the mindset that they do not have to bother to teach these within the professional curriculum. By and large, this has worked out well in society.
No one can say that if the universities do not teach ethics, all accountants will turn out to be crooked. Life is the best teacher, may be not of professions, but surely of philosophy and ethics. Between wisdom and utility, I put utility as the primary purpose of universities. Wisdom can be acquired in real life. If the graduate does not acquire wisdom, he is a bad human being. Be it as it may, it will not be the fault of the university. The STAR Home Opinion Letters Monday October 6, 2014 MYT 12:00:00 AM