Universities of the future will have to develop business models and to run like businesses, while more technical and vocational schools should be established to complement them.
THE idealistic aims of higher education were enumerated in this column on Oct 2.
Continuing with that exposition, it must be noted that universities around the world are under pressure to transform from citadels of learning to hubs for research, development and commercialisation. Hallowed institutions thousands of years old are in the cusp of profound changes, not all of them wholesome.
Research: Research and post-graduate studies have become the new nuclei of university life. Though emphasis on research is entirely compatible with teaching, it is sad to note that in many universities committed teachers are being regarded as less valuable than entrepreneurial researchers.
This is despite the fact that a great deal of research is a façade, a show, and is for the purpose of statistical record. It has no impact on the alleviation of the problems of society. The official Malaysian approach is that instead of supporting good researchers wherever they are found, the ministry anoints some universities with Apex or Research University status and showers them with special grants. Innovators in non-research universities are often ignored.
This deserves reconsideration. Universities do not do research. Individual trailblazers do. As William Shakespeare said, “The strawberry grows underneath the nettle and wholesome berries thrive and ripen best, neighbour’d by fruit of baser quality”.
Professional orientation: It is entirely understandable that universities should link up with the professions, devise curricula that satisfy Qualifying Boards, and require students to do practical training, periods of attachment and apprenticeships.
At the same time, excessive orientation towards the professions distorts university education in many ways. A university’s role is far broader and richer than that of a profession. University curricula is supposed to build lives and characters and not just careers.
Link with industries: Stefan Collini in his book What are universities for? asks whether universities are about markets, businesses and student employability and whether students are consumers concerned only with getting jobs?
The Wilson report in the UK supplies 50 recommendations including measures to improve employability of graduates. It recommends the revival of sandwich courses and the expansion of opportunities for internship.
Due to increasing emphasis on industry links, industry experts without high formal qualifications will have to be recruited on our faculties. Many staff will go to do their PhDs not in other universities but in firms and factories after observing real-life situations.
Industries may finance higher education and universities may lose control over their curricula.
Business-orientation: As in other lands, government funding is becoming tighter and tighter. Support staff may have to be cut down as mechanisation takes over. More and more students will have to be self-financing. Banks and industries will have to step in to finance higher education on pay-back loans.
Universities of the future will have to develop business models and to run like businesses even though they are not primarily a business entity. They will have to use assets more efficiently and to be lean and mean. They will have to partner more closely with industries and force academics to promote enterprise.
Earning, not learning: We are witnessing pressures on universities to concentrate on careers rather than on characters or learning. Broad-based education, by which I mean education in languages, literature and humanities, is being abandoned. There is a problem of over-specialisation.
This is despite the fact that there is sufficient evidence that half or more than half the graduates end up in roles outside of their university training. In an age of globalisation, economic booms and busts, and high unemployment rates, there is a growing disconnect between what students study and what their subsequent careers are.
It is, therefore, necessary to train students for multi-tasking, multi-disciplinary approaches; to have split-degree courses; and to produce graduates who have career flexibility and who are able to adapt to different challenges at work.
Vocational education: Due to the lack of prestige attached to vocational training, most parents send their kids to local or foreign universities for professional and technocratic training. In this country, only 10%-15% of the student body goes to vocational schools.
The oversupply of degree holders is leading to graduate unemployment. Those without jobs (unfairly) accuse the university of failing to be the transformative agent it had promised to be. There is resulting political discontent and many other socio-economic problems. To overcome these, the content of university curricula could be revised to promote self-employment so that graduates set up enterprises to employ others rather than join the lengthy queue of job-seekers.
Alternatively, universities could reduce enrolment into degree courses (most are increasing it) and either commence para-professional, technical and vocational courses or hand these courses over to subsidiary institutions like companies and corporations. The Universities & University Colleges Act 1971 in sections 4A and 4B of the First Schedule permit universities to establish companies and corporations for this purpose.
Whatever the case, the distinction between education and training and between universities and polytechnics will soon diminish.
The under-supply of diploma and certificate earners is leading to large sectors of our workforce to be filled with foreign labour. To open up these sectors to local workers, more technical and vocational schools should be established to complement our universities.
In addition to the above challenges, all universities grapple with student intake criteria. Are SPM, STPM results a reliable or a rather crude test of future potential? How do we temper high intake criteria with the need for affirmative action?
In an age of globalisation, how do we ensure that academic staff is more international and reputable to cope with competition? How do we shift from teaching to self-directed learning exercises? How can the Internet be employed effectively as a tool in our curriculum as well as in our delivery system?
How do we replace rote learning with analysis and application? Must our evaluation system shift towards field work, open book examinations and real life issues instead of theory questions?
Despite hundreds of years of tested and tried wisdoms, the times call for change. We need to go back to the drawing board.
Shad Faruqi, Emeritus Professor of Law at UiTM, is a passionate student and teacher of the law who aspires to make difficult things look simple and simple things look rich. Through this column, he seeks to inspire change for the better as every political, social and economic issue ultimately has constitutional law implications. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed here are entirely his own. The STAR Home News Opinion 16/10/2014